HO CHI MINH CITY: A microbrewery in Vietnam once made durian beer, defying the urban myth that mixing alcohol and Southeast Asia’s king of fruit could kill you.
No one died drinking the Pasteur Street Brewing Company’s durian wheat ale, but it was not a hit with customers.
“I was bartending here at the time and people would ask: ‘Oh you have that durian beer?’” The company’s Canadian marketing manager Mischa Smith said with a chuckle. “I’d give them a little sip, they’ll taste it and say, "OK, do you have anything else?’”
Durian ale is no longer on the menu at Pasteur Street’s tiny 30-seat bar in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, replaced instead by flavours like jasmine, passion fruit, chocolate and even bacon.
It is one of a growing number of craft breweries that have bubbled up in Vietnam’s first-tier cities in the last two years, and behind them is an eclectic mix of expatriates who are betting on the taste and variety of their brews to stand out in a market ruled by domestic and international giants such as Saigon Beer and Heineken.
Vietnam drank 3.6 billion litres of beer in 2015, ranking fifth in Asia and keeping its title of Southeast Asia’s biggest beer guzzler. Thanks to a strong beer culture and a young population of 93 million, beer manufacturers see Vietnam as the next turning point for growth in the region, according to Euromonitor International.
A selection of craft beers at a Vietnamese microbrewery Pasteur Street Brewing Company.
Data shows beer consumption grew 6 per cent in 2015, of which imported beers being the most dynamic at 16 per cent in total volume terms. Consumers are reaching out for imported beers from Western countries, which are seen as the healthier, better tasting and a classier drink for high-income Vietnamese.
This segment of the market is what craft brewers want to tap. But competition is stiff - Vietnam's craft beer start-ups are up against the multimillion dollar marketing campaigns, extensive distribution networks and established brand names of the big boys.
Mark Comerton, head of Hoperations at Platinum Beverages.
Craft beer can sometimes be “too different” for the emerging Vietnamese market, which needs time and convincing, said Mark Comerton of Platinum Beverages.
“We tried to release a golden ale that was unfiltered, that meant it was a little bit cloudy,” the Irishman told Channel NewsAsia.
The look did not go down well with Vietnamese consumers used to the clarity of lagers. Distributors started returning the kegs saying “There has to be something wrong with this,” Comerton said. “But we held strong, tried to do more education and explaining, ‘No, this is how it’s supposed to be made.’”
Prices of a selection of craft beers at Pasteur Street Brewing Company in Ho Chi Minh City.
More significant perhaps is the price point. In a country where the cheapest beer can be found on the streets for as little as US$0.40, can craft beer with its premium price tag of US$2 and up really flow for the Vietnamese?
“You’re paying for what you get,” said Brian Vo, a university student and craft beer regular who belongs to the country’s well-travelled urban middle class.
Ask anyone on the street, however, and chances are most have never heard of craft beer, except for bia hoi, the watery 40-cent draught brewed by small independent brewers and found easily in small bars, restaurants and street stands especially in northern Vietnam.
Bia hoi: Cheap, refreshing and made fresh daily.
LONG ROAD TO PREMIUMISATION
Impending industry agitations spell fierce competition in Vietnam’s beer market. The government is moving to sell off significant stakes in state-owned beer giants Sabeco and Habeco, the brewers of Saigon Beer and Hanoi Beer, drawing interest from foreign rivals like Heineken, Anheuser-Busch InBev and Asahi.
Craft brewers are unfazed, buoyed by overall market growth and their confidence in Vietnam’s long road to “premiumisation”, an industry term for consumers’ willingness to fork out more for expensive alcohol.
“If big foreign beer companies were to bring in their own craft beers, it would help educate a market where craft beer is still in its infancy,” said Marc Djandji, a Pasteur Street shareholder and head of institutional sales at RongViet Securities.
The weeknight crowd at the Pasteur Street bar says it all. In a full house of expatriates and tourists, 34-year-old Vietnamese architect Binh stands out as a visible minority.
"The mainstream beers are all the same, so I come here for a different taste,” he said.