Since I came to Việt Nam, 1.5 years ago, a newer ending search for good beer and breweries has been going on.
Beer consumption here is high and everywhere you find people drinking beer.
In northern Việt Nam and Hà Nội, the streets are filled with small plastic chairs and tables where people drink bia hơi from lunch time until late evening.
Bia hơi is a light beer only with the most basic ingredients, quick and easy to produce which has around 3-4% alcohol and can also be produced easily at the restaurants.
Then some friends who used to meet every Wednesday in Hà Nội and drink beer introduced me to the microbreweries.
I was shocked the first time I went to Hoa Viên brewery in Hà Nội, one of the oldest breweries here.
Was this really true–do they brew and sell two kinds of beer, full of malt and hops in a real brewery?
From this day I felt a strong hope to find more good beer.
What is a microbrewery?
A microbrewery is a small brewery that brews with a certain style and tradition.
The brewing process is more of handicraft than of mass production.
A microbrewery must be less than 25% owned by another alcoholic beverage company and the production should be less than a million liters a year.
The use of malt and hops I also important and microbreweries use a lot more malt and hops than the big breweries that produce regular lager beer on can or bottle.
No preservatives are used and the beer is therefore more lively and fresh.
There’s a massive hype going on in Europe and North America, microbreweries is a strong and ongoing trend.
So far the term here is a proper term that I hope can be used and put focus on the art and knowledge behind the making of a tasty beer.
Breweries struggle to maintain their business
I don’t think people understand how it is here in Việt Nam when they ask for good beer, the economy is struggling and many businesses have to deal with heavy losses.
The normal price for a glass of tasty beer at one of the microbreweries here is about 35 000 – 40 000 VND ( 2 USD).
It’s not reasonable for the regular worker with a monthly income of 150 USD to consume beer with these prices.
Some breweries are really struggling to maintain their production while some already have down scaled.
There are a couple of thousands of expats living in Việt Nam and their consumption of beers is too low to justify an import unless it’s consumed by locals also.
Many expats does not know about the existence of these breweries, they are often unseen in media, on the web and some of them also lack English speaking staff which makes it difficult for foreign customers.
Legend brewery at No. 4 Vũ Ngọc Phan, Hà Nội, one of the few breweries that are known to expats in Hà Nội because of the previous German brew master.
There are about 20 microbreweries in Việt Nam whereof about 15 are placed in Hà Nội, all are either brewing Czech or German styled beer.
The explanation is that Việt Nam had strong relations with former DDR and Czechoslovakia and today the largest groups of Vietnamese diasporas is to be found in Germany and Czech republic.
As mentioned before, they are unknown for most locals and in particular for foreigners, partly because of their low profile but also because the breweries don’t know what good products they have.
All the beer are brewed and sold in same place.
Only three breweries sell their beer in another pub/restaurant, so unless you visit them there is no chance to taste the beer.
A couple of days ago I was driving around in Hà Nội on my motorbike and saw a small sign which said something in Vietnamese with the word PLZEN in it.
It looked like any regular restaurant here but I went in to see if they had any beer.
Two minutes later I was standing by the taps and was trying three different kinds of Czech beer.
Brewed and served at same place.
There are only 20 breweries I know off so far but guess after this experience that there are plenty more to be found.
Is it a seafood restaurant or a microbrewery?
Some breweries have 1-3 percent of foreign customers but some breweries below 1 % which I hope will change later on.
Some breweries produce amazing beers, black beer almost like a full bodied stout and lager beer with plenty of malt and charisma.
But without a homepage, no advertisement or defined as regular Vietnamese restaurants at Facebook, there is no chance for a foreigner to find them, in many cases, not even for a Vietnamese.
In Europe or North America they would be defined as microbreweries or brewpubs, nothing else.
Several times I have asked for the name of the brew master at the breweries which I found out is a very odd question here.
The regular answer from the staff is “you mean the guy that makes the beer, I have no idea.”
That’s why I started my beer blog and the brewery tours, to enlighten all beer enthusiasts of all the microbreweries in Việt Nam and to encourage the breweries to continue their fantastic work so we can continue to enjoy wonderful beer.
If you travel to Việt Nam, there is plenty to see but most important of all, it’s a reason to come here only for the beer.
JONATHAN GHARBI (*)
(*) Founder of the beer blog http://www.beervn.com