When Toon called with bad news I was huddled with soggy tourists under a leaky awning near Khaosan Road, watching torrential rain bubble and churn the street into a trash-filled river of scummy brown soup. I was only in Bangkok for the weekend, so my heart sank when he said that flooding might derail our plans to meet later that evening at The Fellowship of Beer by Sandport in Nonthaburi. Postponement wasn’t possible; the situation looked grim.
I hung up and stood there in the rain, despondent, when something strange happened: a rat, marooned on a small lump-sized island floating among the river’s bits of trash and shit, made eye contact with me. He looked relaxed, reclining and casually chewing on something like a fat tourist sipping a cheap beer on a Phuket beach. When he saw me I swear he stopped chewing, sat upright, and stared me down as he drifted by. There was something in his eyes that spoke to my subconscious; it was an omen.
Suddenly, I knew I was going to make it to The Fellowship of Beer, and that I’d get there by boat.
You Only Live Once
As I leg it to the nearest ferry pier, scurrying from hawker’s umbrella to shop awning to vacant doorway, I stop to look in a shopfront window and see a crowd of funky brown beer bottles tinged electric blue by a neon sign beaming the words “You Only Live Once.” I’d heard this phrase before—YOLO—usually yelped by some pimply teen on Youtube right before he did something stupid, but fortunately this YOLO is anything but trivial.
You Only Live Once is one of Bangkok’s newest craft beer bars; despite the urgency of my mission I have to check it out.
In recent years Thailand homebrewers have gained notoriety for flouting an old law banning small-scale alcohol brewing. Ironically, the publicity surrounding the Thai government’s infrequent homebrewing busts, and the relatively small fines levied against those caught illegally brewing and selling the stuff, have only reinforced the scene’s “us against them” ethos. At YOLO I meet Tun, the owner, and as we talk I’m thrilled to learn that he supports and stocks some of these illegal Thai craft beers about which I’ve heard so much.
Tun opened the bar about four months before I stumbled in. After signing the lease he ditched a steady job in logistics where, he confides, he had been working for 10 years “like a dickhead.” When I hear that, the bar’s name suddenly makes perfect sense, and as he enthusiastically runs me through his beer list it’s clear that he’s now doing something he finds far more enjoyable.
Bottled and draft beers here run about 200 baht (around US$6). Tun doesn’t sell beer flights because he doesn’t want anybody to be unhappy with their choice, even if it’s just in a small glass, so he offers a number of free samples before I settle on a mocha stout from a home brewery by the name of Nectar.
There’s a nice vibe here. The bar is clean and bright, still retaining most of the layout and décor from the shop’s previous life as an Italian restaurant, right down to the artworks that hang on the walls depicting Italian vistas. Across the road, majestic Phra Sumen Fort sits in full view through YOLO’s big glass frontage.
It’s a great spot, and as the rain abates I consider lingering longer—but I have a boat to catch.
A Treehouse for Big Kids
I take a ferry a long way north on the swollen Chao Praya River—a very long way north. The Fellowship of Beer is in Nonthaburi, not technically Bangkok at all but a province in its own right. I kick back and enjoy the ride, sipping a roadie from YOLO, content to watch the light fade and feel the boat chug away from the chaos of central Bangkok.
At the pier I hop on the back of a motorbike taxi and cruise into tight traffic that thins considerably by the time The Fellowship is in sight. Out here it is dark and quiet and sleepy; it feels well and truly like the ‘burbs, and I fear that after all this effort my journey could well be ending in a fizzle. I’m wrong.
When I arrive Toon is already standing on the bar’s second-floor balcony, waving, inviting me into what is essentially the Sandport clubhouse. Inside it feels like a cross between a cozy forest cabin and a treehouse, with a patchwork of dark wooden palings along the walls looking like the work of a bunch of enthusiastic preschool carpenters. However, you’re unlikely to find Charlie Brown up here having a milkshake with Peggy Jean.
This place is definitely a treehouse for big kids, with grungy music videos playing continuously on the big screen, a free pool table, bar snacks, and, of course, plenty of beer. Sandport brews—the Wheat Off the Wall witbier and Bang Bang IPA—flow from two of the bar’s six taps, the other four of which pour handpicked imports. Toon says that eventually Sandport beers will take up all six taps and demand more room in a mighty fridge stocked tight with bottled craft brews.
Toon and his right-hand man, Krispakorn, share the Sandport story out on the balcony while we get toasty with the help of a few beers. I get some sneaky samples of Sandport’s promising new experimental beers, too, including a chocolate orange stout and a fruity ale brewed with the zest of Thai kaffir lime.
Sandport, they say, are one of Thailand’s first illegal homebrewing operations to go legit, although it hasn’t been easy and the situation is less than ideal. Currently no one is able to register a new brewery in Thailand while the government finishes drafting and implementing new legislation that will require a minimum yearly production of 10 million litres and a startup capital of at least 100 million baht.
These restrictions will essentially make it impossible for even the largest of breweries to set up shop in Thailand. Come September, the fines for both homebrewing and selling homebrew will rise twentyfold, too, a fact which threatens to really slow the momentum of Thai-made craft beer.
I ask the Sandport boys why on earth the Thai government is so bent on making life difficult for small breweries. Wouldn’t small, locally owned-and-run businesses be good for Thailand? According to Toon and Krispakorn, the general consensus is that the government is simply not equipped to regulate small-scale legal brewing, in part because it’s such a new industry and, as a result, possibly misunderstood. To that end, there is likely a false association between locally brewed beer and the production and sale of counterfeit alcohol, a long-standing problem in Thailand that government authorities have battled for years.
To skirt this roadblock, Sandport brews its beers under contract at Redpoint Brewing Co. in Taipei, Taiwan, then imports them back into Thailand, much like how Brewlander & Co. brews in Cambodia and sends the finished products home to Singapore. This arrangement means a lot of traveling between Taiwan and Thailand for Toon, Krispakorn, and Sandport’s brewmaster, Joe, but it seems the commitment is paying off. Sandport’s Bang Bang IPA, for instance, recently scored a bronze medal at the 2017 Australian International Beer Awards. The crew say they are distributing more and more outside of Thailand, as well.
Toon and Krispakorn are realistic that any positive change to their legal situation will be slow. They are full of optimism, however, and have high hopes that one day they’ll bring their brewing operations back to this area of Nonthaburi known as Tha Sai, which literally means ‘Sand Port.’ As we talk, I begin to understand that this area and community means everything to their operation; it is, after all, the place where all eleven members of the Sandport Fellowship met one another and call home.
The strong sense of community here becomes more and more apparent as the night rolls on and steady streams of people—many of them in the Sandport Fellowship—come and go, popping in to shoot the shit, whack a song on the stereo, drink, eat, play pool. The unpretentious, relaxed enthusiasm that permeates the place is infectious; it’s the type of bar you can’t believe you found and never want to leave. I almost don’t, staying well past the official closing time, drinking my fill of good Sandport brew and playing endless games of pool to a cracking soundtrack of ‘90s grunge and metal.
At the end of the night there are rounds of drunken hugs and high fives before I finally slump into the back of an Uber and make my way back to Sukhumvit. I feel warm and fuzzy, and I know it’s not all from the beer. I’m stoked that I made it to Sandport headquarters despite the elements—and I chuckle to myself when I think back to how a shipwrecked rat is what kept me from giving up my quest to get there.
I’ve always believed a beer tastes better when drunk with friends; I think a beer just may taste better when it’s made by friends, too.
The Fellowship of Beer by Sandport is located at 345/22 Soi Ngam Wong Wan, 47 Yaek 42, Khwaeng Thung Song Hong, Khet Lak Si, Nonthaburi. Open 11am – 1am daily.
YOLO Craft Beer Bar is located at 140 Phra Atit Rd. +66 82 456 4499. Open Wednesday – Monday 5pm – 11:59pm . Closed Tuesday.
Lead and wolf statue photo provided courtesy of Sandport Beer. All other photos taken by author and cannot be reused, reprinted, or otherwise shamelessly stolen.