Craft beer and rum seem right at home on a tropical island. Holidays, after all, invoke images of sundowners on glittering gold beaches. Cocktails with umbrella straws, sweating pint glasses filled with icy lager, the sour-sweet kick of a mojito — away from routine, life’s simple pleasures take the form of shoulder angels saying, “If you would just move to Koh Samui, this could be your every day.”
About ten years ago, a couple of French fruit growers heeded that call. Elisa and Michel Gabrel moved to Samui from Gers. After clearing legal hurdles, they set up a small-scale distillery with the goal of creating fruit alcohol. Before long, they started making rum with sugarcane sourced from the southern mainland of Thailand. In a nod to the classic French alembic in which their spirits were distilled, they named their brand Magic Alambic. In 2014, after a decade in operation, a former owner of a French printing company named Ludovic Trantoul took the reins, renovating the facilities, improving production, and giving the brand a new, straightforward name: Koh Samui Rum.
“The product was already good [before I took over],” says Trantoul, “but I want to make it even better. I’ve changed the fermenting and distilling processes, and I’ve picked up tricks from specialists and visitors who run their own distilleries back home.”
The spirited newcomer even spends his free time researching ways to extract more pronounced flavour from the sugarcane, to get smoother tastes after distillation, and to produce greater depth from the aging process. It’s a labour of love. He had never worked in the industry before he moved to Samui to try his hand at it when Magic Alambic went up for sale (“I’m a romantic,” he says).
Koh Samui Rum still produces white rum as Magic Alambic did. First, the distillery receives and crushes its all-natural ingredients, including sugarcane from Nakhon Sri Thammarat and the distillery’s own 20-acre farm near Surat Thani. Then, yeast is added to the mash – natural fruit juices, too, if the rum is to be flavoured – and left to ferment for two or three days. After that, the brew is boiled in a large pot still for about five hours. The finished product ages for a minimum of eight months, developing in intensity over time. Koh Samui Rum comes in five flavours — lime, orange, pineapple, coconut, and natural.
In the last year, distillation and distribution have been streamlined. The spirit is currently available in bars, hotels, and restaurants on the island. Visitors are welcome to drop by the facilities, as well. Now, expansion is in the works with Trantoul eyeing nationwide distribution within a year.
Just a few beaches north of Koh Samui Rum’s Na Mueang operation, another brewery is carving out a niche, but with a different kind of alcohol. In 2010, noting the lack of craft beer on Samui compared to other holiday islands, Englishman Jim Smith settled on Chaweng as home base for his Bee’s Knees Brewpub. He imported a special vat from China, one that could keep the beer cool in the humid climate as it passed through the conditioning process. Then, he got to work.
“We’re currently making four beers,” says Smith, who has over 35 years of brewing experience. “A wheat beer with light, fruity flavours that we brew with Australian Galaxy hops, rather than the traditional orange and coriander; a porter with East Kent Golding hops that has a lingering taste of coffee and chocolate; a “pilsner” (it’s really a lager, but ‘lager’ often reminds people of flavourless products) brewed with German Hallertau hops; and an English bitter also made with East Kent Golding hops.”
Bee’s Knees does beer the right way. Smith and his team mash malted barley and wheat by infusion to create a wort, which is then strained and boiled with fresh hops. Once it has cooled, yeast is added and the mixture is left to ferment at a lower temperature over 21 days, a length of time that results in a more complete conditioning. No additional ingredients or chemicals ever enter the mix. The beer, left unpasteurised and unfiltered, is only served on draft. “We want people to taste the real flavours of the ingredients,” says Smith.
Thanks to word-of-mouth efforts, as well as social media, including beer-centric apps such as Untappd and Rate Beer, the brewpub has gained a loyal following. The fresh, cool, low-carbonated beer takes credit as the main reason for this success, but Smith’s passion for his craft certainly plays a part, too. In certain circles, “the bee’s knees” means “the best of the best.” The phrase represents a benchmark for the entrepreneur, a high bar worth aiming for, whatever hurdles may stand in the way.
The Bee’s Knees doesn’t yet have a kitchen, but one is in the works. Ask Smith what food he suggests pairing with his beer — “Some combinations just really work, like smoked food with the porter, cheese with the bitter, spicy foods with the pilsner, and maybe salads or desserts with the wheat” — and the first stages of a menu begin to take shape. For now, beer-lovers will have to trek to Chaweng Lake for a taste of Bee’s Knees smooth nectar. It isn’t yet available on tap elsewhere on the island.
Thanks to a couple of forward-looking mash masters, holidays on Samui have suddenly been recharged and diversified. Come for the beaches, stay for the artisanal rum and craft beer.