The Improbable Story of Bangkok’s (Sort of Illegal) Craft Beer Scene
Making and selling microbrews has been illegal in Thailand since 1950. And yet …
When Ted Ahn opened Changwon Express, a craft beer bar serving Korean-fusion snacks, in 2015, it was one of only seven spots serving craft beer in Bangkok. In less than two years, that number has swelled to over a hundred as the city’s craft beer scene has exploded, despite laws that should have prevented it from ever happening.
“I never expected craft beers to pick up here,” says Ahn, noting that Mikkeller was Bangkok’s only beer hub three years ago. “I started Changwon as a restaurant, but it quickly became a bar.”
Here’s the main complication—micro-brewing is illegal in Thailand. The Liquors Act, passed in 1950, prohibits people from brewing and distributing their own beer. Those caught violating the law face anything from a 200 baht fine (about $5.75) for brewing and an additional 5,000 baht ($143) or six months’ jail time for selling. The act also prohibits the sale of any alcohol between 2:00 p.m. or 5:00 p.m. or during election weekends.
Yet over the past few years, Thailand’s craft beer culture has thrived, particularly in Bangkok, where bars and restaurants around the city serve locally-made microbrews illegally or have devised creative work-arounds.
Last year, Ahn carried six local microbrews on tap, but after a major crackdown a few months ago, he decided to “go legal.” Now he carries imported craft beers, including two that Changwon makes—they outsource their brewing to Korea and then import their beers back to Thailand. All the legal Thai craft brews outsource their brewing to other countries (typically Taiwan, Cambodia and Australia,) which raises their prices significantly.
Of course, many microbrewers take the risk, simply accepting semi-regular fines as the cost of doing business. Some bars will list illegal beers on their menu, then erase them the moment officials come.
Thai craft beer legend Wichit Saiklao (known as “P’Chit) told CNN earlier this year that Chit Beer, his roadside microbrewery 12 miles north of Bangkok, has paid roughly $280 in fines since opening in 2012.
"We all know that brewing is illegal, and I know they can come any time they want and shut this down," P'Chit said. "But at the same time I want change, and I think the only way we can create change is to create an army of brewers."
Dan Pratt, the general manager of Bangkok’s Wishbeer Home Bar, is less willing to defy the law, in part because he’s not a former general like P’Chit, who will never be thrown in jail for that reason.
Not only does Wishbeer not serve any “under-the-table” homebrews, they follow every frustrating rule, including the one that prohibits promoting beer at all. He points to a wall that displays about fifty of the bar’s craft brews, appealingly lined up on shelves.
“If they were empty, we wouldn’t be able to have them up because it would be considered ‘promotion,’” he says. “But as they’re full, we can sell them, so we’re allowed to have the beer wall.”
Their most popular Thai beers, including the lovely, hoppy IPA Happy New Beer and the German-style wheat beer Triple Pearl, are brewed abroad.
Pratt, who was born in England, has seen Thailand’s attitude towards beer completely transform in the twelve years he’s lived here.
“When I first got here, beer was beer,” he says. “It was cold, and it was cheap, and you put your ice in it. We all got excited when Hoegaarden got here. ‘Oh, something different!’ And then over the last four or five years, it’s just been getting better and better and bigger and bigger.”
Pratt and Ahn don’t see the laws changing for at least another five years. Thanks to the status quo, the major industrial breweries in Thailand (Singha and Chang Beer) hold a massive monopoly on beer sales. Yet even those companies recognize the currency of the microbrew movement, creating their own lines of "craft beer," like Singha's EST.33.
"It’s so trendy," Ahn says. "I get a lot of young people come who don’t know anything about beer. They just want to be cool."