Lager is still king in Vietnam, but a growing number of innovative brewers are experimenting with flavors to offer much more interesting brews.
Vietnam has long been known as a beer-guzzling nation, with the drink comprising some 97 percent of alcohol consumption nationwide, but the country is beginning to toss aside gassy commercial lagers for a range of craft beers. The south’s Ho Chi Minh City in particular has become a hot spot for IPAs and porters, with over 20 craft breweries operating out of the capital.
The metropolis, which is often referred to by its former name, Saigon, has seen an explosion in breweries in the past three years—and thirsty travelers can now hop from tasting room to tasting room discovering innovative blends made by Vietnamese brewers with all sorts of local ingredients.
“For 100 years in Vietnam, people drank lager,” explains Trung Dau, a brewer with East West Brewing Company, which opened 18 months ago in the capital city. “People drink and drink but don’t enjoy the beer, smell the aromas, or taste it. They had no idea about India Pale Ales. But now, there’s been an improvement in the drinking culture in Vietnam. People are actually tasting the beer and talking about it.”
Dau has been learning the different styles of beer and subtleties of aroma and flavor, as well as the importance of core ingredients like hops and water, under the tutelage of East West’s head brewer Sean Thommen of Portland, Oregon.
“At first, I thought it was going to be only young people or Westerners,” Dau says of the brewery’s clientele. “But I see everyone. Women love it. Young men love it. Old people love it.”
The nearby Pasteur Street Brewing Company, meanwhile, opened in 2014. Stout reigns supreme here, specifically the Cyclo Imperial Chocolate Stout, which won gold in the chocolate beer category at the 2016 World Beer Cup.
“I want to make beer that yells ‘Vietnam’ in your mouth.”
“I want to make beer that yells ‘Vietnam’ in your mouth,” Trieu said, of his goal to differentiate their operation from the giant corporations serving up traditional lagers. “They produce beers with little flavors and aromas. At Pasteur Street, we want to utilize the abundance of tropical fruit, excellent spices, and herbs that Vietnam has to offer.”
Adding local ingredients to the mix
Vietnamese coffee is serious business, so it’s no wonder brewers are putting it into the mash. Dau sources his beans from Tai Lai, just east of Saigon, while the team at Pasteur Street works with a coffee purveyor in the Central Highlands.
The country’s abundance of fruit is another major draw. Many of the city’s brewers have produced creative twists on classic styles by sourcing local produce and partnering with other Vietnamese brands.
Winking Seal blends famed Mui Ne dragon fruit into a pale ale, a lovely pink pint that makes a great Instagram photo from the rooftop bar at the tasting room. Rooster Beers plays around with kumquats in a Belgian-style summer brew, East West Brewing sources sugarcane from An Giang, the rural southern province, and Pasteur Street dries jasmine for an especially aromatic IPA.
Pasteur Street's head brewer Dave Byrn says they’ve experimented with everything from pineapple to mangosteen and even durian. “Even after creating more than 100 unique beers, I feel like I am only scratching the surface,” he added.
Byrn and others expect to see many more openings in the next five years as Vietnamese brewers get the hang of the styles and techniques and branch out on their own. Dau, for his part, consults with local brewers finalizing their business plans and searching for investors to start new operations.
As Vietnam’s economy grows, so does its middle class, a group affluent enough to shell out the extra cash to sip a craft beer over the standard Tiger. That opens up a new market of consumers that Trieu says is “starting to realize they want good beers, with quality over quantity.”
For Trieu, taking the craft brewery scene to the next level is all about education. “To many Vietnamese, we are still strange and foreign,” Trieu said. “We consider the people of Vietnam our target customer: to get closer to them, to tell them about our products, and to teach them the deliciousness of beer.”