After landing in Central Vietnam and traveling with a group of backpackers north to Hanoi, I figured I would just skip going back south to Ho Chi Minh City (still colloquially referred to as Saigon). But once I found the craft beer community in Hanoi and started tasting a few brews, I realized I’d be majorly missing out if I didn’t visit the country’s craft beer capital. Meeting a member of the Saigon homebrewers club at a bar sealed the deal – I made a tipsy ticket purchase that gave me just under a day and night (Saturday night, baby) to explore Saigon before my 8:00 am flight out of the country (sounds like a good idea).
While Hanoi is the epicenter of government activity, Saigon is the commercial capital of Vietnam, home to over 10 million people and a burgeoning start-up culture, including an active entrepreneurial expat scene. Case in point I was able to connect with a family friend and serial entrepreneur living in Saigon who offered to meet me for a beer and give me some much needed context on the Saigon craft beer scene.
We met at BiaCraft, the Saigon craft beer Mecca, or I should say "Meccas", because as it turns out there are now two of them. BiaCraft was started by Mark Gustafson, who seems to have become something of a local legend, at least in the beer world. Dubbed Saigon's "Prince of Pork" (did we just become best friends?) in 2014 after opening American BBQ restaurant Quán Ụt Ụt, he started by introducing small batches of homebrewed beer and Platinum Brewery beers (then the only craft brewery in Saigon) to the menu. After an overwhelmingly positive response, Mark and his partners decided they wanted to create a dedicated space to build up new craft breweries in Vietnam, including their own. With the craft beer scene still in its infancy, he decided to prove out the concept before going all in, something a lot of San Francisco entrepreneurs could learn from.
The original BiaCraft opened in 2015 in District 2, the epicenter of the expat community. Mark estimates that while Ụt Ụt clientele is 80% Vietnamese and 20% foreigners, the original BiaCraft has the inverse distribution of customers due to its location. They absolutely crushed it, and quickly expanded the number of taps and seating. With this win under their belts, the owners opened a new BiaCraft just a month ago in District 3, which seems to be a young and hip local ‘hood. Reflective of their growing confidence in the concept, this beer bar is positively massive, with 30 taps and a sizable indoor and outdoor seating area.
Walking in to the brand new BiaCraft in District 3, I immediately noticed that the crowd was predominantly Vietnamese. After having been to several breweries that clearly cater to an expat community, it was rad to see so many locals enjoying craft beer. BiaCraft has done a good job of being cool; they have the modern industrial brewpub look down, and most of their house beer names contain Vietnamese swear words or slang. Their signature pale ale Dung Choc Tao translates to "Don't f*ck with me," and is plastered playfully on the menus and walls. On a Saturday evening the place was packed. My friend put in to perspective what a feat this was – this beer is 8-10x more expensive than Bia Saigon or Tiger. What would I say to someone in SF that tried to sell me a beer for $40? Some version of "Dung Choc Tao," probably.
The quantity of local beer available was almost overwhelming. BiaCraft has 5 beers on tap, and 25 guest taps, 90% of which were Vietnamese brews from Pasteur St., Tê Tê, Heart of Darkness, Fuzzy Logic, Lac, Platinum, and Saigon Cider. While I admittedly only could sample a fraction of the beers, Pasteur St. and Heart of Darkness beers really stood out to me. I thought Pasteur St.’s “Jasmine IPA,” nailed the west coast IPA, something I hadn’t seen yet in SE Asia. The addition of jasmine also gave it a little local flare and was quite unique. I had already cheated a bit and sampled some of Pasteur St’s beer at their tasting room for lunch, and had to order another one of their award-winning toasted coconut porters for dessert. The porter is made with fresh coconut from Ben Tre, and has a huge toasted coconut flavor and aroma backed up by dry coffee bitterness and a nice mouthfeel. Heart of Darkness had a big and hoppy Colombus and Cascade IPA that I enjoyed called Kurtz Insane. If I go back to Saigon, I'll definitely pay the brewery a visit.
Our servers were quite knowledgable about all of the breweries on the menu; the session was in itself a succinct lesson on the Vietnamese beer scene. BiaCraft is clearly cultivating an all boats rise together mentality, and the beer community seems incredibly tight knit and small, even by beer people standards. In talking to my local friend it was also apparent that the beer scene was a microcosm of the larger business climate. Saigon seems to be a place that motivated people can make things happen. Local business people seem to support each other and lift each other up; everyone wants to see Saigon succeed. The expats in Saigon also seem to have an incredible quality of life, with great weather, a lively atmosphere, and affordable everything. With my MBA program on the horizon, it really got me playing out scenarios in my head. Who knows Saigon, I may be back.
The rest of the night was a bit of a blur, but here are some of the other spots I managed to visit or scout (in case you were wondering, I made my flight):
12 Hours of Beer in Saigon
1. BiaCraft (The Original)
The place to get indoctrinated to local beer in Saigon.
2. BiaCraft (The New One)
Bigger, badder version of the original.
3. Quan Ut Ut
Good (really) American BBQ and craft beer.
4. Pasteur St. Brewing
The most well know brewery of the region, and one of the only breweries that has distributed out of the region. In Hanoi I saw their beers at every craft beer bar that I visited and their beers have been consistently great everywhere. A sign of a brewery that means business is taking care of where and how your beers are served. A+ on that one guys.
5. Lac Brewing Co.
6. Heart of Darkness
7. Astrobrew (TeTe)