Craft beer is now so buzzed-about that it’s easy to forget (especially for the Historienne, who arrived in August) that as recently as two years ago, Hanoi’s only small-brew came in kegs, and it was called bia hoi. Van Vu, head brewer at Barett Craft Beer, began producing and marketing Hanoi’s first craft beer in 2015. His first challenge was explaining to people what, exactly, craft beer was, and why they should pay several times more for it than the beer they were already drinking. But Vu never doubted that drinkers could be convinced.
“I had been traveling around quite a bit and I saw the craft beer trend happening in the US, and then all the rest of the world was following the trend: Europe, New Zealand, Taipei, Australia,” said Vu, who grew up with beer on the brain in a family that sells equipment to Vietnam’s major commercial brewers.
“So I assumed it would come to Vietnam.”
Thomas Bilgram, head brewer at Furbrew and a home brewer before starting the business, was living in Copenhagen in early 2015 when a friend in Hanoi told Bilgram he had about a year to get out ahead of the coming craft beer explosion. Bilgram packed his bags and headed for Vietnam, where he had lived part-time in the past. Why, The Historienne asked, was Bilgram so certain that what his friend predicted would actually happen?
“For the very reason that it hadn’t happened yet,” Bilgram replied. He discussed that almost every region of the world, with the exception of predominantly Muslim countries, had a growing craft community.
And craft in Vietnam has happened now. CNN, Forbes, Vice, and Bloomberg have said it, and we’ll say it, too: craft beer in Vietnam is booming. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City boast at least 20 craft brewers combined, with new ones bubbling up all the time. Stop by Standing Bar in Truc Bach, Furbrew in Tay Ho or Pasteur Street’s new tasting room in the heart of the backpacker district, and the crowds confirm the headlines. And brewers like Bilgram and Vu see an even stronger future.
Vietnam is already southeast Asia’s biggest beer consumer. As the Vietnamese middle class continues to grow rapidly, beer sales are projected to rise 65 percent from 2011 to 2021. Euromonitor called Vietnam “the market to watch” in a report on beer in the Asia-Pacific region, noting that it will see the region’s largest growth between 2016 and 2021 in volume of beer consumed.
Craft brewers are betting that at least a portion of that market will develop a taste for uncommon flavors like Furbrew’s pho beer (more popular with foreigners than Vietnamese customers, Bilgram says) or Barett’s Lemongrass Wheat.
Vietnam’s brewers prefer collaboration to competition: there are still so few of them that they cheer any time a good new brewer arrives and attracts more people to craft beer. Vu notes that New Zealand, with a population of under 5 million, has nearly 300 craft brewers. Hanoi, by his measure, ought to have double that, as disposable incomes continue to rise.
While the capital is still, by all accounts, a few beer years behind Ho Chi Minh City, it stands out for its higher proportion of Vietnamese-owned breweries; Bilgram estimates that fewer than half of the city’s craft companies are foreign-run.
On a recent night at ThoMas Brewery’s small shop in Tay Ho, called Cheer 3, Wilhelm Pham, 25, manned the taps and the fridge, stocked with bottles of the company’s brews. ThoMas was founded last year by two Hanoian friends with a passion for craft brewing; Pham has worked as a salesperson and now as the Cheer 3 manager. Though Pham said few of her friends like to drink craft beer (“We’re working on it, but most ladies prefer tea to beer”), she sees that changing.
“We’re making craft beer from Vietnam, by Vietnamese people, to prove that we can brew great beer, too,” she said.
And although craft beer is an imported concept in Vietnam, Bilgram points out that it is almost everywhere in the world. The one exception might be America, credited with starting the craft beer craze, but even there the opening of a new brewpub is often greeted with sarcastic jokes about the “hipster invasion”—that is to say, craft beer is usually thought to be from somewhere else.
“It’s a country-less tradition, enabled by globalization in so many respects,” he added.
*Images in this story are credited to The Fat Pig.