good times brewing for craft beer in vietnam

On an evening in May, at the prestigious World Beer Cup awards in Philadelphia, there is a surprised hush in the room. The gold medal for the world’s best chocolate stout has just been announced: Pasteur Street Brewing, Vietnam. “Vietnam?” The crowd ripples with bemusement. “Who the hell are these guys?” 

Pasteur Street’s 32-year-old founder, John Reid, wasn’t at the so-called “Olympics of beer” to pick the award up himself. But that’s how he heard the crowd reacted, according to some brewers he met recently who were. “When we started the company we had this vision,” says Reid, perched over a golden IPA, upstairs in the company’s Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) taproom headquarters. “We don’t just want to bring American-style craft beer to Vietnam […] we want to create something out of Vietnam, out of local ingredients.” Pasteur Street’s winning stout was made using Marou chocolate (a local Vietnamese success story in itself) and the brewery – just 18-months-old – is experimenting with other local spices and herbs. 

"Right now, it's just about the most expensive draft beer in the country."

But arguably, Pasteur Street’s greatest achievement has been simply in establishing itself as a recognisable craft beer brand in a country best known for bia hoi, a low-alcohol homebrew that sells from about 3,000 Vietnamese dong, or less than 20 Australian cents. A glass of Pasteur Street Jasmine IPA, on the other hand, will set you back 95,000 Vietnamese dong or just under AU$6. Right now, it’s just about the most expensive draft beer in the country.

That’s ok, because right now Vietnam is in the early stages of a craft beer revolution. While people have been drinking beer here since the French introduced brewing in the 1890s, in the past two years a small community of mostly 30-something expats has been quietly broadening local beer horizons. To the standard German-style lagers and ubiquitous Tigers and Heinekens they’ve added a heady mix of blondes, IPAs, ambers and stouts. 

 A tasting paddle of six Pasteur Street ales at their Pasteur Street headquarters costs 250,000 Vietnamese dong (AUD $15). 

A tasting paddle of six Pasteur Street ales at their Pasteur Street headquarters costs 250,000 Vietnamese dong (AUD $15). 

 Left: the Pasteur Street Brewing Company logo. Right: Pasteur Street's 32-year-old American founder, John Reid.

Left: the Pasteur Street Brewing Company logo. Right: Pasteur Street's 32-year-old American founder, John Reid.

Someone who has watched the good times brew is Australian, Tim Scott, 35. He arrived in Vietnam in 2002 and, together with Frenchman Albin Deforges and American Mark Gustafson, he opened barbecue restaurant Quan Ut Ut in March 2014. At first, the trio brewed small, 20-to-40-litre batches of IPA and pale ale to complement the food. Then, noticing a high demand for the beer and realising there were others brewing in the city, too, they opened BiaCraft, a dedicated craft beer bar in District 2, in August 2015. 

BiaCraft has become a magnet for craft beer lovers and now offers 14 tap beers plus a dozen bottled brews. Here you can taste other Vietnamese brewing pioneers such as Fuzzy Logic, Platinum, Te Te, Pasteur Street and Phat Rooster. “The craft beer scene is still in its infancy here,” says Scott, who originally hails from Brisbane. “It’s new and it’s such a difficult country to brew and get [ingredients and licences] in. The community is quite close – everybody helps each other out. It has not yet got to that point where we’re competing with each other at all. Right now it’s very much a case of a rising tide floats all boats.”

 Locals enjoying interesting ales at BiaCraft, in District 2, now with 13 craft beers on tap. 

Locals enjoying interesting ales at BiaCraft, in District 2, now with 13 craft beers on tap. 

"It’s much better than regular beer..."

Over a few beers one night at BiaCraft I meet the boys from Te Te: Spanish brothers Luis (29) and Ruben (32) Martinez and Tobias Briffa (28), from Malta. They describe the craft beer scene as “an awakening”. So, why is it suddenly taking off? “Because it’s much better than regular beer,” deadpans the older Martinez. “It’s a cliché to use,” adds Briffa, “but it is a revolution. The industrial companies took over and controlled pretty much all of the market and took away the good beer from the people.” 

Starting as a marketing company, the trio began brewing in March 2015 and, in July that year, sold their first crate of Belgian-style wheat beer. They have since gone from producing 70 litres per week to 300 and, as of June this year, are set to produce 800 litres-a-week, and hoping to supply 15-20 venues. 

 Four friends started Te Te Craft Beer in 2015 and its now set to produce 800 litres of beer per week. Photo supplied.

Four friends started Te Te Craft Beer in 2015 and its now set to produce 800 litres of beer per week. Photo supplied.

And it’s not just beer that’s been brewing. Architect Hannah Jeffreys, 31, arrived in Saigon in 2011. Originally from Somerset in England – the home of cider – she started making alcoholic apple juice in her kitchen because she was missing it so much. She sold her first batch of homebrew from a stall at Saigon Outcast (an alternative skate park-cum-music venue in District 2), in 2013. “It was a bit of a hit, we sold out, so at the next event I introduced flavours from south-east-Asia. We added things like local ginger, local chillies, cinnamon, and the flavours were a huge hit and we sold out at subsequent events.”

"A passion project…"

Three years later her business has grown to employ five part-time staff and supplies venues in Saigon, Nha Trang and will soon be available in Da Nang, Hoi An and Hanoi. “I didn’t start from an investment point of view, it was a passion project…[but] now that I have my licences, I have a detailed plan in place, I’m having discussions with investors to move it forward. Demand has just been overwhelming, nationally and internationally.”

 Left: Architect Hannah Jeffreys, 31, started making cider in Vietnam a few years after arriving here in 2011.  Image on right by Francis Xavier - provided by Saigon Cider.

Left: Architect Hannah Jeffreys, 31, started making cider in Vietnam a few years after arriving here in 2011.  Image on right by Francis Xavier - provided by Saigon Cider.

Meanwhile, back at Pasteur Street headquarters John Reid is understandably bullish about his brewing company’s future. His stout’s World Beer Cup recognition comes just weeks after the brewery picked up three golds and a silver at Singapore’s Asia Beer Medals. “And from there, boom, we had all these distributors hitting us up for export,” says Reid. “Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, China, UK, Australia, US – they all were asking us what are you guys doing over there? It’s pretty cool.” 

While the bulk of the craft beer drinkers in Vietnam are foreigners, increasingly young (and wealthy) Vietnamese are acquiring a taste for it. In a nation of 90 million people it won’t be long, we think, before bigger brewers sit up and take notice. But for the moment, here’s cheers to the little guys.

Where to drink craft beer in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam

  • BiaCraft
    90 Xuan Thuy, Thao Dien, District 2, Ho Chi Minh City
    Phone +84 837 442 588 or visit their website

  • Pasteur Street Tasting Room
    144 Pasteur Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
    Phone +84 838 239 562 or visit their website
  • Quan Ut Ut
    168 Vo Van Kiet, Phuong Cau Ong Lanh, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
    Phone +84 839 144 500 or visit their Facebook page

  • Saigon Outcast
    188/1 Nguyen Van Huong, Thao Dien, District 2, Ho Chi Minh City
    Phone +84 912 194 894 or visit their website