“What do you do when you don’t win another World Beer Cup award?”
Carl Setzer, co-founder of celebrated Beijing craft brewery Great Leap Brewing, bellowed the question from the back of the room following a somewhat cringey presentation by Pasteur Street Brewing Company’s independent marketing guy at SEA Brew, a well-attended and otherwise exceptional two-day conference for and by the Southeast Asian brewing industry that was held in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Between hair flips and side jokes that had the small Pasteur Street contingent in stitches, the marketing guy spent around 45 minutes touting the brewery’s website design, its branding, its press coverage (some of it from this writer), and its awards. According to the conference program the presentation was meant to explore the future of beer marketing in Southeast Asia, though this was more a victory lap for both the brewery and the marketing agency’s handling of it than anything else.
Qualifying a question that could be perceived as a pointed barb, Setzer explained that he wasn’t trying to start an argument… and then following a brief argument with the defensive marketing guy he further reiterated that he supported the brewery. The point, Setzer clarified, was that after the press dwindles and the awards stop coming—a reality he has experienced at his own brewery, which is doing quite well—it ultimately comes down to what’s in the glass, and he didn’t see anything in the presentation about the actual beer.
“It comes down to what’s in the glass.”
That statement stuck with me the rest of the day as I mingled (read: got ripped) with the conference contingent at some of Saigon’s much-ballyhooed craft beer hotspots, including the showcase venues for East West Brewing Co, Heart of Darkness Craft Brewery, Winking Seal Beer Co, and Pasteur Street. It’s been a week since the conference’s conclusion, and that statement still sticks as I look back on my three-day reassimilation to Saigon, a city I’d explored a few times previously but not for at least seven years until this beer-centric return.
Craft beer may be “booming” here—by the way, can we start talking about craft beer in nascent markets without using the word ‘booming,’ please?—but it’s still very much a new thing and certainly a work in progress. Consider that Platinum Premium Beers and Pasteur Street, both of which debuted just three years ago, are essentially the godfathers of modern-day craft brewing in Saigon. Today there are around a dozen proper craft breweries and a fairly significant number of bars and restaurants specializing in or at least serving craft, some of them even contracting or brewing their own small-batch house beers.
This is a good thing and I support the movement. I want to see it grow and succeed and, most of all, improve. I think it will. I met some good people working in Saigon’s brewing industry; smart, capable people who know good beer and that, at the end of the day, know that it comes down to what’s in the glass. Locals have to love having so much local craft beer at their disposal all of a sudden, and speaking as a visitor—yeah man. Nothing not to like about showing up and having so many brewery taprooms and beer bars to visit, many of them within walking distance of one another in District 1.
Nothing, that is, except for the beer. Generally speaking what’s in the glass in Saigon just isn’t there yet. There’s too much hype, too fast, and from what I’ve seen (and tasted), it’s time to pump the brakes, not that anybody is listening.
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Pasteur Street is the first Vietnamese craft brewery to export, already doing so to neighboring countries in Southeast Asia. It is now expanding its existing relationship with US craft importer Shelton Brothers, which distributes PSBC’s excellent Cyclo Imperial Chocolate Stout in California, to also ship its Passionfruit Wheat to at least four states to start. Bangkok-based importers Beervana recently announced that they’ll soon begin importing Heart of Darkness—beer for beer the best brewery in Saigon at the moment—and splashy newcomer East West Brewing Co. is surely eyeing the export market, too. I know that at least one fledgling brewpub in Hanoi is putting out export feelers.
I had some great beer in Saigon: EW’s signature Far East IPA, HoD’s Primeval Forest Pilsner and Eloquent Phantom Imperial Stout, Platinum’s Golden Ale, PSBC’s Cyclo, the latter a beer that in December 2016 I included in a roundup for CNN Travel’s “Culinary Journeys” series. Yet there was a fairly shocking amount of beer that I just wanted to dump out, too, and I heard similar sentiments expressed in passing throughout the trip. “What do I have to do to get a decent beer in this city?” one brewery owner asked under his breath towards the end of the trip. He was exaggerating, but only a little.
There’s bad craft beer everywhere, of course. On this occasion, all the hype and all the quickening export ambitions trained something of a microscope on Saigon’s scene among the many beer enthusiasts and industry folks in town for SEA Brew, and I’m not sure that overall it passed the test this time.
Nothing personal and I’m sure people disagree. This isn’t meant to bash the scene or any brewery in particular; all of them have redeeming qualities, or in this case redeeming beers.
I doubt that an average everyday traveler to Saigon looking for local craft beer will care much about the quality because these are some fun venues, particularly if you don’t mind Western expat/traveler crowds. It is indeed a treat to drink local craft beer in cities like this one, and again there’s good beer to be had if you know where to look (and what to order).
Breweries (and wineries and distilleries, for that matter) always enjoy home-field advantage; that is, the beers and wines tend to taste best when you’re sipping them at the source. If that’s the case in Saigon at the moment, however, I question how, say, a can of Passionfruit Wheat is going to taste, out of context halfway across the world in Tennessee, when it’s just okay freshly canned in Saigon.
Pasteur Street and its marketing guy, in fact, brought those cans along with them to disperse at the 11:15am presentation. It was the brewery’s first batch, and I believe somebody said that its Jasmine IPA would next receive the canning (and export) treatment.
So what happens, anyway, when Pasteur Street doesn’t win another World Beer Cup award?
“When we don’t win another award then we’ll talk about our ingredients, how we traveled throughout Vietnam meeting farmers to find all these local ingredients we use,” to paraphrase the marketing guy.
A cordial but spirited back-and-forth ensued between Setzer and the PSBC crew. After about 10 or 15 minutes a moderator asked them to wrap it up so that the next speaker, a Saigon-based logistics expert with more than 30 years of experience importing and exporting, could take the floor.
“I don’t care about logistics,” Setzer said, prompting hearty laughter from PSBC and some conference attendees. Ten minutes later the logistics expert, present throughout the discussion, took the podium.