What started as a micro-movement has blown up into a craft craze, as Ho Chi Minh City’s breweries experiment with local ingredients, from cacao nibs and passion fruit to smoked acacia bark and even durian.
It’s half an hour to midnight and despite the flurry of impending activity, Mark Gustafson and Tim Scott are staying cool. I’m simultaneously working my way through the three different brews in front of me, a Mexican-style dunkel from Phat Rooster Ales, a Belgian-style wheat beer from Tê Tê, and a rye IPA from Fuzzy Logic Brewing Co., all of which were brewed right here in Ho Chi Minh City. The sheer number of locally produced craft beers in town is why, in exactly 30 minutes, the duo are planning to add 20 new taps to the lineup at BiaCraft, bringing the total up to 50. They’re also in the process of adding an on-site machine to can growlers to-go on the spot, a more effective method of preserving carbonation than bottling.
“It’s highly excessive,” says Scott brightly.
“But we’re all about excess,” adds Gustafson, with a slightly manic gleam in his eye. “We started realizing we didn’t have enough taps for all the beers out there and we didn’t want to leave anybody out. So I asked Tim, ‘What do you want to do? Five more? Ten more?’ And he’s like, ‘Why don’t we double it?'”
When BiaCraft opened just a couple short years ago, the thought that there would be enough locally brewed craft beers to fill that many taps, let alone customers to consume them, would have sounded like lunacy. Although Vietnam has a longstanding beer drinking culture, the bia hoi that locals have been sipping streetside on ice for generations tend to be generic lagers like Bia Saigon and 333 that go down easy in the sticky, humid climate. What started as a few maverick microbreweries determined to produce gutsier, more varied suds quickly mushroomed into something much larger. Beer aficionados in Ho Chi Minh City can now choose from roughly a dozen local breweries, take a craft beer tour on back of a scooter, or learn a few tricks of the trade at a pop-up event by the Saigon Beer School. As both the quality and the quantity continue to rise, brewers are getting creative and turning to regional ingredients to stand out. The results have been so good that neighboring markets, such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Thailand, are scooping them up, and some of the better brews have gone on to collect international accolades.
In some respects, Vietnam’s craft beer scene mirrors the organic growth of the American one, which can can trace its roots back to a small group of amateur homebrewers after the fall of the final Prohibition laws. Similarly, the ones to kick things off in Ho Chi Minh City were all die-hards for whom brewing was as much of a personal passion project as it was a business venture. Today, the community is doing its best to maintain the friendly vibe first cultivated in the grassroots scene as brewing here morphs into a bigger business.
When Scott and Gustafson opened Quan Ut Ut, an American-style barbecue restaurant with around 300 different bottles, they became a magnet for all the homesick beer geeks around town. “We started selling it so fast that we had to ration people to ten bottles a day,” recalls Scott. The two also poured their own small-batch homebrews, though in the beginning the operation was so tiny that they were secretly storing them in plastic bottles. “We’d open at 4 o’clock and people would be waiting, like, ‘Can we get those beers now?'”
In 2014, Platinum stepped onto the scene with kegs of a single pale ale, followed by Pasteur Street Brewing Company. Thanks to the collaborative nature of the tiny community, some of the larger ventures helped convert craft beer aficionados into full-time professional brewers. After trying the homebrew at Quan Ut Ut and going, “Wait, you made this yourselves?” Michael Sakkers launched Phat Rooster. When Gustafson injured himself in a motorbike accident and was unable to brew, Lucas Jans, a software developer from Portland, Oregon (so devoted that he said he’d drink their beer “even if it came in a Ziploc bag”) offered to come over and do all the heavy lifting in exchange for free beer. Shortly thereafter, he opened Lac Brewing Co. By 2015, there were half a dozen microbreweries in Ho Chi Minh City, with interest growing by the day, and Gustafson and Scott started thinking about opening a proper bar.
“We realized pretty quickly we didn’t have enough beer of our own to open a craft beer bar, so we just started asking everyone. Some of these guys were like, ‘We’re brewing at home. Do you wanna sell our beer?’ and we’re like, ‘YES!'” says Gustafson. “And this is the mothership! A key point about the role that we’ve played in the community is that we couldn’t have done it without the other brewers. When we opened that first night, the place was packed. It was the first time you could get six different beers and there wasn’t a Tiger in the house, there wasn’t a Heineken. After a month or two we were up to ten lines. And then it was like, We need to add more lines. I need more, more, more.”
One of the earliest breweries to start upping the ante was Pasteur Street Brewing Company, launched by Alex Violette, a brewmaster from Boulder, Colorado’s Upslope Brewing Company, and John Reid, an American expat in Ho Chi Minh City who was working in a nightclub. Rather than simply trying to replicate what he had been doing back home, Violette crossed continents with a very different sort of vision. Before brewing even properly started, he traveled around Vietnam hunting down ingredients.
“Alex and John’s vision wasn’t just to have American craft beers made in Vietnam, but to make real Vietnamese craft beer,” says Mischa Smith, a fan who visited the bar so often he wound up joining the team as “Head Sales Dude.” The concept of making distinctly Vietnamese beer resulted in creations like Passion Fruit Wheat, Jasmine IPA, and most notably, the Cyclo Imperial Chocolate Stout, a robust beer made with cacao beans sourced from a single isle in the Mekong Delta by artisanal Vietnamese chocolatiers Marou. Of all seven beers I try on my visit, this is the one I can’t stop sipping. It’s smooth, rich, and dangerously drinkable, despite its hefty 13-percent alcohol content—no wonder it won Gold in the Chocolate Beer Category in last year’s World Beer Cup. To Smith, using Vietnamese ingredients in all of these is just common sense. “If you’re getting a pale ale or whatever, why would you buy it here if it’s the same shit you could buy down the street? Why would you buy a porter made with coffee extract when you’ve got coffee beans growing up in Dalat?”
Needless to say, working with fresh ingredients has its pitfalls and some of Pasteur Street’s inventions have been more successful than others. Fluctuations in acidity and sugar levels mean that one batch of IPA with pomelo may not be quite like the other. Rather than hide these differences, the brewers do their best to keep the base consistent and celebrate the subtle variations. The spirit of experimentation has also occasionally taken the team to some strange places.
“From the first day, people kept asking Alex, ‘So when are you gonna make a durian beer, ha ha ha?’ And then one day I show up for work and there’s a keg of durian beer,” remembers Smith with a shudder. To the uninitiated, the stench of Southeast Asia’s so-called “King of Fruits” has often been compared to moldy blue cheese, sweaty feet, and even rotting human flesh. “Some people liked it, but it’s hard to get over the smell because you’re tipping it right in your face. Most people came in and were like, ‘Oh, can I have a sip… OK, what else do you have?'”
“That’s when we stopped giving out samples. I’d actually like to see it again, although maybe with a different twist,” says Brandon Watts, Pasteur Street’s general manager. To this day, the team remains divided over whether or not the pungent brew should be revived. In a nod of confidence to their current brewmaster, he adds, “Dave [Byrn] could make it good. Dave’s a fucking wizard.”
Pasteur Street isn’t the only game in town playing around with local ingredients in their batches. East West Brewing Company, a slick two-story newcomer with an on-site brewery smack in the middle of District 1, has been making batches of sparkling ales with lychees, IPAs with calamansi limes, wheat stouts with Asian pears, and porters with organic Vietnamese coffee beans and palm sugar. When I swing by the space, brewmaster Sean Thommen is in the process of tinkering with a German-style Rauchbier flavored with the smoked bark of acacia trees. In his Portland, Oregon past, Thommen embraced some pretty daring brews, including a pho beer with cinnamon, star anise, coriander, and whole roasted bones, marrow and all. I ask him if he would attempt a similar feat here, on the soup’s home turf.
“It was actually a really good beer, man. But you always have to temper some adventure with reality,” he says. Since craft beer is still something of a novelty here, the kookier creations beloved by beer geeks in the States might not fly. That being said, he’s happy playing around with small batches of funkier concoctions, while filling the 1,500-liter tanks with something a little more palate-pleasing. “We’ll get weird with fermentation and different yeasts and things like that. It’s nice to have the pilot batch, because we can do more experimental things with Vietnamese ingredients that might appeal to people’s adventurous sides. For the most part, though, we’re focusing on classic styles. We’re trying to build bridges here and we want to be able to share this culture with the Vietnamese.”
It’s a valid point, one I hear reiterated when I pay a visit to another big game in town. Opened in December in a handsome exposed-brick space, Heart of Darkness Craft Brewery boasts 20 gleaming taps, two full-time brewers, and its own cicerone, or beer sommelier. Of the options on the board, only five remain constant, while the other 15 rotate, often based on whatever mood the brewers have been in lately. That might include the Dream Sensation, a wheat beer spiked with an aromatic blend of ginger, lemongrass, and kaffir lime, or Charlie’s Chocolate Chili Stout, with Vietnamese cacao nibs.
“We wanna make sure that if you come in here and you’re an absolute beer geek, that we blow your mind. And if you’re a craft beer newbie, we can give you a flight of six beers that’ll take you on an interesting journey and give you a good introduction,” says partner and CEO John Pemberton, an Australian-born Brit with a booming baritone and eyes that light up whenever the subject turns to suds. “Brewing is such a wonderful, wonderful science. To me, it’s like a 3-D puzzle, because you have so many different possible combinations and variables.”
Unlike Violette or Thommen, who started out as career brewers, Pemberton came over from the corporate world due to a decade-long obsession with craft beer that started in Brookline.
“When I lived in Park Slope, there was this amazing Polish deli that had a room stacked to the ceiling with American craft beer and no two six-packs were the same. So I put on about 20 kilos, but got really into it,” he says fondly. The beer belly disappeared during seven years in China where, much to Pemberton’s chagrin, “there wasn’t any beer worth getting fat for.” He’d more or less resigned himself to swilling mediocre pilsners when a friend turned up with a homebrew that flat-out floored him. He offered to pay to assemble a system that could produce up to four kegs at a time. “You can’t buy anything for it in China, so we had to beg, borrow, steal, but in the end, the system turned out excellent beer. I got completely obsessed, to the point where I quit my job and I’d spend all day researching. I’d pass out and wake up with my face on the keyboard at 7 AM.”
Even after IKEA headhunted him out of early retirement and transferred him to Ho Chi Minh City, Pemberton continued researching and brewing on the side. Last March, he quit his day job again, this time for good, and dedicated himself full-time to opening the bar. He’s quick to acknowledge the achievements of those who came before him and welcomes the friendly egging-on that comes from other brewers bouncing around different ideas.
“It’s a really cool scene, because it all stemmed from homebrewing. You can go on homebrewing forums and it’s amazing the amount of time and energy that people will give to a complete stranger. I think that’s carried over to the craft scene,” he says. To this day, Ho Chi Minh City’s leading brewers are often each other’s close friends and best customers. “I mean, it’s beer. What’s not to be nice about? At the end of the day, we’re all just putting more options out there. Really, the only good beer is the beer that you like.”
Whether that beer happens to be made with durian or passion fruit, Japanese hops or Vietnamese chocolate, there’s an eager audience here ready to taste whatever happens next.