Another Beer, Please!

Those fond of a glass or ten of beer will never go thirsty in Vietnam.

By DON WILLS on May 18,2017 11:05 AM

Another Beer, Please!


It’s not exactly clear who invented beer, but it’s thought that the process went something like this: Around 5,000 years ago, in a long-forgotten land, some bread or grain became wet and fermented into a pile of mush thanks to the yeast in the air. An adventurous soul tasted this inebriating mush, and found its effects rather pleasing. Hey presto, a new drink was introduced to humankind; a drink that has been eagerly quaffed with relish the world over ever since. Beer is now the world’s third most popular drink, after water and tea.

Major breweries satisfying demand include Carlsberg, Heineken, SABMiller, Anhauser-Busch, and Tsingtao. Between them they produce more than half of the world’s beer. And Vietnam, with its strong beer-drinking culture, is an enthusiastic consumer of these major beer producers’ products. Last year Vietnamese downed 3.8 billion litres of beer, a 40% increase since 2010.

There are a number of major beer producers in the country, but the best known are Hanoi Beer, Saigon Beer, and Huda Beer. Hanoi Beer was the pioneer brew and has been the market leader in the north of Vietnam since last century. The product range of the three producers varies, from traditional draught beers to modern beers served in bottles and cans. Prices for bottles and cans of Hanoi Beer range from $0.4 (VND10,000) to $0.6 (VND15,000) while a 50-litre keg of draught beer will set you back around $15.5 (VND350,000). In the central and southern regions, people prefer Huda (Hue Beer) and Saigon Beer, and both are priced similar to Hanoi Beer.

But Vietnam does not rely solely on the big-name breweries to provide it with beer.

Another Beer, Please!

Bia hơi is a popular drink around the country, especially in Hanoi. The literal translation is actually ‘gas beer’, but ‘draught beer’ is more accurate. It contains no preservatives and must be drunk on the day it is brewed. Three hundred breweries large and small are engaged in bringing the beverage to the market. There’s no point in my trying to describe where to go in Hanoi to find a bia hơi ‘bar’; they’re everywhere. Just look for a noisy, open-fronted space with plastic tables and Lilliputian chairs and you’ve found yourself one. It’s not only in Hanoi that bia hơi is drunk; it’s available in every town and city all over Vietnam. Bia hơi has a 2% to 4% alcohol content and costs from VND5,000 a glass upwards. It has a subtle hint of straw and rice, and is very easy on the palate. It’s not a beer to be sipped slowly; the accepted thing to do is knock one back and then order another, and another, and …

There are some people who consider bia hơi to be not particularly flavoursome or appealing. And the same people complain that mass-produced beer is boring, watery, and lacking in flavour. Economics is the pure and simple reason for that. It is far more cost effective for mainstream breweries to brew a beer with mass appeal and the cheapest possible ingredients. The result is a beer whose flavour is subdued; it’s only high-powered marketing that enables it to be sold in large volumes. The people who crave something different are turning to craft beers in big numbers.

So what is craft beer? It’s not a weird, fruity beer as some people may suggest. Craft beer is the product of traditional brewing techniques and quality ingredients resulting in a beer that has a unique and distinctive flavour. It’s expensive and laborious to produce, but craft brewing gives the flexibility to produce different beer styles in smaller quantities, unique to each brewery.

The first few craft beer breweries to be established were in HCMC, and Hanoi followed suit soon after and quickly overtook the southern city with its number of breweries. There are now ten in HCMC and 25 in Hanoi. There are three major chains of craft breweries: Gold Malt, Hoa Vien Brauhaus (specialising in Czech-style beer), and Legend (German-inspired beer).

Craft beer can be complex and sophisticated: it may be fruity, sweet, sour, bitter, spicy, full bodied, or effervescent. It’s all about flavour, which is the very reason it’s proving a major competitor for mass-produced beer, despite it being four times more expensive.

A number of smaller craft beer outlets are making a name for themselves. In HCMC the East West Brewing Company started out with an American-style brewery and restaurant that is proving very popular. In the middle of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Craft Beer Pub at 26 Hang Buom is doing well with its reasonably-priced range of beers. More recently, Beer Craft Artisan Ales started up in HCMC with five of their own brands of beer, ranging from pale ale to amber ale and blonde ale.

In 2015, Pasteur Street Brewing opened in HCMC’s District 1 with an ale called Cyclo Imperial Chocolate Stout. One of the most original craft beers to come onto the market, Cyclo took home a coveted gold medal in the ‘Chocolate Beer’ category at the biennial World Beer Cup. It has a 13% alcohol content, and is packaged in a 750 ml bottle and sold in a handcrafted wooden case. You can pick one up at Pasteur Street’s taproom in HCMC.

Another original, distinctive craft beer is Crystal Ale draught, a top-fermented beer made with passionfruit and rambutan. It tastes faintly of honey, matched with floral highlights and a mild bitter finish. And another that’s become popular to those in the know is Passionfruit Witbier draught, a slight twist on a Belgian classic. The witbier base itself is made from a mixture of local and imported wheat grains and a gruit, or flavouring base, consisting of coriander and orange, and imported hops. The resulting beer, served with a slice of lime, is reminiscent of the Portuguese wine vinho verde with a spicy kick of coriander. An excellent match for freshly caught seafood.

Restaurant Nhu Y is not new but unknown outside of Ninh Binh, a city a few hours south of Hanoi and famous for its beautiful landscapes. Beer is brewed at the restaurant and is styled after Czech lager. There is another brewery in Ninh Binh, Vissai Brewery, established in 2015. Vissai has two beers on tap and the brewery is virtually within arm’s reach of your table.

Whether your tipple of choice is mass-produced beer, bia hơi, or craft beer, whether you drink it with ice, a straw, or straight from the bottle, beer drinking has become an essential part of Vietnamese culture. There is no better accompaniment for food, no better way to celebrate a wedding, a birthday, or just a plain night out with friends, and no better way to get the conversation flowing and the spirits up.

So, the next round’s on me!

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