A year ago the craft beer scene was young, it was vibrant, and it was giving artisanal brewing in neighbouring countries a kicking. Just three years after the first craft brewers launched their first commercial beers, there were upwards of 20 brands powering up Saigon’s segment.
“Craft brewing is still a long way from maturity. As is the case in most other places, quality and consistency tend to be an issue, especially as the scene was born largely from hobbyists,” we wrote at the time.
It’s incredible what difference a year makes—even if just 365 days is equivalent to 25% of the time Saigon’s craft scene has been active.
From one beer to nationwide distribution
Returning this year, and loping through the streets of District 1, which is populated mostly by well-heeled Vietnamese and foreign tourists, it is impossible to miss craft beer’s impact on bars and restaurants.
Just about every upscale F&B outlet now displays signage trumpeting the range of brews found inside. Sometimes whole facades are lost to massive awnings persuading craft fans to come in. It has become inconceivable that any bar would not sell at least one artisanal label.
When we spoke last year to Tê Tê, one of the first wave of craft brewers who started to emerge in 2015, it produced just one beer. But so far this year, the brand has acquired a tap room and sells five of its own beers beers. Its story provides a good illustration of how the craft segment has been progressing.
“It has been a bit of a challenge for us to open our own space because it just took us too long to do it. By the time we could do it, we had to keep up with what the brand had grown into,” said Ruben Martinez, one of Tê Tê’s five co-founders who left their 9-5 jobs to bring a beer to market.
“We are now nationwide and respected and known everywhere, so we couldn’t open up a little shack. We needed a proper place.”
'This has become a real business'
The Tê Tê Taphouse is young, hip and elegant, like the mainly Vietnamese, mainly female fans of its beers. In addition to the brewer’s own ales, it offers space to two newer, smaller breweries on rotation, in a nod to the spirit of collaboration that has done so much to give the craft scene its foundations.
But this co-operation between beer makers is also something that has been dwindling since last year.
On our last visit, Saigon’s burgeoning craft brewers would proudly volunteer stories of how they scratched each other’s backs through distribution, giving support or offering a tap in a bar. But with the success of the segment has come hotter competition.
“We were doing this for fun and always helping each other, but now that’s changed,” said Martinez.
“This has become a real business and we are being forced to compete now. My friends are also my competitors. We still do things together, but at the more highly funded breweries you see a lot more secrecy.”
Commercial development and expansion
Though it was not in Saigon’s first craft beer wave, when the likes of Tê Tê, Fuzzy Logic, Rooster and Pasteur Street Brewing Company emerged from home brew and started to distribute, Heart of Darkness Brewery has overtaken a number of these to become a major player in the scene.
Launching in 2016 with a taproom in central Saigon, it now has another in the city and an outlet in Singapore with 30 taps. In the last three years it has produced hundreds of varieties of beer, as well as a long list of enduring staples.
“As businesses grow, owners start to get a bit distracted with other stuff, and I don’t get to see the other brewery owners very much anymore,” said John Pemberton, Heart of Darkness’s chief executive.
“They are all the same, nose to the grindstone. Before we would be doing beer festivals and it was the owners who were setting up the kegs and booths, behind the scenes we would be swapping beer and laughing and joking around together, but now no.”
The race is on now for Saigon’s brewers, as they go through a period of commercial development and expansion, to grow their markets beyond the central areas of Saigon.
“We started off wanting a beer playground where we could get people to feel the brand, see the brand and get in touch with the brand at the bar,” said Pemberton.
“We now intend to roll out bars across the region, that’s why we opened Singapore, as an anchor point for distribution in that area. We are primarily a brewery and distribution company.”
From Saigon to Hanoi
For Tê Tê, however, the future lies closer to home as it sets out to break into the Hanoi Market, 1,700km to the north, and all places in between.
Vietnam’s capital has its own craft scene that is very different to Saigon’s. Indeed, most things are different in a city that is known for its bureaucracy and laid-back spirit. To make an impression there, the brewer will need a team in the city that understands the market, Martinez says.
However, the big prize for a brand with 60-70% of its sales given over to Vietnamese beer drinkers, is to have its beers sold in towns and cities that most foreigners would never have heard of, and it’s a testament to the country’s craft scene that it is gaining popularity in these places.
“I would like to see more penetration in the industrial towns and factory neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Saigon. These are not very glamorous, but it has been shown there is a strong interest in craft beers in these places. Craft beer really is no longer just for the expats now,” Martinez added.