On Monday night, Bia Craft held its soft-opening in Thao Dien in District 2, Ho Chi Minh City bringing a flood of new beers to a city not known for its variety.
A group of about twenty young brewers, passers-by and venue owners packed into the open bar on Xuan Thuy Street that had the feel of a frontier outpost during a gold rush.
Mark Gustafson, the man behind the meat at Quán Ụt Ụt (the wildly successful American-style barbecue emporium), said the place will offer a destination for Saigon's growing population of innovative brewers.
Eventually, they plan to feature a rotating imported keg.
Address: 90 Xuan Thuy, Thao Dien, District 2, Ho Chi Minh City
Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight
(At the moment, they're opening when people walk in)
Price: Flights of 4 beers—VND150,000-180,000, depending on selections.
“Every craft beer in the country is gonna be on tap here,” said Gustafson, gesturing to a row of eight steel spouts dripping with condensation.
On Friday, the system held only six, but Gustafson planned to soon add his own double-IPA and blonde ale to the mix.
In the meantime, he showcased a powerful 7% India pale ale he called Xấu mà Chảnh (Ugly, yet Vain).
Gustafson had brewed the beer in eight different containers starting in June; each batch followed the same three-hop recipe.
“They all fermented at different times so some batches were peachier, some were funkier,” he said over the bar. Perhaps for that reason, the drink seemed to shift constantly on the tongue without ever feeling bitter.
His offering was closely rivaled by the pale ale from Fuzzy Logic—a brewing company founded in a District 3 kitchen by two long-stay expats: Max Crawford and Colin O'Keefe. For the past two years, the pair have juggled teaching jobs and developed the bright, floral ale on a series of small systems.
Max Crawford and Colin O'Keefe founded their brewery, Fuzzy Logic, two years ago in a kitchen in District 3. They're anticipating a 4,000 liter batch of their American-style pale ale, which they've previously only produced on a small scale. Photo: Calvin Godfrey
This summer, they quit their day jobs and inked a deal to brew 4,000 liters at an established brewery on the edge of the city.
Joining them on the taps was Phat Rooster, an amber ale brewed by Mike Sakkers, a former Pham Ngu Lao bar owner who slowly began building himself a small brewery last year.
The city's already thriving small brewers also had beer on tap.
The Australian-owned Platinum brewery commissioned an exclusive golden ale for sale at Bia Craft and the well-established Pasteur Street Brewing Company has hooked up a keg of their Saigon Saison — a farmhouse ale with clean, spicy finish.
The cozy bar actually represents a partnership with Zebrafish, a micro-brew importer based in Thao Dien. So beyond all the offerings on draft, Bia Craft boasts a beer fridge stocked with Swedish fruit ciders and four beers from the legendary Lost Coast Brewing Company of Northern California.
A German brewer, not present on the evening in question, had sent over bottles of his new pilsner that afternoon.
The spirit of the evening, however, seemed most captured in a series of green pop-tops emblazoned with a label featuring a cartoon pangolin—a native armadillo-like creature that closely resembles a hop with four legs.
Reuben Martinez, a graphic designer, created the label for his brother Luis, whom he'd beckoned to Ho Chi Minh City after completing the branding work for Quán Ụt Ụt.
Luis Martinez says he finished brewing his Tê Tê Belgian Wheat Beer three months ago but didn't have a clear idea of how he would sell it. Last week, Tê Tê quickly sold out at Broma, a bar in District 1. Luis and his brother Reuben say they hope to begin kegging the beer before the end of the year. Photo: Calvin Godfrey
Luis, a trained biochemistry, says he's been brewing for about seven years but struggled to find work in the industry in Spain. He had lived in Vietnam in the past and wanted to bring good beer back here.
“We didn't have any particular plan, we were just like 'let's make good beer,’” said Reuben, who admitted that they weren't sure where or how they would sell their product after they'd finished it three months ago.
They called the beer Tê Tê —
the name of the animal that graces its label and a word that describes the rush one gets just as they begin drinking.
“It's a beautiful word, no?” said Luis as he drank deeply from his own creation.
The mild, subtly buttery beer seemed a perfect antidote for Saigon's perennial summer swelter, but Luis says he's still tweaking the recipe and the details of keeping it cold in transit.
Everything during the soft opening represented a work in progress.
Instead of sausages and hot dogs, the small food cart in front held a bouquet of flowers. The sound of two men sawing a new cold room door out of scrap metal outside ground high over the chatter of the small but boisterous crowd inside.
But no one really seemed to care given the sudden explosion of good beer.
A soft opening for Bia Craft was held on Friday, August 7, 2015 in Ho Chi Minh City's Thao Dien Ward. The crowd included a local chocolate maker, a few English teachers and a number of nascent brewers. Photo: Calvin Godfrey
Gustafson and his two partners Tim Scott and Albin Deforges were operating the taps for the crowd of mostly friends. The food menu will get going this upcoming weekend.
And, as they poured, they spoke excitedly about the opening of their next location which they guessed was six to eight weeks away.
“We geared up for going big,” Scott said. “At our first restaurant we can squeeze in 140. The second will sit 350 comfortably.”
The restaurant's 40-foot bar will overlook a canal. The hundreds of customers will be fed by a smoker that looks as though it could double as a cement mixer.
Beer will flow from a dozen taps.
Where will they get a dozen different beers?
“We have the beer,” said Deforges without bit of hesitation.