People with long memories will remember the microbrewery revolution of the early 2000s. Led by Hoa Vien in Saigon and Legend Beer in Hanoi, for a number of years if you wanted good beer in an upmarket, Czech or German-style beer hall environment, these were the places to go. The beer was always more premium than elsewhere — although the price differential was never too large — but you had choice, taste and good mon nhau or drinking food to match. The microbreweries were places to head with groups of friends for a guaranteed good night out.
Then by the late 2000s, except really for Hoa Vien, the microbreweries began to close down. People just weren’t interested any more.
Was it the beer? Was it the environment? Had the novelty factor worn thin? Or was it purely the image of microbreweries as no longer being fashionable places to go for a night out on the town?
In front of me sits a none-too-palatable example of the latest beer craze to hit this country; a branded glass with something in it that is deep yellow. It’s the kind of deep yellow liquid that comes out of my body when I’ve been taking too much vitamin C. But in this instance, I’m being told, it’s beer.
It’s from Saigon and I know the brand.
But to me it looks unwholesome, unhealthy, sickly. But everyone else seems to be drinking it. Whether they’re enjoying it or not is another matter. They seem to be.
The problem is that I’m not. It’s disgusting. And I’m a fairly hardened beer drinker.
I’m out in Hanoi sampling a range of craft beer products. Some have been good — the Vietnam Pale Ale at Turtle Lake Brewery was bitter, hoppy and oozing with taste. But others. Well, beer with kumquat?
The arrival of craft beer and more draft beer in general has been positive. Remember those times when the only beer available on tap was Tiger, Carlsberg or Fosters? Well now, it seems, from Platinum Pale Ale through to Pasteur Street’s Jasmine IPA, and the big-name lager brands in between like Stella Artois or even Peroni, the choice is overwhelming.
Which if you like beer and like choice, is positive.
Yet, as I’m reminding myself yet again on this little pub crawl, there’s a lot of crap out there. A lot of beer that really shouldn’t make it into kegs. But because craft beer is ‘artisan’ and ‘trendy’, the idea of criticizing it is like the idea of saying you support President Trump. You’re not allowed to.
So at the risk of waking up in the morning with a decapitated horse head in my bed, here are my thoughts on the craft beer market.
P for Price
We’ve long talked about the price of craft beer in Vietnam — VND50,000 to VND90,000 for a 250ml glass of the stuff. These are Western prices.
According to the brewers, the reason is the costs of the ingredients are high. And producing on a small scale, with hops and malts often being bought from a local broker rather than being imported directly by the container load, this increases outlays even further.
Small scale production also means that craft beer by its nature is going to be more expensive than your mass-produced lager. In 2015 Heineken’s largest brewery, located in Zoeterwoude in Holland, had a capacity of 1.35 billion litres per year. That’s 27 million, 50-litre barrels of beer. A typical craft brewery will produce less than 15,000 barrels a year. In terms of economies of scale, the difference is huge. The unit cost of a barrel of Heineken is going to be tiny.
So okay. In terms of price, explanation accepted.
Yet the way I see it, if I’m going to pay that much for a glass of beer, for a premium product, then it needs to be good. Right? So why, oh beer producers of Vietnam, have you subjected me to torture on so many occasions? And why have you so often made me feel like I’m wasting my hard-earned cash?
The Good, The Bad…
There are three breweries that I mostly swear by. I don’t like all their beer — hands up, I’m not a fan of stout — but if I go to Heart of Darkness, East West or Pasteur Street, I know that if I make the right choice, I will be happy. On a recent visit to Bia Craft in Saigon’s District 2, I ordered a flight and was particularly enamoured by Heart of Darkness’s Loose Rivet New England IPA.
Yet the flight also included two other ‘recommended’ beers from a different brewery which were disgusting. If I can’t finish a flight of ‘premium’ beer, then there’s a problem.
So what’s going on here? Are some producers putting any old crap in a keg and calling it beer? Are they taking the ‘build it and they will come’ concept a little bit too seriously?
Don’t they understand that if you sell sub-standard products for too long, then no matter how fashionable it may seem to be, people will stop buying it? Or is the problem me?
Maybe I just don’t understand these types of beer. And if I’m struggling — and I’m from the UK, the home of real ale — then how are Vietnamese drinkers going to manage?
What I do know is that there will be a time when drinking craft beer will no longer have the fashionable edge to it that it has today. Craft beer could go the way of the microbreweries.
So here’s my warning, a warning based on what I’ve seen happen in the past.
Craft beer producers of Vietnam; please make sure that if you’re producing a premium product it is genuinely premium. And please make sure it’s accessible, particularly to the Vietnamese. If you don’t, then when this little wave of craft beer-fuelled fashion is over, done and dusted, you could go the way of the German-style microbreweries.
For the sake of choice and the fact that I like a lot of what you produce, I hope you don’t. But it’s in your hands.