“I always compare craft beer to chicken wings,” says Christopher Roberts. “A double IPA is like the ghost pepper wing. Most people aren’t going to order them. The beers that really sell are the ones that are mild and interesting.”
Roberts knows a thing or two about beer (and presumably chicken, too). He’s one of the head honchos at Heart of Darkness, an independent Vietnamese craft brewery based in Ho Chi Minh City.
This is not as weird as it sounds. Vietnam has a longstanding reputation for beer. There’s an urban legend that, when Vietnamese draft beer arrived in the late 1800s, patrons were so wild that bartenders had to protect themselves by collecting money from inside tiger cages.
The country drinks about 40 billion litres each year, ranked second in Asia – just behind Korea. But until recently, most of those 40 billion litres were almost definitively bia hoi, Vietnam’s iconic featherweight lager: cheap, easy-going, available on every fluorescent street corner, and with a flavour profile you could count on one finger. But just ask Roberts – the crafty tide is starting to turn.
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“The Vietnamese craft beer scene is about five years old now,” he says. “If we’re comparing it to the States, which is the world’s oldest craft beer scene, we’re approaching where America was in the mid 1980s.”
The turning point for Vietnamese beer was probably in the early 2000s, when Czech imports began arriving on the streets of Saigon. By 2015, local microbreweries like Platinum, Pasteur Street and BiaCraft were experimenting with punchy IPAs and funky sour beers, lead mostly by die-hard American, British or Australian ex-pats. “This is how it always starts,” says Roberts. “In Korea and Japan and Hong Kong, the craft beer scene was lead by local ex-pat populations, and for the first couple of years the consumption was just thirsty foreigners, then it began to transition into a local product.”
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That transition is picking up pace. Today there are dozens of homegrown Vietnamese craft beer brands – labels like Heart of Darkness, Furbrew, Fuzzy Logic Brewing and Winking Seal – and those original microbreweries have morphed into a lucrative, full-blown, nation-wide movement, helped along by eye-watering Vietnamese import levies. “The Vietnamese tax structure puts local beer at a huge advantage,” Roberts admits. “It’s actually very hard for American or Australian imports to stay competitive. In some ways they’re priced out of the market.” Bia hoi is losing its monopoly inch by inch, and locals are thirsty for something new.
Roberts says, like pretty much everything else in Vietnam, there’s some regional variation to the craft beer scene. Hanoi doesn’t take their beer with ice, but that’s not uncommon in the muggy lowlands of Ho Chi Minh City. And because drinking culture in Vietnam is still closely linked to food, the craft palate shifts as you move further north. “It’s a totally different culture to America and Australia,” Roberts says. “Australians and Americans will have dinner and then go out to a bar. But for most Vietnamese, communal eating and drinking go hand-in-hand, it’s something you might stretch over a few hours. So beer needs to match well with food.”
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There are more subtle differences too. Since the war ended, Ho Chi Minh City has been Vietnam’s more progressive, worldly city, driving cultural change; bureaucratic Hanoi tends to lag a few years behind. Which is probably why Vietnam’s craft beer epicentre was downtown Ho Chi Minh City – it’s taken two or three years, but those hoppy, malty shockwaves have finally reached Hanoi’s Old Quarter. “Ho Chi Minh City is more like Shanghai,” Roberts says. “It’s an international city. Hanoi has always been a bit more like Beijing.”
So what’s new on the Vietnamese craft beer scene? Take your pick. Heart of Darkness alone has eleven flagship beers – including everything from IPAs and cucumber pilsners to meaty Irish stouts – but Roberts reckons lager is about to make a comeback (“It’s easy to make a lager, but it’s hard to sell it,” he says. “Think about it. Why would I pay double the cost of Peroni?”).
The real advantage for Vietnamese craft beer is that it’s not carrying a legacy around its neck – there are no preconceptions about what Vietnamese craft beer should be. There’s no history to live up to. And the rest of the world isn’t exactly holding its breath. Labels like Heart of Darkness are free to experiment, safe in the knowledge that they’ll probably beat everyone’s expectations.
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“Beer is a global commodity now,” Roberts says. “I mean, technically it’s easier for us to get our hands on a passionfruit, but Swedish breweries are pumping out fruit sour beers too. You can make beer anywhere in the world. You just need to know how to make it correctly.”
Where to drink craft beer in Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City
Biacraft – Try the Kumquat Ale from Pasteur Street, or Anderson Valley’s Salted Caramel Porter.
Malt – A classic Saigon brew bar. Check out the Passionfruit Wheat Beer and Coconut Porter, both from Pasteur Street.
Heart of Darkness Brewery – Keep an eye out for their seasonal range, which includes an 8.5% Belgian Tripel and a (very) hard Ginger Beer.
Turtle Lake Brewing Company – This place is famous for its crafty take on Bia Hoi, the so-called Vietnamese Pale Ale.
Pasteur Street, Hanoi Taproom – Over 200 craft beers to choose from, but make sure to try their fragrant Jasmine IPA.
Furbrew Beer Bar – The undisputed home of Pho Beer (yep, really).
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Feature photo supplied by Heart of Darkness.