If there’s one thing that Sean Thommen, East West Brewing Company’s brewmaster believes in, it is the traditional forms of beer. “It’s where I begin with all of my beers,” East West Brewing Company’s head brewer Sean Thommen jumps straight in. The young American explains how it doesn’t make any sense to brew a traditional German beer with non-traditional methods, like adding fruits to the process. It’s not that Thommen is averse to using exotic ingredients or tweaking the process, as evidenced by East West’s Saigon Rosé – a raspberry wheat beer, he is wary of brewing without context. “It’s like opening up a Vietnamese restaurant in the U.S, but make the food in such a way that is not recognisably Vietnamese.”
In a world scrambled by globalism, authenticity still matters to East West. What makes pale ales, pale ales? What makes IPA, IPA? Thommen takes these concerns to intense levels. “We can’t just put a bunch of ingredients together and carbonate them. It’s not soda pop.” Water, for instance, often taken for granted as an ingredient, is studied down to each mineral. “We filter the water here to get rid of the toxins, but then it’s just pure water. No magnesium or calcium, which make beers delicious. So we have to add them again.”
Before he became a brewmaster, Thommen studied for a few months in a German brewing school, but he admits that was rather short for what he had to learn. “You can spend years studying about yeast alone.” But the technical complexity was partly why Thommen, a former art student, was sucked into this career. “It’s like when a painter has to create something using very complicated methods to show lighting, shadows and different textures, but the finished work is still self-expression. Beer, in an abstract sort of way, is also a form of expression.”
So while Thommen adheres to the forms of beers, he still finds the canvas for artistic creativity. Take the German style Summer Hefeweizen. Despite still using German grains and wheat beer yeast to build the dry and cloudy beer as beer-heads know it, Thommen and his team added an extra step to produce more ferulic acid, which is then transformed by yeast into 4-vinyl guaiacol, the same compound found in clove, giving the beer just a hint of clove.
It’s this intricacy of process, how the slight tuning of yeast can produce fruit flavours, that Thommen thinks people should know more about. The sophistication, if not for anything else, would make everyone appreciate the liquid gold in their cups more. That’s why he and Loc Truong, owner of East West, very specifically chose to have an in-house brewery. Despite the advice that a facility elsewhere would be cheaper, they wanted to bring the process itself, not just the beers, to the people. “Everyone who drinks it can see the craft behind it.”
Immediately after the door opens, the awe-inspiring tanks of the brewery greet guests from behind the open bar. Inside, Thommen and others are busy tending to the fermentation, kegging, bottling and preparing for new batches. Twice a week, with the same passion he invests in brewing, he gives beer-heads a tour of the facility, opening up a world of alchemy where an Australian strain of hops can add a tropical character to the American pale ale, where a cold metal interior of a brewery, producing enough beer for twelve running taps, can be a site of artistry.
The Ly Tu Trong based brewery cum restaurant isn’t where they plan to stop. Instead of just jumping on the bandwagon of the booming beer scene in Vietnam, Loc, a Vietnamese-American from San Diego, had always envisioned East West as a global company. Some European distributors have already expressed interest in East West beers, especially those inspired by local ingredients like kumquats or ambarella (quả cóc). There just might be another bigger brewery soon. “The one here is almost at capacity, but when we start brewing at the new ones, there will be East West all over the world.”
East West Brewing Company can be found at 181 – 185 Ly Tu Trong, Phuong Ben Thanh, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.