August 2, 2017
The cheapest place to drink beer on earth is Vietnam, at about 25 cents a glass. The nation’s beverage of choice? Bia hoi, an unremarkable lager that rings in at just about 3 percent alcohol. Each night a legion of sleepless brewers concoct batches of beer that ferment for a few short hours before being ferried around the city at the crack of dawn and distributed to streetside stalls and makeshift beer halls packed with small plastic stools.
Bia hoi isn’t pasteurized and no preservatives are added, making the drinkability window limited to just 24 hours, but for a nation that consumes 3.8 billion liters of beer a year, that isn’t a problem. Visit a beer hall just after the working day ends and you’ll be hard pressed to find a seat among the throngs of office workers unwinding, dozens of empty glasses filling the low tables in front of them. But the Vietnamese taste for beer is changing.
Down the street in Saigon, a small second-floor taproom on Pasteur Street is buzzing with craft beer geeks guzzling down flights of durian wheat beer and jasmine India pale ale. Imbibers are thirsty for something with twice the alcohol content and thrice the flavor of bia hoi.
In 2015, Pasteur Street Brewing opened its doors to a great fanfare from expats pining for craft beer that they’d left behind. Viet Kieu, the term for Vietnamese living outside the country, were also thirsty after getting a taste of the good stuff from Europe and America. The new bar was a catalyst for a boom that would see dozens of domestic craft brewers come to fruition in two short years.
Two tall steel tanks sit in the backyard of Lucas Jans, an Oregon transplant to Ho Chi Minh’s District 7, a quiet residential area. To the uninitiated, it might look like a meth lab. But his brewing buddies know better, and to them he’s the the ultimate tech-wizard, carefully combining the world of IT and beer. A digital readout and exposed circuit board hang loosely from the fermentation tanks. The gadget he had rigged up allows him to control every single variable in the brewing process remotely from his phone. This backyard homebrew experiment eventually matured into what is now one of the hottest tap rooms in Saigon. Jans has come a long way, having opened Lac beer earlier this year.
At Lac Beer, people come for the mango IPA, a succulent and juicy ale with a secret: All the mangoes are sourced directly from the family farm of Lucas’s wife. The beer isn’t the only element with a local focus though, the bar top was once a part of an eighty-year old traditional wooden Vietnamese home, and the tables come courtesy of wooden beds from the same era.
Since craft brew is so new to the Vietnamese palate, it’s the perfect time to experiment. Jans brews beers to challenge conventional styles; he brews and sees what sticks. “I brew styles of beer that have never been made before – and the Vietnamese are excited to try these beers.” Lucas uses mangosteens, lychees, sapodilla in his beers, and he’s even experimenting with a super flavorful pineapple that’s only found in Long An.
And it’s clear that the local flavors paired with creativity is far from tapped out. At BiaCraft in District 3, the majority of a whopping 50 taps are pouring local brews at any given time.