In the last couple of years there has been a veritable explosion in the growth of craft beer in Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh City is well ahead of the game. What was once the preserve of German and Czech beer-houses is now firmly in the hands of micro-breweries and homebrewers, supplying bars across the city. The beers are as varied as they are numerous and the real winners are the people who like their beer fresh, flavoursome and chemical free. Nobody can lay claim to driving this trend forward here more than those nice people at Pasteur Street Brewery. I caught up with the main men behind this brewing revolution over a glass or two in their District 1 tasting room.
John Reid has a background in the hospitality business, having worked in restaurants and a German beer-house and deli in the U.S. He began washing dishes at 15 in a bar that sold imported beers. It was here that his taste for the good stuff developed. He moved on to study at a school for hospitality management in Orlando, Florida. He came to Saigon nine years ago and went straight into the food and beverage industry. John wanted to do something different. His model was not to create a beer for Vietnam, but to create a Vietnamese beer for the world. Noticing the boom of craft beer brewing in India, China, Japan and Thailand, John went back to the U.S. to look for a brewer.
He got talking to a woman working behind the bar at the Upslope Brewing Company in Boulder, Colorado. He asked her if she would know anyone interested in returning with him to start brewing craft beer in Vietnam. She introduced him to the brewer there, Alex Violette, to see if he knew anyone. They chatted, and the very next day Alex called him to say that he wanted to come out and try to set up the brewery. It so happened that the talented bartender was his girlfriend Bethany Lovato, and they both arrived in Vietnam shortly after. The dream was happening!
The next step was getting financial backing for this adventure. A group of friends and business minded people were both keen and smart enough to see the potential. They bought a small computerised micro brewing kit sufficient enough to make batches of 1,000 litres, and for the next three months, from August to November 2014, they built the brewery at Kizuna, an industrial park in Long An Province. At Thanksgiving they had their first brew. Realising that they needed an outlet of their own they opened the tasting room on Pasteur in January 2015.
John and Mischa (foreground) in Tap Craft Beer Bar in Singapore, together with Johnny Christensen its owner.
Mischa Smith was the third-ever customer to walk through the doors. He had seen the Facebook page advertising the opening, and being a huge fan of real beer he made a beeline. Bethany still jokes that he stayed so long in the bar in those early days that once he went through three takeaway meals before leaving. Within four weeks, this affable young Canadian was working behind the bar. The bar was selling out of beer as fast as they could brew it.
The early days were fraught with trials and frustrations. Permits, visas and regulations are strict in Vietnam, though John sees that as a positive - it keeps standards high. John sees the attitude of local people in the same light: “the fact that this is a Vietnamese beer company is keenly appreciated by the locals, local staff and managers of other bars.”
I wondered if there were any unique problems to brewing craft beer in Vietnam. John says that, “the styles are more varied. For example, we use fresh fruit whereas in the West they would often use extracts. Our “Saison” utilises world class Phu Quoc pepper and lemongrass. Malt and hops are all imported. The most complicated part has been creating distribution and quality control, especially for long haul journeys. Mischa is now more involved in managing nationwide. The refrigerated trucks were a problem, but now they can control temperature inside the trucks in real-time on the internet.”
Now, mainly thanks to Mischa’s efforts, Hanoi has 11 very good outlets and a refrigerated storage depot. In addition Pasteur Street Brewery now has good systems for track maintenance, staff training and quality control.
I asked John if they had any plans to open more tasting rooms. “The tap room is a new drinking experience. We want people to come and enjoy the products and relax. It’s not about a bunch of guys getting as much drink down their throats as possible. It’s a more sophisticated experience now. People drink slower, enjoy the experience and the conversation. We see every place where we sell beer as a location to place a tap room. So eventually we’d have tasting rooms in each city, explaining what we do and how we do it. It’s brand recognition and also identification.”
Pasteur Street Brewery now has 50 different beers. The brewers meet for group brainstorming sessions because the characteristics of the core products are imperative. They look at the ingredients and decide what they think will work with the exotic fruits and ingredients that they use. The owners bring ingredients and the tap room has the job to sell it to the customers. Of the 50 beers every one has found its own audience. The most popular beers stay on the menu permanently, the others are rotated to provide more choice for the customers.
Alex Violette has moved into a more managerial role as Brewmaster, responsible for many of the great new beers. He has since recruited Dave Byrn formerly of Cigar City in Tampa, Florida, who has taken over as Head Brewer. They have been joined by Ryan Lemish who again is an enthusiast who started as a volunteer and is now employed as Assistant Brewer. It is noticeable that this is a company that first and foremost employs genuine enthusiastic experts rather than business people.
They start with a pilot brew of just 50 litres, using the small brewing kit. This is used for the funky flavours like the brand new Buddha Hand Beer, soon to make its debut. For less risky brews like porters they make 1,000 litres using a brewery that was purchased and transported en masse from Hanoi. If it then gets to full production, then they brew 9,000 litres. The tricky part is scaling 1,000 to 9,000 and coping with the distribution, because of the financial risk. Lab reports have to be undertaken on the yeast qualities. Then of course they have to manage consistency.
I asked about the water. In Manchester my local favourite brewery Boddington’s originally had its own underground stream, so I knew the importance. John explains, “we start with tap water and take it right back to pure H2O. It’s filtered tap water, to which we then use reverse osmosis, add the salts and other compounds to mimic waters from other countries. This is a tried and tested system that is used all over the world, where natural spring water simply isn’t an option.”
So where does Pasteur Street Brewery go from here? Well it looks like the only way is up for this innovative local company. The Asian Beer Medal awards at the start of March welcomed breweries from all around Asia. There were 150 entries in 12 categories and Pasteur Street Brewery won three golds medals and one silver (second to their own gold-medal beer in one of the same categories). Pasteur Street won more gold medals than any other company. This immediately sparked interest from Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong. Some Singapore bars took it in straight away. Malaysia will be next as a bar company is simply waiting for the product to start arriving.
I have to say, this was one of the more enjoyable interviews that this writer has had to do in the three years that I have lived in Ho Chi Minh City. Pasteur Street Brewery is one of my favourite businesses in the city and it’s a great story. However for now, I need to do more research. Pass me that Pumpkin Spice Ale and I’ll carry on!