Beervana, one of Thailand’s biggest craft beer importers responsible for over 300 craft beers available around the country and in Indonesia, turns six this weekend with an adults-only carnival in Bangkok.
And they have more than a birthday to celebrate. Coconuts sat down with Co-founder Brian Bartusch and Global Frontiers Director Chad Mitchell over some ice-cold PBR tallboys in their On Nut office and talked about their upcoming anniversary, the state of craft beer in Thailand, their expansion into what they see as a huge — but still growing — beer market in Vietnam, and the fact that their first non-craft import, Pabst Blue Ribbon, is one of the most beloved yet lowest-rated beers in the world.
Around the time when PBR approached them wanting to get into the Thai market, the company was already looking for a larger name than the boutique beers they had on their roster. “We were looking for a mid-tier fighter beer, something a bit cheaper but still interesting that could go mass market,” said Mitchell. They considered New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, or even Sam Adams — and then they got the call from PBR.
“We love it. It has a hipster premium. I guess we always thought we were too small for them,” said Mitchell. After a few pallets arrived earlier this month and were distributed at various art and music events, interest has been high for next month’s first major shipment, with everywhere from divey spots like The Vagabond, to Americana outposts like Fatty’s Bar & Diner, to high-end craft beer bars inquiring about pricing.
Though the supply of PBR is a little low at the moment in Bangkok, there will be some available for various carnival game-playing at their fun fair-themed birthday bash for grown ups this Saturday — the guys hinted at bobbing for PBR and a melting mountain of frozen cans that, as they become free from the ice, whoever’s nearby can grab them.
The event, from 6pm on Saturday at Petchaburi Road’s warehouse space The Link Asoke-Makkasan, will have food vendors, a live music lineup including Matthew Fisher & the Fishes, and over 100 craft beers from over 20 companies at just THB100 a pop.
Mitchell assured us that there would be some ultra-rare choices for the expected crowd of 1,500 and some random “happy hours” with beers offered for THB50. Plus, at each beer stand guests can play a carnival-style game with purchase and possibly win a second free beer.
For those who prefer not to imbibe beer — there will also be cocktails from Bootleggers, and cold brew coffee from Nitro Labs.
The carnival area will be divided into a beach zone, an “American independence” area, and a camping-themed section. Among the activities at the free event will be a cosplay contest, cornhole, beer pong, beer shotgun competition, and axe-throwing by Golden Axe Throwing Club. And, it wouldn’t be Thailand if there weren’t drunk people playing Connect Four, so there’ll be that as well.
Among the food choices will be burgers by Daniel Thaiger, sweets from The Flour Shoppe (including a gourmet Twinkie-inspired cake for the occasion), sour delights from The Pickle Gallery, meaty choices from Sloane’s, oysters and brisket from Ash Kickers BBQ, a full crocodile from Teddy’s G’s and Northwestern Foods offering fried choices: cheese curds, pickles, jalapeno poppers, and shrimp.
On the subject of craft beer in Thailand, the guys admit it hasn’t been the easiest six years since, they say, beer drinkers in Thailand look at three things, in this order, when they buy beer: price, ABV, and flavor. And while they’ve been trying to educate the masses on this side, they’ve also had to coax sometimes fanatical craft beer producers abroad to send product.
“The craziest brewers, like Stone Brewing in California, put GPS trackers in all their shipments and ask for a report when they arrive so they can verify that the beer was refrigerated the whole trip,” said Mitchell, explaining that craft beers aren’t pasteurized so they have to be shipped and stored cold in a process called cold chain shipping.
As beer fanatics themselves, they are happy to comply, but Mitchell recalls the pre-Beervana days, whan craft beer in Thailand was a wild wild west. He was living in Phuket, and remembers getting excited to see a few lone bottles in a small cafe’s fridge, happily forking over THB300 for the beers. Unfortunately, they tasted all wrong, a sign they hadn’t been shipped or stored cold.
In today’s market, the people who buy craft beer are savvy, they’ve traveled and vendors can’t get away with serving them something that doesn’t taste right because, as often as not, they’ll know nearly as much about beer as the seller.
“It used to be like ‘Oh, Asia doesn’t know, just sell it to them warm, customers won’t know the difference’,” Mitchell said of the old days.
Though Bartusch and Mitchell both admit that the market for craft beer in Bangkok can be a bit saturated and the customers even a bit jaded, one way they can keep their love for it alive is by leaving the city.
Bartusch said, “When you go to a craft beer bar in Isaan or Chiang Mai, the vibe is really different, there’s an excitement. In Bangkok, certain areas have six craft beer bars in two sois and they all have the same stuff, good stuff, but they all have it. But I’ll go to Chiang Mai and see a beer we don’t get in Bangkok and learn that a local guy that loves it imports it only for that city’s market. It’s still new.”
Even if the craft beer market does feel saturated in Bangkok, it’s not putting a dent in commercial beer sales, with the Beervana guys saying that craft is about two percent of beer sales in the country.
When asked if the archaic laws that have landed brewers like Taopiphop Limjittrakorn in jail and kept craft beer from being made in Thailand are easing with the opening of places like the Thai craft beer-focused MITR bar (run by Wichit Saiklao, the founder of Koh Kret’s infamous island homebrew beer sanctuary Chit Beer), they said no and, if anything, it’s getting worse.
“The laws aren’t changing but people are getting their shit together to work within the laws,” said Bartusch. “MITR brews their beer in Lopburi and sells it at their bar in Victory Monument, another group is supposedly opening a full-size production brewery in the South focusing on Thai craft brewers to help them brew, package,and sell their beer all within the country and within the laws.”
The limiting factors related to the volume brewed, the funds the company has in the bank, and the amount of land they own in a designated factory zone are all still in place but brewers are banding together to meet the qualifications to brew. When Mitchell came to Thailand over a decade ago, the fine for making your own beer was about THB500. Now, he says, it can be up to THB100,000 or 5 years in prison, just for homebrewing.
But they say that Vietnam has a more relaxed attitude toward beer, with people often asking each other how many beers they drink in a day the same way Thais like to ask if you’ve eaten rice when you meet them. With their long history of homebrewed, weak bia hoi, beer is not considered liquor, with people giving you a confused look if you ask them the legal drinking age for beer. Think of the Vietnamese with beer the same way you’d think of the French with wine — everyone has a bit.
The taxes are also way lower on imported beer, meaning Beervana can sell more to these beer-happy people for, in some cases, half the price of what they sell for in Thailand.
Despite the huge craft and mass-produced beer culture in Vietnam, most brew is domestic, they don’t have many imports yet. That’s where Beervana saw their new target market. Their first beers arrived there last month, and they launched with a series of parties last week, including a beer cruise.
Time will tell how it goes in Vietnam but here in Thailand, for the moment, we’re happy about the PBR tallboys.
The Link Asoke-Makkasan
1643/5,7 New Petchaburi Rd.
Sat., Sept. 29, 6pm-12am, free entry
Dogs welcome but humans must be 20+