Tracking Down Vietnamese Craft Beer in Ho Chi Minh City
“Local beer or Tiger?” This is a question you’ll hear frequently if you’re ordering beer in Vietnam (and chances are if you’re drinking alcohol, it’s beer). Vietnam has a beer-drinking culture and for good reasons: beer is cheap, refreshing, and infinitely more dependable than the available wine or cocktails. However “local beer” has become somewhat of a misnomer considering the mass consolidation that’s rolled across the beer industry over the last five years. For example Bia Ha Noi, the local beer of northern Vietnam, and Huda, the lager brewed in the center, are both owned by the Danish company Carlsberg.
This wasn’t always the case. The Vietnamese used to drink bia hoi, an inexpensive, low-alcohol draft beer that was brewed fresh each day. You can still find bia hoi on a few street corners in Hanoi, where locals sit on plastic stools and throw back the easy-drinking lager. Bia hoi has all but disappeared from the more affluent Ho Chi Minh City, replaced by rowdy, Czech-style beer halls where the focus is on the quantity of beer you drink rather than the quality.
A few beer makers have set out to change all that.
“We wanted to make great beer and it didn’t really exist in Vietnam,” says John Reid, co-owner of Pasteur Street Brewing, when I finally find his taproom in District One (it’s down the alley and up the stairs). Reid had been living in Vietnam for six years when he finally returned to visit the US and realized he “had basically missed the craft beer revolution.” Reid got hooked on the IPAs, stouts, and Belgian-style beers that were sweeping the nation, and he began to visit craft breweries, including a fortuitous stop at Upslope Brewing Company in Boulder, Colorado. That’s where Reid met Alex Violette, who he signed on as a consultant. As things turned out, Violette came to HCMC and stayed, becoming co-owner and brew master of Pasteur.
Pasteur focuses on using local ingredients, whether it’s the locally roasted coffee beans in the chocolaty Ca Pe Porter, the passion fruit in the tangy Passion Fruit Wheat Ale or the Ben Tre coconuts that they toast in house for the Toasted Coconut Porter. Pasteur even produced a short-lived Durian Wheat Ale, made from the notoriously stinky fruit (many claim the fruit smells like old socks or sewage, so much so that it’s illegal to carry one on the subway in Singapore.) That beer probably won’t be coming back on the menu. “People were definitely interested,” Reid said, laughing, “of the thousand people who came to try it, only ten liked it.”
Although Pasteur beers are available at various establishments across the city, a trip to the tasting room is the best way to understand what the brewers are doing. Four beers, including the popular Jasmine IPA, are always available, while another eight taps will rotate. Indeed the biggest challenge that craft brewers in HCMC face is the distribution network. Many restaurants and bars in Vietnam don’t have cold storage so the beer, which is unpasteurized, will go bad after a few days. And while craft beer is growing in popularity, you still have to seek it out. These issues are especially problematic for craft beer producers who don’t have their own tasting rooms. Luckily for them—and for craft beer drinkers—there is Bia Craft.
Bia Craft is the second project from the team at Quán Ụt Ụt, an American-style BBQ restaurant facing the Bến Nghé River. When Tim Scott opened Quán Ụt Ụt two years ago, he wanted craft beer to go with the barbeque being cooked by his partner, Mark Gustafson. “There wasn’t really any craft beer,” Scott tells me as we chat at the Craft Beer Festival that Bia Craft has thrown and which is currently raging around us. “So I thought, let’s brew some at home.” It took eight months, but they created a beer that they liked.
Though hailing from Australia himself, Scott says that the beer scene isn’t limited to expats. “We really market to the Vietnamese. All our beers are mildly offensive Vietnam slang.” He translates a few for me: Lun Ma Lao (Short But Arrogant) Blonde Ale; Biết Chết Liền (F**** if I know) IPA. He grins, adding, “They get a good laugh out of it.”
As the craft beer community grew, Scott and Gustafson wanted to draw attention to their fellow brewers. “The idea of Bia Craft is not just to put our beers on sale,” Scott explains, “but to put all the brewing community under one roof.” Head into Bia Craft and you’ll find a long row of taps showcasing the best of the local producers. Be sure to try Te Te, a small brewery operated by a team of brothers from Spain. Their Spanish Whitte is extra refreshing thanks to high carbonation and prominent citrus notes. Fuzzy Logic has a popular pale ale and does interesting collaborations, like their FLBC Double Amber, a 7.4 % ABV brew made with smoked grain.
As I try his Coffee Stout, I ask Phat Rooster producer Mike Sakkers how he got into the craft brewing business. “I own a Mexican restaurant and I wanted a Negro Modello-style beer to go with my food,” he says, following up with the phrase I’ve heard so often during my time in Ho Chi Minh City: “So I bought a home brew kit and made it myself.”
That’s Ho Chi Minh City in a nutshell; just brew it.
Pasteur Street Brewing : 144 Pasteur Street, Hồ Chí Minh, Bến Nghé Quận 1 Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Quan Ut Ut: 168 Võ Văn Kiệt, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
BiaCraft: Thảo Điền Quận 2, 90 Xuân Thủy, Thảo Điền, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam
Tres Ninos (Chipolte): 207 Bùi Viện, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam