Craft beer is more than just a passing fad in Bangkok, it’s a fully-fledged movement growing in popularity and support
Beer is here in its many forms, and it doesn’t show signs of waning. In fact, Bangkok can’t get enough of it, and the craft beer influence is doing very well indeed. Following on from the likes of London, New York and Copenhagen, the Bangkok craft beer scene is booming. I’m not talking about the usual trio of Chang, Singha and Leo, but locally-brewed beers—more of that later—which, for so long, were confined to a hot underground scene and only available through hushed-whispers and friends with connections.
On a rain and beer-soaked evening in late 2012, Brew Beers & Ciders played host to the first Beervana pop-up event, marking the first time American craft beer had reached our shores for distribution. Sadly, that outlet of the Brew chain is now gone, but craft beer has only increased in popularity since. In supermarkets, Family Marts, and just about every new bar with beer—even gin joints like Teens of Thailand—you’ll find bottles of beer that were never available a few years ago. More impressively, greater Bangkok alone now boasts more than two dozen beer bars, from Bang Na to neighbouring Nonthaburi.
One such bar continues to blaze new trails. Over the past four years, Mikkeller Bangkok has consistently raised the bar for the local beer scene in Bangkok. Occupying a beautifully renovated two-story townhouse on Ekkamai Soi 10, the bar boasts 30 taps that rotate each week, featuring beers, ciders and even mead, that you won’t find elsewhere. That means cans of Double IPA from up-and-coming Norwegian brewery Lervig, marionberry mead from Supers on Meadery, and single kegs of beers that would be hard to find even in the country where they’re brewed. Expect to find specialist craft beers such as AleSmith Thai Speedway Stout (12% ABV), an imperial stout made with lemongrass, ginger, chillies, and Thai herbs that, somewhat ironically, was not made with export to the Thai market in mind. On a recent visit I discovered Mikkeller’s own Zeffer Apple Crumble Cidar (5.4% ABV) on tap, alongside the likes of Inked #2 (6.6% ABV), NYC Henry Hustle (5% ABV) and some 25 other Mikkeller labels. To boot, the restaurant upstairs, aptly named Upstairs at Mikkeller, was awarded a Michelin-star last year and is celebrated for Chef Dan Barks menu creations with a specially crafted beer menu to accompany the plates.
Chef Dan began serving casual à la carte fare at Mikkeller’s brewery before moving upstairs to focus on a more concentrated Tasting Menu. Confident in his kitchen output and how ingredients were complimented by the beer, he was unwavering in his approach and continued to promote and push his cuisine alongside the likes of new and unusual pale lagers and coffee stouts.
Having a beer sommelier on-hand helps. Guests at Upstairs at Mikkeller are not only poured beer in a variety of different glassware to compliment the beer—from Mikkeller Whatever Belgian Wit (4.8% ABV) to AleSmith Speedway Imperial Coffee Stout—but are given a background of the origin, fermentation process and why that particular tipple was chosen to pair with the dish.
We opened Mikkeller to bring higher quality and more variety to people” Rutima Vaewvichit
The husband-and-wife founders of Mikkeller, Jakob Rasmussen and Rutima Vaewvichit, who also run a craft beer and spirits importing company called Hopsession, often bring in famous brewers, including the bar’s namesake, Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, for casual, off-the-cuff events that last long into the night.
“When we started doing Hopsession, we were a bit frustrated by all the generic beer bars back then that wanted to sell only beers they had heard of, beers that were available year round, and so on,” says Vaewvichit. “We opened Mikkeller [the first sole craft beer bar in Bangkok] to bring higher quality and more variety to people that maybe didn’t know much about craft beer.”
Canadian-run Hair of the Dog—the self-proclaimed “raw, edgy, alternative, childish, and damn awesome” bar, might be the polar opposite of Mikkeller concerning design, although it is run by one of the founders and a former tap master of Mikkeller Bangkok—Pete Spalding and Mike MacDonald—but the bar, which could double as a set for a horror film, shares a serious penchant for beer.
Actually, there are two branches of Hair of the Dog, the original occupies a narrow space above La Monita in Phloen Chit, and feels decidedly more morgue-like than the spacious second outlet in Phrom Phong. Each has 13 taps—with at least one always pouring something heavy and extreme, such as the Melvin Brewing Rotational Imperial IPA series—as well as several fridges for drink-in or carry-out purchases. And the bar staff know what they’re talking about, so ask questions if you’re overwhelmed by the options.
As has been well documented, making—“crafting” if you will—beer in Thailand is not a straightforward procedure. Due to legal barriers—Thai law only permits state-registered breweries and brewpubs, and it is only legal if you’re making more than 10 million litres a year—beers are made in the likes of Cambodia, Vietnam, and even Australia, and then delivered to Thailand, once an import tax has been paid, to be sold and advertised as Thai craft beers. But that’s not to say that they aren’t.
Ever since Wichit Saiklao, better known as ‘Chit’, launched his brewing academy and dive bar—aptly entitled Chit Beer—on the bucolic island of Koh Kret, just north of Bangkok, in 2013, the number of Thai brewers in Bangkok has skyrocketed. Now, some are working within the laws to brew their beer legally. That means going abroad to brew, but still, within this difficult and challenging legal climate, that’s a win.
“I just wanted to open a bar that served good beer for my community [Tha Sai],” explains Supapong ‘Toon’ Pruenglampoo, one of the 11 people behind the rising Thai-run beer brand called Sandport, which is a translation of Tha Sai. “But now [we see that] maybe our story, our passion, can influence people all over the world. It’s worth the risks we take.”
To try some of the fruits of this burgeoning movement, check out bottle shops like Bottles of Booze in Sathorn, where beers from Sandport, Yaksa, Ther, and more are available alongside big-name imports. A similar name, Bottle of Beers, in Sukhumvit Soi 34, features a long communal table flanked by shelves and refrigerators full of beers. It might require a bit of a trek to get to Sandport’s bar, the Fellowship of Beer (out near Lak Si), but it’s an excellent place to clink glasses with aspiring Thai brewers.
Maybe our story, our passion, can influence people all over the world. It’s worth the risks we take” Toon Pruenglampoo
Golden Coins Taproom in Ekkamai, where one of the former owners of the much-loved, and now defunct, Let the Boy Die, has opened his own bar with a similar concept—in both its design and rebellious spirit—serves Thai beer—brewed in Vietnam—and where all taps are dedicated to each brand’s differing styles. And speaking of Let the Boy Die’s closure, just a five minute walk from MRT Hualumphong you’ll now find Let the Girl Kill, pumping and pouring from nine taps. There’s a special bar brew called Let the Girl Kill Nightmare Black IPA (7.5% ABV) and Serious Panda Weizen (4.7% ABV).
Speaking of rebellious, The Fat Cow in Lad Phrao and Dok Keaw House Bar on the periphery of Ari may fly under-the-radar, considering their locations, but both serve lots of lesser-known Thai-made beers—especially those that are still “underground” if you catch the drift. Still, if you’re curious, they’re definitely worth the trek. Rumour has it the old wooden house that Dok Keaw occupies is haunted, too.
Like Chit, Taopiphop ‘Tao’ Limjittrakorn is a man on a mission and is one of the leading advocates behind the Thai craft beer movement. After an arrest in early-2017 for brewing craft beer at home—for which he spent the night in jail and paid a fine of B5,400—he bounced back to announce that he would open his own craft beer bar in Nonthaburi, with the beer brewed across the border in Cambodia, and then, seven days later, arriving in Thailand to be sold.
During Tao’s trial at the Nonthaburi district court in northern metro Bangkok, Tao’s father wore a t-shirt reading “Taopiphop Ale Project” to show support for his son’s project. “The law should definitely be changed. I was in Germany 30 years ago, and there were 20,000 kinds of beer, in contrast with Thailand which only had Singha at the time,” said Tao’s father.
The Taopiphop Bar Project opened in February last year, a hodgepodge space that seats about 30 people, although most of the seating inside does move around. Walls are lined with large, bottled-filled refrigerators, and any leftover space is given over to colourful graffiti works and scrawled slogans: “Good people drink good beer” and “Live like today is the last day to drink beer & coffee.” They have five rotating taps and an impressive selection of about 125 bottled craft beers—although this is increasing—from the Danish brewers, Evil Twin Brewing, to flagship beers from the Heart of Darkness Brewery, in Saigon, Vietnam: Kurtz’s Insane IPA (7.1% ABV); Loose Rivet New England IPA (7.5% ABV); Dream Alone Pale Ale (5.7% ABV); Sacred Fire IPA (4.5% ABV); and Conquistador’s Mexican Pilsner (4.2% ABV).
Tao had run into further trouble after ceasing brewing operations at home and moving to the upstairs of their—he has two other business partners—Taopiphop Bar Project. So, to adhere to rules and regulations, they shut down brewing operations, modified their name to Taopiphop Beer Project, and transformed what was an informal tasting room into a real serving bar. “Beer should be like an art,” Tao said, in an interview with the BBC last year.
Beer is what you drink with your friends, to socialise. I want to bring the good side out, you know. That’s why I did it. But I must travel to Cambodia, it’s easier to find a brewery there than in my country. Our team love to do hard things.”The brewer
brews only one day, the rest is the work of God” Tao Limjittrakorn
Craft offer perhaps Thailand’s most extensive selection of craft beers, with a menu rotating over 170 craft beers from around the world. The bar started out back around 2014, as just a small, “pop up” located in front of the Giusto Italian restaurant on Sukhumvit Soi 23, and offering eight craft beers. Now, they have two locations—Sukhumvit 23 and at the corner of Silom and Surasak—and operate with the aim to please both beer geeks and novices alike.
Having visited Craft’s second outlet, I can personally vouch for the Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA (6.4% ABV) with its juicy citrus and grapefruit flavour. They also serve an impressive selection of the usual suspects from Bangkok’s major suppliers, like Beervana, Hopsession, Mikkeller, Evil Twin and Brewdog.
Located close by to Craft, is the 3 Bears Craft Brewary, on Sukhumvit Soi 22. The bar is set within a vaulted space where they only pour 3 Bear brews. Described on their Facebook page as the “one and only place serving in-house Tapped Craft Beers in Sukhumvit area,” they are still one of the many Thai craft beer outlets who found a way around the laws by brewing overseas—they brew in Taiwan—and then import back to Thailand. Results include Goldilocks Blonde (5.9% ABV), Hunter’s IPA (6.2% ABV), Gorilla Stout (6.3%) and Summer Snow Champagne Ale (4.5% ABV).
On the ground floor of 72 Courtyard, the Thonglor nightlife complex, you’ll find Beer Belly. The bar is decked out with a pool table, ping-pong table and various other gaming activities; everything needed for a fun night in; and a large, open-air beer garden means bews can be enjoyed outside as well as in. Plus, they have local and international craft beers rotating across 20 taps.
Down the street from Beer Belly, you’ll find The Commons, an open-air concept mall chock-full of delicious eats, as well as The Beer Cap. Committed to craft beers, this fun bar utilises its draft system to serve up a wide selection of brews, rotating crafts to ensure a varied offering, so don’t expect to see the same beer twice.
There’s I Hate Pigeons, the curiously named bar which brings the craft beer scene to the Sribumphen area. Run by two former members of the Spicy Disc band The Messenger, this oddly named bar presents an easy-going atmosphere in a abandoned shop-house. The chalkboard above the bar advertises the rotating beers on offer with recent tipples such as Brewdog Punk IPA (5.6% ABV) and Rogue Dead Guy Ale (6.5% ABV).
Brewski on the 30th floor of the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel, offer 100 craft beers and ciders plus 12 on tap—The Wild Turkey Bourbon Stout (6.9% ABV) is a highlight, but I suggest no more than two—and has become a popular drinking hole with spectacular views of the city.
One of the newer venues in town is Mash—a reference to the beer-brewing process—on Soi Convent, a place that has quickly established itself as a go-to bar, not just for the variety of high-quality beers—which includes big international names like Flying Dog, Stone, Modern Times and Ballast Point, as well as some of the better cuts from the recent wave of Thai brewers who have gone overseas to brew legally, but you’ll also find beers made from locally-grown hops. One of these local tipples is Devanom IPA (6.2% ABV) which is brewed by the Ungsriwong brothers—Nattachai ‘Ob’ and Teerapat ‘Art’ Ungsriwong—who own Thailand’s first ever hops farm. It should have staying power, too. It’s a little more refined than the usual venues in this part of town, and having 16 taps certainly doesn’t hurt its cause. Mash should remain a favourite spot for office workers and travellers long after the honeymoon has ended.
Two other relatively new bars bringing craft beer to the masses are Pijiu Bar (Old Town) and Nectar Café (Sathorn). Pijiu—“Beer” in Chinese—is a fresh, casual bar run by current and former Beervana employees, serving five beers on tap and many others by the bottle inside a heavily Chinese-themed shophouse on Soi Nana in Chinatown. Despite the Beervana connection, you’ll find a wide selection of beers from outside the brand’s portfolio, such as Rogue Dead, Guy Ale, Tuatara Weiz Guy Hefeweizen and Epic Brewing’s Los Cosos Mexican-style lager.
Nectar is a newbie this year, having opened in March, and serves bottles and craft beers on tap, from the likes of AVBC Hop Hyzer Ale (4.9% ABV) and Bavaria Pilsner (5% ABV) to a ballsy Heretic Evil Cousin IMP IPA (8% ABV).
Another 2018 addition is Beer Republic, located beneath the Holiday Inn hotel in Chidlom. Advertising themselves as “the definitive must try for beer aficionados” they stock over 70 labels, from commercial names to craft options. I suggest trying the beer flight for B500, a six mini-beer flight that allows you to choose your own tipples. Try and include the clean and refreshing Mahanakhon White Ale (5.2% ABV) from the Mahanakhon Microbrewery in Bangkok, is actually brewed—actually brewed by Cavalier Brewery in Victoria, Australia—and Peak-a-Brew IPA (6% ABV), a hazy darkish amber IPA that’s up there with the very best, marketed by Bangkok Bootleg Brothers Brewing—but also brewed in Australia.
Wishbeer made the most of Bangkok’s burgeoning startup scene to develop a home delivery system for beer. Then, it added a bar and bottle shop in a renovated warehouse that’s almost hidden in plain sight, just off Sukhumvit Road in Phra Khanong, where good happy hours and frequent events, including launches of new beers from Thai brewers, draw big crowds. Earlier this year, they also added garden space to their Homebar, offering a whole wealth of craft beer options that can be enjoyed in an outdoor area.
Korean expat Ted Ahn turned a tiny storefront just outside MRT Petchaburi into a haven for beer geeks, and followed this up with Changwon Express (Asoke), pouring a range of Thai and Western craft beers from up to 30 taps. An ever-changing chalkboard reveals the beers on offer, likely listing local brewers like Sandport and Outlaw. You’ll even find a Changwon IPA (4% ABV), made in collaboration with Happy New Beer, which makes a delicious session beer—thanks to a lowly ABV—which can be consumed with gusto.
According to research from The Brewers Association, reporting in 2017, beer volume sales slipped 1% while craft volume was up 5%; in the US and worldwide. Individuals particularly concerned with the promotion of craft beer and home-brewing have found new ways of marketing too, aiding in the upwards drive of craft beer.
“From a marketing perspective, local continues to be a huge driver of purchase decisions,” says Paul Gatza, Director of The Brewers Association. “Also, younger legal drinking age drinkers are really interested in trying things they haven’t tried before. That experiential component is double-edged… people are willing to try new brands but make it hard for brewers and distributors to build brands,” continues Gatza.
From a marketing perspective, local continues to be a huge driver of purchaser decisions” Paul Gatza
In Bangkok, marketing plays a vital role in the promotion and consumption of craft beer. In many of the hotels, bars and large retailers, it’s the three big brewers who call the shots as to who gets the space—see how many signs, posters, advertising boards etc. for Chang, Singha and Leo you spot when you’re next on a night out—and yet, within craft, the shelves and distributor houses are pretty crowded.
Despite local laws and legal barriers, the local craft beer movement grows and grows. Craft beers increase in popularity because of numerous factors, not just because they taste good, but consumers like the labelling and funky advertising, they like the underground sometimes furtive surroundings. Perhaps as is evident, consumers love and support the stories behind them, many exhibiting the challenges and demonstrating the perseverance required to succeed. And cheers to that!
Craft Beer & Chocolate: A Marriage Made in Heaven
Beer and chocolate. Rarely are these words seen side by side, much less as items consumed together. But, believe me—it can work. Craft beers are often noted for their unique tastes, with many consumers choosing their favourite tipples based on varying characters: hoppy, sweet, citrus, fruity etc. And, indded, it’s because of these unique characteristics, that beer pairs so well with chocolate. Of course, I’m not just talking about any old chocolate.
Make sure you try your favourite craft beer with Cioccolato di Modica (or Modica Chocolate) which is a speciality Italian chocolate typical of Modica, Sicily. Few realise that Sicily was one of the first places in Europe to receive cacao from South America, thanks to being part of the Spanish kingdom in the 17th century. This particular chocolate is characterised by a centuries-old recipe that gives the chocolate a uniquely grainy texture, and the common addition of chilli pepper, cinnamon and other spices—a legacy of Aztec tradition.
One of the best modern expressions of Modica chocolate may be found amongst the fine creations of producer SABADÌ. Winning the Tavoletta D’Oro for Modica Chocolate for the past seven years, SABADÌ employs only the finest raw materials in making their chocolate and use a cold process to preserve the nutritional and aromatic properties of the cacao.
What regular chocolate lovers will find unique about SABADÌ is it does not contain any added cocoa butter. Not only does that mean it’s lower in fat than usual, but also, it gives rise to a refreshingly clean sensation on the palate, making it ideal for pairing with teas, coffees and alcohol-based liquids, such as wine, spirits, and of course, craft beers!
When it comes to pairing SABADÌ with craft beers, the ‘marriages made in heaven’ tend to occur when the beer is craft-brewed to the highest standard and therefore, able to at once balance and showcase the flavours in the chocolate. Baladin is one of Italy’s leading craft beers and pairs very well indeed with fine chocolate. Below are some of my favourite pairings that you can try at home.
SABADÌ Donato contains the peel of the Interdonato lemon—a particular variety that only grows in the Messina coastal area north of Taormina, Sicily. Baladin’s Isaac’s spicy but delicate harmonies of coriander and peeled oranges mingle well with the sweet aromatic citrus.
SABADÌ Darino achieves a fine balance between the strong aroma of cacao Nacional and the delicacy of the Ciaculli late mandarin—a sweet variety produced in the famed Conca d’Oro in Palermo, Sicily. Baladin’s Nora, which releases notes of Eastern aromas, ginger and citrus fruit, rounds out cacao and gently complements the mandarin.
SABADÌ Cino. If you like spice, take heed. The slow-release burn imparted by the organic pepperoncino in Cino turns into a flame when combined with Baladin Rock ‘n’ Roll’s peppery aroma, bitter hops and fizz.
SABADÌ chocolate is available at Gourmet Market in Emporium and Siam Paragon and selected fine hotels and restaurants. Contact [email protected] for more information. by Rosalind Yunibandhu
Rosalind Yunibandhu is Founder & Managing Director of Arcadia Fine Foods. As a lover of both food and culture, she believes that food offers us much more than just a means of sustenance; to her, it’s also a vehicle through which we can tell the unique stories of the land, people and traditions from which it is borne.
By David J. Constable