In the first of our BIA series of stories, we dig deeper into Vietnam’s ubiquitous beer scene and into the minds of some of the nation’s best brewers.
It’s no secret that the Vietnamese love beer. With the local population knocking back around 4 billion litres per year, growing 6% per year, the country is ranked as the third largest market in the world. The insurgence of craft beer brewing must seem now logical in such a fertile market, but back in 2014, swimming in a sea of Heineken, 333 and Sabeco, who could really predict the meteoric rise of craft beer in Saigon?
Tim Scott, owner of the now hugely successful BiaCraft, certainly couldn’t. After years of living in Vietnam, Scott briefly went back to the U.S. and concluded that the only thing back home that Saigon did not have was American BBQ and a pint of good beer. This was a gap that he resolved to fill with Mark Gustafson, a seasoned home-brewer, on board. “Mark sold his house and his car, then moved to Saigon to work with me.” From the very first day of Quan Ut Ut, their joint venture, in March 2014, craft beers were on the menu, albeit in such small batches that Scott and Gustafson had to ration the bottles to ten per day. Soon the duo realised that what had started as a personal project struck some vein of nostalgic longing among expats. “Every day when we opened at 4pm, people would be knocking on our doors and finishing every bottle in no time.”
Once a guy went into the restaurant, asking to take away some beer, but with no bottle left, he pleaded with them to pour the beer in a plastic bag which he’d drink with a straw. Later, when Gustafson hurt his shoulder in a bike accident, the same guy offered to help the heavy-lifting in the brewing process. This ardent fan who just did not want the beer to stop flowing was Lucas Jans, who would go on to found Lac Brewing Company a year later.
Around the same time, other breweries like Fuzzy Logic, Pasteur Street Brewing Company, and Platinum Beer had also appeared, independently of each other, with the same thought in mind – to provide alternatives to the lagers amply flowing on every sidewalk. But why in 2014 did these men decide, without having heard of each other, to brew craft beers? Max Crawford, Fuzzy Logic’s founder, is not sure. “I don’t think there’s an answer. Craft beer was always gonna happen in Vietnam. A few of us just took the plunge to find out if the market was ready.” You could say that in a rather spontaneous fashion, there was a suddenly a craft beer scene in Saigon.
Although the history of the scene’s origin remains without consensus, all first-wavers agree upon one thing – it was mighty difficult to get started. “We had no ingredients, no equipments,” summed up Tim Scott. All the things that were taken for granted in the States, brewers here had to find DIY solutions.
A major upside to this, Scott thinks, was that everybody had to work together. Maybe one brewery knew how to import this brand of hops, the other knew where to get that brand of malt, so they decided to share these resources. “We borrowed each other things and hooked with each other up with supplies.” In the process, the first-wavers became very close friends.
Now, four years later, as the arrivals of international brands loom large, they look back fondly upon that time of infancy but are nevertheless prepared for the intense competition ahead. “It’s the time to put up or shut up. You really have to make world-class beers to keep going,” concluded Tim Scott.