As the second beer tower arrives at the table, the comments and wisecracks start to flow.
“The thing that surprises me is that no one drives a snow plough,” quips one person. We’ve been talking about traffic and driving on the highways at night.
“Oh, don’t get a photo of me drinking that,” says another, worried about being seen with beer in his hand that’s not his own brand.
“Wow, this is a departure!” A departure from what? We’ve already forgotten.
The music is pumping and the female DJ is sporting the pre-requisite baseball cap. She’s in dancing mode, grooving to her selection of Top 40 dance tracks on a raised podium.
We have our own personal beer pourer — her name is Thao. She works the tower and keeps it refilled. In the urinals there is see-through glass. The view is not going to get you producing your iPhone for that quick Facebook shot unlike at another beer club, Bomb Beer, where the urinals back onto the DJ booth. But it’s a novelty turned into a pre-requisite that seems to have followed the rise of the beer club. That and beer towers and high wooden plank tables and loud music and draft beer. Most particularly, draft beer.
A Drop in the Ocean
Our present choice of watering hole is Hops Beer Garden, a Saigon-based beer club built on the foundations of what was once Windows Café, the first big, brash coffee drinking haunt in central Ho Chi Minh City. That was a decade ago. Now thanks to a craze started by the legendary Vuvuzela, it’s the beer clubs that are taking over. With higher average spends — VND250,000 to VND300,000 a head as compared to the coffee drinker average of VND50,000 — the days of large, elaborately decorated glitzy cafes are over. We’re here with some of the movers in the beer industry. It’s supposed to be a pub crawl, but two hours in and we’re still at destination number one.
Our reason? Draft, or draught, beer. How you spell it is still up for debate. But what isn’t up for grabs is its rise in popularity among the local populace. It’s still a top-end tipple — a 330ml glass costs between VND30,000 and VND45,000. When bia hoi costs as little as VND10,000 for two litres, you realise there’s still a fair amount of market penetration to go. The majority of Vietnam is quite simply priced out of the market. After the launch of Tiger Draft in 1995, for years there were only three or four draft options available in Vietnam. Yet at Hops alone, there are seven. And a number of draft beers — including the recently launched Heineken Draft — are not even catered for here. That’s despite beer occupying 87 percent of packaged alcohol consumption in Vietnam.
“I like it,” says Sapporo’s Cong Thanh. “The competition is good. Tonight is a bit unfair as everyone [in Hops] is drinking Sapporo. I want a draft beer market where people are drinking everything.”
The reason for the present change is partly the rise of the beer clubs. But it’s also Cong Thanh’s brand, Sapporo. Over the last three years, big investment has seen the Japanese beer, both in draft and bottled form, break the market stranglehold of the likes of Tiger, Heineken, Carlsberg and San Miguel. It’s now a popular brand. And in Hops it’s the beer that’s got all the signage.
And yet as Gary Bett (Red Rock and Gau Den) and Tom Duncan (SABMiller) explain, the draft beer market in Vietnam is tiny.
"Until last year, the draft beer market in Ho Chi Minh City was mainly for expats and tourists,” says Tom. “It was very small and stable.” As a result, it didn’t get the investment it’s seen elsewhere in the world. Vietnamese just weren’t drinking it. In 2013 only 66 million litres of draft (keg) beer was sold. That is a mere drop in the beer-drinking ocean when you consider that bia hoi hit the 3 billion mark.
Thanks to the rapid rise of the beer clubs, that’s all starting to change. “As a value increase, the change in draft beer consumption is significantly higher than the pure volume,” continues Tom. “But as a percentage of the total market, it’s still tiny but now growing quickly.”
Says Gary: “For the big guys, setting up draft beer requires a lot of investment. They have to spend a lot of money on everything, the fonts, the branding, the cooling systems. They have to get it perfect. It’s easy for them to lose a lot of money on it.”
Yet for someone like Belfast-born Michael Comerton of Platinum, it’s far easier to enter the market. Selling a hoppy, American-style craft beer brewed in Vietnam that was originally created for Aldi in Australia, being small has its benefits. He doesn’t have to go through the costly branding and bureaucratic exercise of the multi-nationals. Being small means he is lean and with his draft beer in 20 high-selling venues, it’s possible for him to make a profit.
We’ve gone through Platinum, Sapporo and Red Rock. Now we’re on Gau Den, a tasty black beer brewed by Gary in Vietnam. It’s the only dark beer of its type on tap.
“I love beer clubs,” says someone. “They’re great for attracting a more diverse group of customers and women feel more comfortable here.”
“Yeah,” says someone else. “It’s better for them than going to the nightclubs. There they end up drinking too much spirits and getting in trouble.”
We all nod in agreement. The way the service staff at nightclubs keep your glasses constantly filled can be challenging. It’s costly, too.
“So are we actually going to move anywhere?” says Michael. “I think we've redefined pub crawl in Vietnam. You sit in one place and the beer crawls around you.”
Discussions start about where we should go and there’s some disagreement. But it looks like Bomb Beer. Named after a slang term developed in the north for bia hoi, it’s their official opening tonight.
Suddenly I realise what’s strange about the whole experience. Table service. I go to the front of the bar to search out the beer taps. It’s all there, font after shiny metal font lined up in a bar space. But there are no customers there, only service staff.
Go to a pub or a bar overseas, and the culture is based around bar service. Rock up, check out the fonts to see what beers are available, and place your order directly at the bar — the fonts and the selection of beers adds to the experience. It also means the beer is freshly poured from the tap. Yet in Vietnam, with beer towers you run the risk of the beer going flat. As Gary says, “Someone could fill a beer tower full of bottled beer, and you’d never know.”
I’ve actually seen that done before in a well-known bar in Saigon. They filled up early and served punters directly from the beer towers. By the time the beer was drunk, it was worse than flat. It was warm, too.
“So, why do they do it?” I ask. “Why the beer towers and the flat beer?”
“Because it’s social,” everyone seems to say at the same time. “It’s about people and we’re having fun.”
We all laugh. Draft beer in Vietnam has its own dynamic. How that dynamic will develop is something to watch. But it’s certainly taken off. And more beers are set to come into the market, too.
I look at Tom, SABMiller’s country manager. From all the talk it seems like he’s going to bring Peroni in on draft. Together with Staropramen, it’s my draft lager of choice when I go back to the UK. But he’s being coy.
“When?” I ask, in anticipation.
But my question is quickly avoided as we move onto the next round of draft beer.