In the past few years Asia’s beer scene has surged from strength to strength. This can be seen in the host of new breweries and taprooms that have appeared in the last 5 years across the region.
Macro’s aside, at the last count Vietnam is home to over 50 craft breweries, South Korea over 100, India over 200 and Japan and China both over 300.
Given that Asian brewed beers are also gathering awards for their quality in competitions all over the world we thought it high time to come up with a list of the best cities to visit for a brew or two.
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City, better known locally as Saigon, hosts one of Southeast Asia’s most vibrant beer cultures. The city’s domestic beer scene began in earnest the late 19th century, when Frenchman Victor Larue established the city’s first brewery, Brasseries & Glacières Indochine (BGI).
BGI went on to create enduring brews like Biere Larue (less popular but still can be found, particularly in canal-side restaurants) and 33 (now 333, the ‘working man’s beer’), setting the stage for a romance between the city’s residents, visitors and beer.
The city’s beer culture has undergone two seismic shifts in the past few decades. The first was powered by Vietnamese expatriates and students returning from Eastern Bloc countries with strong domestic brewing traditions, notably Czechoslovakia and East Germany.
This wave of cultural interchange sparked a small boom of local breweries, serving simple yet crisp pilsners and the occasional darker beer. While this era has been forgotten by many foreigners, outposts of this era like Hoa Vien Brauhaus (a must-visit brewpub that doubles as the city’s Czech consulate!) and Gammer Beer still thrive.
The second shift occurred in the early 2010’s, as Vietnam’s globalisation-friendly outlook allowed large numbers of foreigners to move to the country to teach, train and work.
Breweries like Platinum Beer, Pasteur Street Brewing Company and Quan Ut Ut (a smokehouse run by a renegade brewer) heralded an unstoppable wave of ‘modern’ craft beer, driven by American and Australian-style ales and widening the vocabulary of beer in a city dominated largely by lagers.
Today, craft-only venues like BiaCraft are able to pour more than 20 local Saigon thbreweries with a tremendous variety of styles of a remarkably high standard, ranging from the usual fare of pale ales and IPAs all the way through to goses and hard lemonades.
Of late, the revolution has begun to swell ranks yet again. Young and upwardly mobile Vietnamese have joined the throng of craft beer drinkers, which is also reflected in the emergence of local brewers like Deme, Hoprizon and Zumwhere.
Like many of its regional neighbours the beer scene in South Korea until recently revolved around locally macro brewed and imported light lagers. However this has been gradually changing over the past decade, and more so the past 5 years with the emergence of a growing number of micro-breweries producing predominantly American style craft beers.
The trendy Itaewon district of Seoul was the original craft beer area thanks to the presence of a US Military base there for so many years. Here the Magpie Brewing taproom, one of the old guard, Aton Brewery and a number of outlets serving beer from around the country have kept the craft beer light burning while other areas of the city have steadily developed.
Gangnam, the trendy heart of Seoul, has risen as one of the areas to visit for a good beer. In the heart of the district you’ll find the Hong Kong retro-chic Artmonster taproom offering up a wide variety of award winning palate pleasers as well as an impressive Goose Island brewpub.
The popular Beerroom serves up a menu of over 30 taps and Stan Seoul, the city’s most infamous craft beer bar, always has an impressive selection of local and imported beers on draft. Gangnam is also home to a new brewpub by KaBrew, one of South Korea’s pioneering breweries.
Brewpubs have now spread out into all areas of the city; Beervana in Mulae specializes in modern hazy beers, in the hip Euljiro you can visit another Artmonster taproom as well as The Ranch pub, CraftBros in Seocho, Seoul Brewery in Hongdae, Amazing Brewery with it’s high-tec DIY taproom in Seongdong … and the list goes on.
Taprooms such as Seoul Gypsy and the Daily Beer chain also help promote local breweries as well as those from around the country so it’s easy to indulge in some of the world class brews now being produced throughout the republic.
Most beer drinkers will associate this city state with the globally recognised Tiger Beer, what many of them may not know is there has been an injection of youthful enthusiasm into the brewing scene here in the last 5 years.
Singapore was one of the early movers in Asia’s craft beer scene with brewpubs such a Brewerkz, Paulaner Brauhaus, Archipelago Brewery and RedDot Brewhouse (established in the late -90’s, early 2000’s) but its brewery development stuttered somewhat before sparking to life five years ago.
The city state now boasts over 30 breweries and homegrown beer brands and are engaging new consumers with brewery tours, tasting rooms and taprooms from one side of the tropical island to the other.
Visitors to the modern metropolis can enjoy a sparkling brew while taking in the sprawling city vista from the top of one of Singapore’s high-rise office towers at Level 33 Brewery or escape to the idyllic Little Island Brewing Company in rustic Changi Village.
Many of the city’s taprooms which made a name for themselves offering international imports can also now be found championing local breweries alongside globally recognized brands. Freehouse, with it’s friendly motto “No Strangers Here” regularly rotates brews on it’s 15 taps and SG Taps offers only Singapore brews on draft.
If supping on suds while enjoying Singapore’s world renowned hawker food is your thing then be sure to visit Smith Street taps, the city state’s self-styled beer-geek central.
Singapore also boasts an incubator brewery, The General Brewing Company. Many of the new generation of local brands such as Brewlander, Daryl’s Urban Ales, That Singapore Beer Project & Civilization Brewing Co. are brewing up traditional styles as well as many locally infused experimentals.
The craft beer scene started in China’s capital city as recently as 2010 with the foundation of Great Leap Brewing. Since then it has witnessed a swelling of its ranks to include dozens of brands and over a hundred tap rooms and bottle shops.
Today Beijing is home to China’s largest collection of craft beer brands. Like other countries many of the early wave of brewers started off homebrewing and then scaled up rapidly once they had unlocked the demand for artisanal beers in the world’s largest beer market.
Offering countless opportunities for beer lovers to embrace local offerings the scene is buttressed by brands with multiple taprooms scattered across the city such as Slow Boat Brewery (3), NBeer Craft Brewery (2), Jing A (3), Panda Beer, Legend Beer, Steam Rhino Brewing and Beersmith Craft Brewing (part of the Jen Hotel chain).
The hutongs (small alleyways) of Beijing also host a fine compliment of rustic iconic craft beer bars like El Nido and Zhu Jing Ban, offering a wide variety of both locally produced and imported brews. For a more polished corporate offering head to World of Beer and Commune Beer and Bottle Shops.
As well as the ubiquitous Pale Ales and IPA you’ll find many of the local breweries will offer beers infused with local ingredients; ginger, tea and honey being popular additions.
If you are visiting in the spring you may just be lucky enough to attend the Beijing Invitational Craft Beer Festival where breweries from around the world are invited to Beijing for a weekend of hop fuelled revelry.
Japan witnessed a craft brewing boom and bust in the 1990’s, but has now come back with avengaence as arguably Asia’s top city to visit for a brew or two.
Originally dominated by German style wits, helles’ and alts, a throwback to the German influence in the early days of brewing in Japan, the modern craft brewers have seriously got their hop on as can be seen in the plethora of new world beer styles now available.
Tokyo now boasts over 400 craft beer taprooms, breweries and bars serving wheats, wilds and everything in between.
The original craft beer haven of Popeye (Ryogoku) with over 70 beers on tap still rules the roost over the relative newcomers in the popular districts of Shibuya, Shinjuku, Kanda and Meguro. In these neighbourhoods you’ll find bars pouring draft beers from the over 300 Japanese craft breweries.
Among the highlights for the craft beer enthusiast are taprooms run by popular brands such as Hitachino (Akihabara), where guests can even make their own beer, Yo-Ho Brewing (Akasaka), Far Yeast Brewing Company (Gotanda), and Swan Lake Brewery (Kyobashi) as well as brewpubs by smaller brewers such as Atsugi Beer Brewery (Atsugi), Beer++ (Jujo), YYG Brewery (Shinjuku) and long time stalwart T.Y Harbor Brewery (Tennozu Isle).
Several craft beer taproom chains such as Craft Beer Market and Devil’s Craft can also be found across Tokyo bringing craft beers to all corners of the city..
Even macro brewer Kirin has jumped on the bandwagon, opening up it’s own Spring Valley micro-brewery in the trendy Daikanyama district in 2015.
The only way to truly appreciate this city’s craft brewing scene is jump on a plane (when you can), log on to one of the many online craft beer guides and start riding the subway.
Thanks to Jason Kusowski, Carl Setzer & Charles Guerrier for their editorial support.