by Jonathan Gharbi *
|Parched for prospects: The Gammer brewery in Ha Noi. — VNS Photo Jonathan Gharbi
Since I came to Viet Nam, some 18 months ago, I have been on a never-ending search for good beer and quality breweries. After almost a year I realised that there is no imported ale, ipa or stout, etc... to be found in Viet Nam despite there being millions of beer-loving inhabitants. Beer consumption here is high and you find people drinking beer everywhere. In northern Viet Nam and Ha Noi, the streets are filled with small plastic chairs and tables where people drink bia hoi from lunch time until late evening. Bia hoi is a light beer made with basic ingredients - quick and easy to produce with around 3-4 per cent alcohol and easy to pour at the restaurants.
Then some friends who used to meet every Wednesday in Ha Noi and drink beer introduced me to the microbreweries. I was gobsmacked the first time I went to Hoa Vien brewery in Ha Noi, one of the oldest breweries in the city. I remember thinking, ‘is this really true? Do they actually brew and sell two kinds of beer, full of malt and hops in a real brewery?'
I don't think many people understand how it is here in Viet Nam, the economy is struggling and many businesses are going bankrupt. The normal price for a glass of tasty beer at one of the microbreweries is about VND35,000–40,000 (US$2), so it's simply not feasible for a regular worker with monthly income of just $150 to consume craft beer at these prices.
|Bottoms up!: If you travel to Viet Nam, there is plenty to see, but most importantly, there is plenty of great beer. — VNS Photo Doan Tung
Some breweries are really struggling to maintain production while others have already downscaled. There are a couple of thousand expats living in Viet Nam and their consumption of beer is too low to justify importing unless it's also consumed by locals. Many expats are unaware of the existence of these breweries as they are rarely mentioned in the media and on the web, while some of them also lack English speaking staff, making it difficult for foreign customers to visit.
There are about 20 microbreweries in Viet Nam with 15 of these in Ha Noi. All either brew Czech- or German-styled beer.
As mentioned before, the microbreweries lie mostly undiscovered by expats and locals, partly because of their low profile but also because the breweries don't realise how good their products are. All the beer is brewed and sold in same place - only three breweries sell their beer to other pubs/restaurants, so unless you visit them there is no chance to taste their fantastic brews.
A couple of days ago I was driving around in Ha Noi on my motorbike and saw a small, illegible Vietnamese sign with the word PLZEN in it. It looked like any regular restaurant, but I went in to see if they had any beer. Two minutes later I was standing by the taps sampling three different kinds of Czech beer, all brewed on site. There are only 20 breweries that I am so far aware of, but after this experience I guess there are plenty more to be found.
Some breweries' clientele comprise of between 1-3 per cent foreigners but others have below 1 per cent and I hope this will change. Some breweries produce amazing beers - black beer almost like a full-bodied stout and lager with plenty of malt and charisma.
But without a homepage, advertisements or Facebook pages, there is no chance of foreigners finding them. In many cases, this is also true for Vietnamese drinkers. In Europe or North America, these establishments would be defined as microbreweries or brewpubs and would likely be well-respected.
Several times here I have asked for the name of the brew master at the breweries and have found that it's seen as a very odd question. The usual response from staff is: "You mean the guy who makes the beer? I have no idea."
That's why I started my beer blog and brewery tours, to enlighten all beer enthusiasts about the microbreweries in Viet Nam and encourage the breweries to continue their fantastic work so we can continue to enjoy wonderful beer.
If you travel to Viet Nam, there is plenty to see here, but most importantly, there is plenty of great beer. — VNS
*Jonathan Gharbi is the founder of the beer blog www.beervn.com