“… But they’ve all got the same covers, and I thought they were all o’ one sample, as you may say. But it seems one mustn’t judge by th’ outside. This is a puzzlin’ world.” – Mr. Tulliver, speaking on Daniel Defoe’s History of the Devil, in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860)
If a craft brewery were a book, Loc Truong believes that its signature IPA would be the cover—and that contrary to the classic idiom, one can judge the entire operation on the heft, or lack thereof, of that IPA.
“A lot of new breweries might not say that. They might say that since you’ve already tried a thousand IPAs, I don’t know if mine is going to be good enough to stand up to those, but I believe that ours does,” says Truong, the 33-year-old general manager of East West Brewing Co in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. “I think the IPA says a lot about the quality of the beer at the whole brewery, and whether it’s a professional craft brewery or just somebody messing around.”
Clocking 6.7% ABV and brewed with hops from Australia (Nelson Sauvin) and the United States (Centennial) that together impart bright, juicy citrus aromas, the Far East IPA smacks with restrained bitterness at first blush, then sashays with balanced gooseberry and stone fruit flavors on the long way down. Truong watches intently as I take a first sip, and interrupts when I try to give a snap reaction.
“I get so happy when I see people drink the beer, but before you say it’s nice, you have to do three sips,” he says. “Take a second and third sip, and then you can let me know.”
Acquiescent, I wait a few more sips before sharing positive feedback. Truong is right in that like most beer enthusiasts I’ve tried countless IPAs over the years, and been fortunate to do so across multiple countries and continents. While it’s difficult, and probably unfair, to compare East West’s version with its global peers, it certainly ranks highly among the IPAs poured between the promising craft breweries storming Saigon in recent years.
“At a lot of new breweries you can’t really tell if it’s a well-made IPA or not because it’s too extreme, whether in its bitterness or from some kind of fruit that takes over the beer,” Truong says. “We want to do our IPA like what it would be like for the US West Coast, which is where IPAs kind of bloomed. We didn’t want to go gimmicky or anything like that—we just wanted to make an IPA that any real IPA drinker would say is a good IPA.”
Truong’s stateside nod and inspiration is no surprise.
Though born in Vietnam, Truong grew up in San Diego, California, graduating in 2007 from University of San Diego with a bachelor’s degree in international business management and, no doubt, a minor in West Coast-style IPA appreciation. After moving back to Vietnam a year later for a real estate job, Truong pivoted to the beverage industry in 2011, eventually landing a sales and marketing gig at Anheuser-Busch InBev before striking out on his own as one of the principle East West Brewing Co founders. Following almost two years of planning, the brewery opened in January 2017 with a head brewer, American expat Sean Thommen, whose resume includes time at Amnesia Brewing in Washougal, Washington.
“We’re connecting to Vietnam with craft beer, so in the beginning we want to go with the cleanest styles of our beers,” Truong says. “Let’s say in Vietnam you connect with a grapefruit IPA. That doesn’t mean the Vietnamese will then know anything about craft beer—they’ll know about the grapefruit IPA, which is an enhanced IPA, not a real IPA.”
The Balancing Act
Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are Back in Town” noodling away in the background, I meet Truong at East West Brewing’s impressive showcase venue in the heart of Saigon’s frenetic District 1, where in the afternoon the dogged buzzsaw hum of motorbikes is as pervasive as the savory smell of hot bowls of pho slurped on sidewalks by Vietnamese squatting comfortably on low plastic stools.
Built from the ground up, 1,700 square meters of usable space somehow crammed into one of downtown’s particularly dense arteries, East West headquarters is an industrial-styled, three-storey showstopper that includes a massive open-air rooftop deck and an airy, high-ceilinged restaurant and taproom downstairs.
“We are the only brewery that’s brewing right here in Ho Chi Minh City. Our design is a little different, too, in terms of the décor, the lighting, and the open spaces,” Truong says.
On the main floor, there’s a wood-aging room to one side that can hold up to 30 barrels—the brewery is hunting whiskey, bourbon, and cognac barrels in Japan and the US for an anticipated one-year anniversary brew in 2018—but the focal point, tiered across two floors, are brewing facilities at the far end of the space that, in Truong’s words, are “staked smartly to use gravity to transfer beer, and can be seen from the taproom and restaurant.”
Commandeered by Thommen and his six-person team, the 1,500-liter brewhouse has two brite tanks, six fermentation tanks, and due to space constraints not a helluva lot of extra room for much more. At the moment the brewery pumps out more than 10,000 liters a month across 10 to 15 brew days, though Truong claims there’d already be a higher volume, just eight months since the launch date, if only there were space to accommodate it. East West Brewing distributes to 65ish outlets in Vietnam, most of them in Saigon but a handful further afield in places like Nha Trang, Da Nang, and Phan Rang.
The IPA is one of four beers in East West’s core range; the others are a pale ale (6%), hefeweizen (5.9%), and the Saigon Rosé, an accessible, feather-light 3% raspberry wheat. Following the somewhat natural taste progression of virgin craft drinkers in a nascent market, Truong says the rosé was the brewery’s top seller until it was overtaken by the hefeweizen, which itself was bested by the pale ale for a period of time before the IPA took its place atop the pecking order. They’re each packaged in 330ml bottles, while such specialties as the Modern Belgian Dark (8.1%) and Independence Stout (12%) get the 500ml treatment.
Despite its relative youth and limited space, in its first year the brewery complemented its year-round range with at least one limited release every month, including a kaffir lime saison and, later this year, a Christmas Tripel IPA. When I visit in August the brewery unveils a small batch of S. Saison, becoming the world’s first brewery to use a brand-new yeast strain, dubbed SafAle BE-134, developed by the yeast specialists at Fermentis.
Truong notes that while there’s a place for seasonals and experimentation at East West, for now it’s not a priority. “Some people are very proud that they’re putting out 40 different beers a year. I think it’s overcomplicating; not everyone is adventurous and always willing to try new things,” he says. “We want to have a structure; something we can do on a daily basis. Everything else outside of that structure—research, development, collaborations—is for fun. It’s fun to [make a lot of different beers], but I don’t think it’s very practical.”
Bottoms Up, Vietnam
More than 8 million people live in Ho Chi Minh City, home to a well-ingrained beer culture still very much on the upswing. According to a July 2017 Bloomberg Markets report, Vietnam as a whole has experienced a 300-percent uptick in beer demand since 2002, and by year’s end the country’s expected per-capita consumption of 40.6 liters will make it Southeast Asia’s heaviest imbiber. Furthermore, Euromonitor International predicts that by 2020 Vietnam will top the entire Asian chart, overtaking even the accomplished boozers of Japan and South Korea.
Setting aside the little matters of binge-drinking and liver crucifixion, that kind of prolific consumption and growth potential has, unsurprisingly, scratched the financial itch of the world’s biggest beer overlords, particularly with the government set to cash in its majority stakes in the country’s two ruling beer barons, Sabeco and Habeco. The yin and yang of Vietnamese macrobeer together commanded nearly 60 percent of the domestic market in 2016; Heineken finished in a far-off third place at 23 percent, followed by a wide chasm between Carlsberg at fourth place with 7.6 percent. With so much money at stake, all the names you’d expect—Asahi, AB InBev, Kirin, Heineken, etc.—are expected to bid on Kang and Kodos, er, Sabeco and Habeco.
Let’s backtrack, actually, because technically Carlsberg was in fifth place last year; Euromonitor International credited the nebulous “Others” with controlling 8.6 percent of the market. Though this black hole certainly includes AB InBev and other macro brands, craft breweries comprised at least some of that pie. As a whole, this means a few things:
1 – Like in most Asian countries, craft beer has not even begun to scratch the surface in Vietnam yet;
2 – Global beer companies are prioritizing and have a golden opportunity to capitalize on Vietnam’s unquenchable thirst for beer;
3 – As we’ve seen elsewhere in the world, part of said beer companies’ market strategy surely, at some point in the not-too-distant future, will be the acquisition of noted domestic craft breweries.
This sum of parts creates an interesting dynamic for this charismatic country in the coming years, with foreign tycoons and domestic fat cats and enterprising craft breweries locked in something of an industry rugby scrum, pushing and shoving and strategizing for a chance at glory. Pardon the rhetorical questions, but which beer cartel will take over Sabeco and/or Habeco, and what changes will they bring? How, if at all, will this impact the cherished bia hoi culture in places like Hanoi? Which craft brewery will be the first acquisition domino to fall, and when? Will Carlsberg ever be drinkable?
For his part, Truong is more concerned with the macro-level movements than the micro. “We work with the other craft breweries here; I’m looking at our competitors as the big beer companies,” he says. “We care more about what the Heinekens and Budweisers are doing.”
As they should, for as well as East West and other Saigon craft breweries like Heart of Darkness Brewery and Pasteur Street Brewing Co have been received, selling craft outside your bubble in Vietnam is still something of a rogue endeavor. Sure, there are more craft-friendly venues in HCMC than ever before and there’s still nowhere to go but up, but the Heinekens and AB InBevs of the world have their finger on the market’s pulse, bottomless pockets, and a polished sales force blowing dog whistles when pitching bars, restaurants, hotels, and other establishments.
“The big beer companies have 20 different styles. For example, AB InBev has Budweiser, Beck’s, Corona, Stella, Hoegaarden, Leffe, Bollinger, Franziskaner… they can go to an outlet and tell them that they don’t really need anything else because they have all the products they need,” Truong says. “So then you have me, an outlet that doesn’t know anything or necessarily care about craft beer, and here are these guys giving me $10,000 a year in cash just to only carry their products. I might take that.”
What is East West’s counter pitch?
“It’s always going to be the same—quality, different taste, and then we’re a local company you can support,” says Truong. “If they say they’ll support you, but then that there’s really no brand to our product and that they’ve known Heineken for 30 years, I tell them we’re doing our brand right downtown in Ho Chi Minh City. I say we’re getting 300 people a night and these are people that go to your outlet, as well, so they know about East West beer. Give it a try.”
On a post-lunch Wednesday afternoon there are around 25 people quietly nursing pints at East West, all of them Western expats or tourists, which Truong confirms is common at that time of day. “At night, though, it’s usually around 85 percent locals,” he says. That bodes well, for local embrace is key not just for this brewery’s success, but for all craft breweries in places like Saigon. For as Joe Finkenbinder of Shenzhen’s Bionic Brew told us, in developing markets “it ultimately has to be the locals.”
Another good sign, at least for those who believe you can judge a brewery by its cover: When I order two bottled IPAs for takeaway, the server says it’s sold out.
East West Brewing Company is located at 181 – 185 Ly Tu Trong Street, District 1, in Ho Chi Minh City. +84 91 306 0728. Open seven days a week from 11am – 12am.