You’re thirsty and you want to go out with your friends tonight. Do you want to drink a beer? Or do you want to drink a craft beer?
Some might consider craft beers to be slightly pretentious, the high-nosed brother of its Saigon Red and 333 counterparts but twice as expensive for a lot more head and not much else. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
The modern craft beer movement, hailing from Western countries and, in particular, the United States in cities like Denver, Colorado and Portland, Oregon, emphasizes a few things above all: beer brewed in small batches, with quality ingredients and just done well.
After spending nine years in Portland, I couldn’t help but get drawn into the scene, where some pretty incredible things were being done to the wholesome hoppy brew. When I moved to Vietnam, I thought one of the many life changes would be to get used to a watery Tiger at the end of the workday.
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Imagine my delighted surprise when I found out that craft beer is on the up-and-up in Saigon. What do I value in a good craft beer?
1) It’s suitable for the weather of HCMC. It’s hot outside. Who wants to drink a thick, creamy stout better suited for a cold winter’s night elsewhere? I like a beer that knows where it’s being served.
2) It’s unique. For me, the fun of craft beers is that they’re doing something different. We’re in Vietnam, so why not make use of the abundance of ingredients this fine country has to offer?
3) It delivers on what if offers. If a beer is labeled as a “cream ale” and it tastes more of old tires, that beer has definitely not done its job.
After a thorough search across Saigon’s thriving craft breweries, here are my personal favourites.
Pasteur Street Brewery’s Passion Fruit Wheat Ale (4.8% ABV)
I’ll just get this one out of the way because (spoiler alert) it’s my favourite craft beer in the city. Pasteur Street Brewery is probably the most well-respected beer establishment in HCMC at the moment, and with good reason. The epitome of their process can be found in the Passion Fruit Wheat Ale.
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They use real passion fruit in this nectar of the gods to make it tart, but not too tart. Here you’ll find a glass filled with beer the colour of wheat, with a smooth texture and just the right carbonation to complement the passion fruit… This is a beer one would be lucky to imbue in any country in the world.
Where you can get it: Besides Pasteur Street’s tap room (144 Pasteur, D1), you’ll be happy to know that these beers can be found on tap in over 80 outlets in Vietnam, Hong Kong and Malaysia. Here’s a tip: go to their website; they have a very handy “beer finder” map that lets you know exactly where you can wet your whistle.
FURBREW’s Bia Phở (4.6% ABV)
Notice this article isn’t named, “The Best Craft Beers in HCMC”. It had to be expanded to accommodate this magical beer, made by the fine people at FURBREW in Hanoi. Apparently, this beer was made as a challenge: make a beer that tastes like phở. They accepted that challenge and I, for one, am certainly glad they did.
Image source: facebook.com/furbrew
They describe this treat as having an umami taste, but I didn’t get much of that when I tried it. There’s a good amount of sweetness provided by the cinnamon, star anise, cardamon and coriander seeds imbued. Apparently there’s also a note of chilli, though I didn’t get much of this, either. Instead, I was treated to a spice-heavy, intoxicating drink with enough hoppy kick to remind me it’s a beer. I couldn’t drink this all night, but one glass was terrific.
Where you can get it: If you don’t happen to be in Hanoi (and if you are, their tap room is on 8b/52 To Ngoc Van in Tay Ho), this can be tricky. I spoke to one of the brewers at a recent festival, and he seemed a little evasive about telling me where it can be found in HCMC, simply because the locations keep changing. You might get lucky and get a pint at Bia Craft, but other than that, keep these guys in mind the next time you’re up north.
Winking Seal Beer Co.’s Nâm Nâm Nâm Cream Ale (4.5% ABV)
Although this beer doesn’t have any specialised Vietnamese ingredients involved, I’m making an exception for this guy. Why? Because it’s the perfect beer for this balmy Saigon weather. Its description indicates that it has fruity notes, but these didn’t come through for me. It isn’t particularly ‘creamy’, either. Just obscenely light and refreshing.
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When I professed my love for this beer to the bartender at Winking Seal, he said, “It’s not the best we have, actually.” So, I’ll definitely be back to find this out for myself.
Where you can get it: Two places in Saigon have got you covered. First of all, the Winking Seal taproom (50 Dang Thi Nhu, D1), unsurprisingly. Plus, Bia Craft usually has Winking Seal on tap, and if they’re smart they’ll keep the cream ale around for a long time.
Saigon Cider’s Hot Chili Cider (6.5% ABV)
Yep, I know this article is all about craft beers, but leaving this gem off a list celebrating craft beverages in Saigon would just be a crime. The main reason I love this chili cider so much is because it’s so controversial — some people (like myself) adore it, and some people can’t stand drinking a spicy cider.
The main thing to realise is that when they put “chili” in the title here, they mean it. It’s not an undertone flavour — it is the main flavour. The beautiful thing about drinking a glass of this fine brew, however, is that the flavour actually changes as you sip it. It’s a refreshing cider at first, and then it hits you at the back of your throat. The heat of the chili comes through, and it’s not subtle. Hannah Jefferys, the owner of Saigon Cider (and the only female founder of a craft beverage company in the country!) said that while it’s not the most popular cider on the roster, it’s definitely the most talked-about. I can see why.
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Where you can find it: I usually get my fix of this unique creation at Rogue (13 Pasteur, D1). They don’t have a tap room yet — I hope this will change — but they also do home deliveries and distribute to bars, restaurants and cafes all over the city. Just keep an eye out for the chili variety.
C-Brewmaster’s Lemongrass Ale (4.5% ABV)
This playful little number joined the list because, as you sip it, you can tell it’s special. As much as I love American-style craft brews, you can always tell them distinctly from other brew styles. C-Brewmaster’s Lemongrass Ale is all Vietnamese.
Image source: facebook.com/CBrewmaster
Although this brewery made their name in Hanoi, they just stepped into HCMC about a month ago, and they seem to be doing well here so far. Nguyen Van Cuong, the brewmaster, holds the honourable title as the first Vietnamese craft beer brewmaster, and he practices this title well.
Another notable brew on tap is the Ginger Ale, but do not be fooled — this one is much better. Light and refreshing and very lemongrass-forward, it’s a good beer to start off your night.
Where you can get it: It seems like C-Brewmaster is still finding their footing in the HCMC beer scene, so be sure to go to their taproom (52B Nguyen Binh Khiem, D1) to get the good stuff. Alternatively, Cuong says you might also find some bottles at Rogue and Rehab Station (27/6 Nguyen Binh Khiem, D1).
LAC Brewing Co.’s Mango IPA (5.5% ABV)
No craft beer list would be complete without a beautiful IPA to round it off. To be perfectly honest, I’ve never been a big fan of IPAs. They’ve always seemed to place hops before flavour. However, LAC’s masterful addition has (somewhat) changed my mind.
Dark orange and with a foamy head, you can clearly taste the mango, but it’s not overpowering. It’s floral and surprisingly delicate for an IPA, and it just so happens LAC uses mangoes grown in Phan Thiet. You can tell.
Image source: facebook.com/lacbrewing
Where you can get it: You’ll always be able to find one or two offerings at Bia Craft, although it you want to play it safe, definitely head to their brick and mortar venue. Take a trip to 169/7 Nguyen Duc Canh in D7 for a very positive beer experience.
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