Like most places, the craft beer scene in Thailand has been dominated by men, but that’s changing with a growing number of women not just drinking the stuff but brewing up some good ones of their own.
Billed as “Thailand’s first all-female brewers,” Ther (“she” in Thai) is a brewing project five Thai women founded to share their devotion to making beer. Its most popular product, Mojito Cider, recently won an award at the Asia Beer Championship.
Inspired by a traditional Cuban highball, the drink is a refreshing, easy-to-drink blend of apples with a hint of fresh mint and lime juice – and has recently become a common sight on shelves at many Bangkok bars and restaurants, even supermarkets.
“Part science, part art, craft beer does not discriminate between races, languages, classes nor genders,” cofounder Vorakorn “Phearry” Bhatravijraj said Monday.
Six years ago, Phearry enrolled in a beer brewing class with Wichit Saiklao, a military colonel-turned-pioneer of Thai craft beer, on Koh Kret, a small river island north of Bangkok. Soon after, she met other women – Panida “M” Rattanuprakarn, Supawan “Tak” Kaewprakob, Natsine “Taem” Jumnongsirisak, and Surasa “Ja” Boonta – who were also there to learn how to brew their first batches.
“Back then, there were even fewer women who brewed beer. That’s how all of us became so close to each other so quickly,” M said.
After an overwhelming response to two events called Ladies Tap, where the five women sold their beers, they came up with the idea of experimenting and brewing products together under one brand.
That’s how Ther was born. Ther means her in Thai, while the name in English is meant to evoke “T”for Thailand and English pronoun “her.”
“Ther is a beer brand that made by women, but can be enjoyed by all tastebuds – men and women alike,” said Tak, another cofounder.
“To me, Ther means being bold,” Phearry said. “We’re women who … want to make beers that are different from others while in the same time reflect our playfulness and vivacity.”
Hops ‘n hurdles
But brewing legally in the kingdom is not easy for small players.
Under the 2008 Alcoholic Beverage Control Act and outdated 1950 Liquor Act, brewers must have a registered capital of THB10 million and have the “capacity” to produce at least 100,000 liters per year. Basically, one must be one of the few major corporate brewers controlling the market.
The laws, which protect their monopolies and prevent small-scale entrepreneurs from shining, mean most brewers find a way around: brew overseas and import their beer back as a foreign product, which means paying high duties which inflate the sticker price.
The women of Ther followed suit. They said they first “took the plunge” over 6,400 kilometers away in Melbourne, where they brewed the first batch of amber, floral Rose Bud Pale Ale (5.8% ABV) at the Red Dot Brewhouse.
After the Rose Bud Pale Ale, the group put out a second beer: Berries Bomb XPA. Using nearly 100 kilograms of berries, the fruity beer this time was bottled closer to home: Cambodia’s Koh Kong and Phnom Penh – each city for a batch.
However, they soon began looking for an alternative to the logistics, taxes and excise stamps, not to mention “mountains of paperwork” required when re-importing their beers.
“It’s just sad that small Thai brewers do not get support from the government. We have so many ideas, and people are so talented … Thai craft beers have so much potential, and they should even be OTOP products,” Tak said, referring to the One Tambon One Product program in which an exemplary product from each subdistrict, or tambon, is marketed for sale.
During the pandemic, the group decided to brew a third product – the mojito cider – at the Thai Spirit Industry just an hour’s drive southeast of downtown in Chachoengsao province. The first batch to hit the market was 5,000 liters.
“I always wanted to make a cider that when a drinker has it, they feel really, really refreshed,” said M, who said she “has a knack” in flavoring beers with berries.
But telling people about what they do is complicated by another absurd law that makes criminal anything that can be interpreted as encouraging others to drink. What was meant to limit mass media marketing of alcohol has been bent to harass and threaten anyone who even shows alcohol on social media with heavy fines.
That means the women of Ther, like others, have to limit what they post on Facebook and instead rely on word of mouth or private channels.
“We have to be very watchful about which photo we’re posting or which caption we’re writing,” M said.
M added that they’ve often had to deactivate their social media pages for fear of legal repercussions. In the past few years, bar owners, brewers and importers in Thailand have faced a spiraling number of prosecutions, from a few hundred before the pandemic to more than 1,000 each year now.
“While our drink is easy to drink and perfect for any drinker, we barely can communicate with customers publicly. We had to depend on private messages instead,” Tak said.
There was one time when the team of Ther was fundraising for patients with breast cancer. M said as soon as they announced the campaign online, they got calls from other brewers and poo yai (respected elders) warning they might have broken the law.
“We had to re-edit the caption again and again until it didn’t look like we intended to induce people to drink beer,” M said.
And their struggle continues today with navigating laws that limit the ability to market their beers.
Creativity and subtlety are required to promote their business without getting into trouble by talking about the beer directly. One of Ther’s few promotional posts in the past year shows its mojito cider bottle taken in front of the sea. The caption reads, “It’s so hot, sis. Let me put on a bikini and jump into the water.”
The women of Ther’s efforts were rewarded late last year when they submitted their Mojito Cider to October’s Asia Beer Championship judged in Singapore. The regional competition is joined annually by hundreds of brewers from Vietnam and Taiwan to Hong Kong.
Ther received a bronze award in the “herb/spiced cider” category.
“If we submitted the cider in the wrong category, we might not get an award at all,” M said modestly. “We did not expect to win at all at such a big competition. I was over the moon and proud of what we achieved.”
More than just recognition, Phearry said taking the stage as women brewers alongside their male peers was validation.
“When you think about craft beer, people of course think about men,” Phearry said. Winning the award suddenly put them on equal footing.
“It’s like our determination and efforts were recognized by the judges and beer experts on the international stage,” Phearry said.
This year, Ther plans to keep brewing more batches as it continues to gain market profile. Meanwhile, fans can expect more “surprising” varieties heading their way, Phearry said.
While the opposition Move Forward Party’s Sura Kaoklai (Booze Forward Act) to decriminalize microbrewing has stalled in parliament, the Ther team dream of the opportunities that will arise when the laws are reformed.
“I want to see more diverse beer in the future, as well as a more diverse group of people who can brew beer legally in Thailand,” M said.
Phearry could not help but compare the craft beer scene in Thailand with its counterpart in her new home of Sydney, where she relocated a few years ago.
“The [Australian] government is really open to people in the craft beer industry. One suburb can have its breweries and locally made beers, resulting in more employment of staff, brewers, and musicians, too,” Phearry said. “They’re inventive, systematic and adaptive to the modern world, where Thailand is still way behind.”