Saigon's Booming Craft Beer Scene
Taste-making entrepreneurs are using Vietnamese flavors to power Saigon's craft-beer boom. A tour of local breweries reveals some of the inspiration behind these special small-batch suds. Story and photographs by COLE PENNINGTON.
Published on Feb 14, 2017
THE COBRA'S BONES CRUNCHED between my teeth in an aria of pops and crackles, like a mouthful of Rice Krispies. The snake was cooked up tableside at Tram Chim restaurant in Saigon and every part was used: bones fried into crispy bits, the sinew stewed, and even the fluids, like blood and bile, were downed with cheap Vietnamese vodka. Master brewer Mark Gustafson had brought me here for an unorthodox taste of Saigon and a sink-or-swim rite of initiation: me a novice brewer, Gustafson a seasoned pro, this snake my spirit quest. When the meal ended and we'd sucked down the entire serpent, teeth to tail (tastes like chicken), a small glass bottle of cobra blood remained on the table. When the waiter went to clear the bottle, Gustafson stopped him, and asked if he could take the dark red syrup home. He was going to brew a cobra-blood ale.
Brewer Mark Gustafson measures grain for his Lun Ma Lao Blonde.
Gustafson was one of the pioneers in the craft beer scene in Vietnam, a country—with a cornucopia of delicious and exotic ingredients not to mention an economy that facilitates experimental brewing—that's on the verge of becoming one of the best spots in the world to drink beer. Pasteur Street Brewing Company was the city's first popular microbrewery; its 2014 opening kicked down the door for a flurry of domestic brews to enter the market, paving the way for Gustafson. "The demand came from the hyper-niche community first," Gustafson says, "then finally the scales tipped and enthusiasts crawled out of the woodwork." When he and his partners opened Quan Ut Ut the same year, an American barbecue specializing in heaping plates of succulent meat from pigs, chickens and cows, cooked to perfection on a smoker roughly the size of a locomotive, Gustafson was brewing beer in the venue's small office. In 2015, they opened BiaCraft, a low-key bar with a snacks stand and 13 taps, focused specifically on craft beer, in order to quench the explosive thirst.
Beer and bar snacks at BiaCraft. Courtesy of BiaCraft Artisan Ales.
Now, that thirst keeps Quan Ut Ut's two locations and BiaCraft packed to the brim with imbibers capitalizing on the Southeast Asia's friendliest prices for craft beer. How can a pint of craft beer cost only US$2? "Well, labor is very cheap in Vietnam" Gustafson says. It's not just the prices powering this party, though; the government has looser restrictions than neighboring countries like Thailand where small-batch brewing is illegal. And the frenzy of attention on new, locally made beer is palpable, pulling people in for a taste of something that came from the West, but is distinctly Vietnamese, incorporating regional delicacies like the brown-sugary sapodilla fruit that brings out the strong malt backbone in Pasteur Street's Sapodilla Strong Ale; or the vanilla beans from Mui Ne and locally made Marou chocolate that lend body to the Pasteur Street Imperial Chocolate Cyclo Stout; or the tropical medley of grapefruit, passion fruit and melon that make BiaCraft's Xau Ma Chanh (Ugly But Vain) IPA so refreshing. The snake's blood, however, won't appear on any menus. Gustafson has earmarked that special vitality-boosting elixir for a small batch of ruby-tinted ironrich blonde ale he's saving for himself. That's fine by me—I've had enough cobra juice to last me a lifetime. And I suspect my own hoppy panacea is awaiting on tap at one of the many bars in Saigon serving craft ales, which two years ago could be counted on one hand, but according to Gustafson number more than 100 these days.
Pasteur Street's Imperial Chocolate Cyclo Stout uses local Marou chocolate. Courtesy of Pasteur Street Brewing company.
While the massive brewers like Saigon Beer still own the lion's share of the market, the grassroots efforts are gaining serious traction. To truly understand this brave new world of brewing in Vietnam, I set out with Gustafson to sip as many next-level suds as possible and visit some of the breweries in Saigon churning out the most interesting flavors.
"My house looks like the lab in Breaking Bad," Lucas Jans laughs. "Blue Sky: ninety-nine point one percent purity." Scoping out his backyard in the quaint suburban District 7, I see his point. The series of vats, siphons, air locks and buckets could have been designed by Heisenberg himself. This is Lac Brewing Company, what might be Saigon's smallest brewing operation, and it churns out beers that are much-loved and lauded by local connoisseurs. Today, Jans is making an Oatmeal Session IPA designed to complement Vietnam's hot climate. A "session ale" is a beer made with a light body and lower alcohol content. "The sessionable beers do very well here," Jans says. "It's not the right climate for a heavy beer. Mostly people just want to feel refreshed and enjoy the taste of an ale." After taking a small sip, I can vouch for that. When it's finished it will likely make its way to the menu of Quan Ut Ut, where Jans’s beers are regularly served. "My current recipe calls for six different hops added at 11 different times,” he says. "The best way I can describe the flavor is drinking Jolly Rancher orange juice."
Lac Brewing's Lucas Jans samples a beer.
I'd like to stay and sample more, but I've got a date to check out the brewery in Can Giuoc where Gustafson's BiaCraft beers are made. We straddle two 1990s motor scooters and he leads the way on a two-hour ride to a remote district of Saigon, where shrimp farms dot a landscape of mangrove wetlands inhabited by rare species of wildlife. I'm quickly beset by the jarring soundtrack of phantom swiftlets incessantly chirping. I complain about the ear-splitting shrieks and Gustafson explains that this highway is lined with structures broadcasting the chirping out of loudspeakers to attract the birds to build nests that the ranchers collect and sell—what is dubbed the "caviar of the east," used in traditional medicine. The noise is enough to drive someone insane, but Gustafson remains unfazed. "Anything in the name of beer," he says.
That quote might well end up his epitaph. Gustafson says it has been a harrowing journey to perfect beer production, balance supply and demand, navigate baffling government regulations, cut through import logistics and overcome tropical acts of nature ("We carried a giant metal fermenter three blocks in a thunder storm. It was most important that the beer arrive safely"), but now BiaCraft Artisan Ales are finely polished and flowing faster than a monsoon tide through Saigon's coolest bars. The Lun Ma Lao Blonde ale is my favorite of their offerings, light and easy-drinking, perfectly suited for the often cruel Vietnamese heat. This brew goes easy on the hops, and instead finishes with a light-bodied malty sweetness that feels fresh. Resin-ey IPAs work with the full-flavored notes of Vietnamese food, but when beer is consumed on it's own there's nothing better than light and easy—or rather, short but arrogant, the English translation of BiaCraft's Lun Ma Lao Blonde.
BiaCraft's 13 taps pour exclusively Vietnamese-made beers, with a style and flavor for everyone.
After a long and hot motorbike ride through the mangroves, Gustafson and I pull into the birthplace of the Lun Ma Lao Blonde. This small brewery tucked under bamboo scaffolding and a thatched roof is where Gustafson contracts his BiaCraft brewing duties, but it's also home to another label: Phat Rooster.
"The rooster is the symbol of luck in Vietnam, and phat means lucky," says the brewery-owner Mike Sakkers, from hop-crazed California. Sakkers is a purist, and despite the abundance of flavors in the region he focuses on perfecting tried and true styles rather than experimenting. "You'll never find any fruit in my beer," Sakkers says. "Our flavors come from hops." Naively, I ask him what hops he uses in his IPA. "Giving away your hop recipe is like letting someone see your wife naked," he tells me. Fair enough.
Cruising to Phat Rooster brewery.
Whatever he's using has propelled his range of amber, blonde, pale ale, IPA, and English porter to great popularity among the backpacker crowd. He's installed a "keezer", a freezer-kegerator at the Tres Ninos Mexican Restaurant & Bar in the Pham Ngu Lao area, known for its steady stream of travelers.
As I poke around the property, Sakkers and his brewing partner, Joshua Puckett, are just beginning a brew. Stray light glistens off the stainless steel equipment as the two men weigh out grain. There are no ready-made brewing systems available in Vietnam, so Sakkers designed and built the system from the ground up, importing parts from China, Europe and the U.S.
Once the mash, a combination of hot water and grain, reaches a steady 67-degrees Celsius, they close the kettle and the wait begins. It will take about two weeks for the yeast to pitch and the beer to ferment to sublime drinkability. The byproduct of brewing, known as "spent grain," will be used as pigs' feed that Sakkers jokes will provide bacon in the future, sustainably creating a combination breweryfarm that specializes in two of my favorite things in life.
When Sakkers finishes loading up his 1970s SUV with Phat Rooster and BiaCraft beer, he heads off to the city to deliver kegs to dozens of locations. Gustafson and I follow suit, peeling off on our motor scooters and, as we cruise towards Saigon, the tide moves in and murky brown water fills the mangroves to the brim. Gustafson insists we take a break from the drive to try a water coconut, a variety of coconut found only in this biosphere. The nipa palm yields a small, translucent mass of succulent, sweet coconut meat nestled in a tough shell. "How about a session ale brewed with these guys?" I ask Gustafson. He raises the fruit to eye level, scrunches his brow and offers the most non-committal of shrugs. I guess he's more of a cobra blood kind of guy.
Nipa palm coconuts only grow in Vietnamese mangrove forests.
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