Something’s brewing. Away from Thailand’s macro breweries and lager stocked beer fridges, a new breed of beer is emerging out of containers shipped from West Coast USA. The team responsible? A gang of micro-brew evangelists who go by the name Beervana.
“We’re not trying to get big, we’re not trying to take over the market, we’re not trying to displace market share. We’re just about getting a great, vibrant beer scene and filling a gap that’s been missing.” This is the carefully measured mission statement of Aaron Grieser, the fast-talking former attorney who, along with fellow American homebrew and craft beer fanatic Brian Bartusch, recently set up new beer wholesaler Beervana.
First the bad news: Thailand is several light years behind most of the beer swilling world when it comes to the craft beer craze. Over mason jars of Indian pale ales and other hoppy delights at tapas restaurant El Osito, one of Beervana’s selected stockists, Aaron explains why. “There’s a 400% duty and excise tax on alcohol here, which basically puts a giant wall around the country,” he says. “Home brewing is also illegal, so there’s no grassroots threat to the market; and then there are only two types of brewery allowed by Thai law: a brew pub that’s banned from selling beer off premises, and a major brewery.”
“If you had a graduate program on alcohol policy,” he goes on to say, “and there was a chapter in the textbook on regulatory capture, you could literally cut and paste Thailand’s liquor laws.” Given this sorry list of beer-market-stifling laws, which flavour old money Thai breweries, it’s no wonder the country has missed out on the craft beer revolution that has swept over much of Asia, most notably Japan and even straitlaced Singapore.
The good news? Beervana, with its handpicked line-up of artisanal suds, eye-catching branding and no-hard-sell form of craft beer evangelism (“I have no background in beer other than drinking it and loving it,” Aaron says at one point), is looking to change this. And fortunately it’s not starting from scratch.
During our interview, Aaron doffs his proverbial hat at Hobbs, the Belgium beer bar that began importing easy Euro drinkers such as Hoegaarden, Leffe and Stella about six years ago. “Hobbs is the one that broke it open: those guys are responsible for triggering the current curiosity and awareness about different beers,” he says. “We’re stepping into that space.”
And step into that space they have. In fact, Beervana could be accused of not so much stepping into the Bangkok beer arena as running into it while thumping their chests and screaming an ear-piercing war cry. From food markets and free tastings to Hawaiian luau Christmas feasts and even an end-of-the- world-is-nigh Doomsday party, these new wholesalers have been everywhere since opening a couple of months ago.
However, Aaron points out that behind the scenes they’re actually taking things slowly – and not aiming their sights too high. “We’re rolling out in stages,” he says. “We have a list of 48 venues in Bangkok that we like; realistically, we’re going to sell to about thirty.” Their beer curation aims are also modest. “As much as I’d love to curate everybody’s beer, we’re a super small company, so I think a total of five brands in our portfolio is going to be as much as we can do well.” Currently that portfolio includes only American craft beers sourced exclusively from two of the country’s leading brewers: North California’s Anderson Valley and Oregon’s Rogue. But sometime this month they’ll add the godfather of Singaporean craft beer, Brewerkz.
Only when talking about how he got them on board does the extent of Aaron’s beer infatuation really become clear. “Last summer I quit my job, travelled out to west coast US and did a two month beer tour. I spent two full months travelling from British Colombia all the way down to Tijuana in Mexico, and along the way hit every single brewery that I love.” A native of Oregon, “the spot” for craft beer, as he puts it, Aaron quickly found himself among kindred spirits. “Going in to these breweries, I thought I would have to win their favour with a business proposal. What I quickly realised is that these guys don’t think like businessmen – they think like artists. Their first question wasn’t “how much money are we going to make?”, or “how many cases will you sell?” It was “so, do you get what we’re about?”
Evidently, Beervana do get it. “The reason why craft beer gives you a much broader range of flavour than mainstream beer is because normally it isn’t filtered or pasteurised,” Aaron says with preacher-like zeal. “The flip side of this is that if you really want that fresh-from-the-brewery taste, it’s got to be drunk in three or four months max. So we push to get all of our beers consumed within that time frame. So far we’ve been successful.”
Keeping the time between bottling and glugging to a minimum is Beervana’s “cold chain.” After being consolidated on America’s west coast, a temperature controlled container is shipped via Singapore to Bangkok and on to their Sukhumvit refrigerator. To ensure no one ever opens a bad bottle, they have a refrigerated truck – and even keep tabs on their clients to make sure they’re keeping their stock in the right conditions.
So far, so smooth, but what does the future have in store? Imminent plans include a range of Beervana glasswear (“it’ll be hand-blown by a local Thai artist”); the arrival of ever-more-wacky concoctions such as Rogue’s Bacon Maple Ale (‘you’re either, “oh my god, this is the craziest beer ever!” or “ew, that’s disgusting””); and a ‘Year of the Beer’ campaign (“lots of parties are coming”). As they don’t want to get too big in Thailand (“once you go mass market there’s too much bullshit to deal with”), they also plan to expand their distribution network to Singapore, where they already offload some suds, and Indonesia.
Meanwhile, at select bars around town, more adventurous beer drinkers are chugging some of the boldest artisanal brews the city has ever seen. Some are even waxing poetic about them with a lyricism normally reserved for that most gourmet of beverages: wine. And who can blame them? From the citrusy aroma and hoppy kick of the Yellow Snow IPA to the smooth, malty, crowd-pleasing Dead Guy Ale, these are beers with character and distinction, worthy of flavour profiles and food pairings.
Indeed, the only big cloud hanging over Bangkok’s increasingly bright beer scene so far appears to be the prices, as the cheapest you can pick up one of these 335ml bottles is around B200 at one of their special events. But, as mentioned earlier on in this story, you know who’s to blame for that. Fingers crossed, someday, somehow, things will change and Thailand will go on to become a craft beer producer to be reckoned with. Until then, at least we now have Beervana.
CRAFT BEER 101: What is it and where is it from?
In a nutshell, beers brewed on a small scale by an independent producer using only local natural ingredients and for love above money. According to Aaron the movement started about thirty years ago in San Francisco when “renegade homebrewers started coming up with all this crazy beer.” Since then it has exploded, with craft beers now accounting for 7% of the US market and movements spawning all around the world, even in Europe.
“Craft beer is the most significant movement in beer in the world right now,” Aaron says. “For most of the big breweries in Europe their main claim to fame is ‘We haven’t changed in 200 years”, but American craft brewing takes that and flips it on its head. They are so innovative, coming up with new beers and new styles every season.”
Find Beervana brews at: Apoteka, Bo.Lan, Brew Beers & Ciders, Eat Me, El Osito, Flow House, Oyster Bar, Quince, Road House, Seafood Bar, Soul Food Mahanakorn, WTF