After years of emphasis on brewing high ABV American-style craft beer, Saigon’s brewers are finally scaling up their sessionable offerings in an all-out effort to win over the local crowd.
Ho Chi Minh City has built a reputation as a craft beer hotspot in Southeast Asia and with good reason.
The ‘Southern Metropolis’ (as it is referred to frequently and unironically in local media) has consistently produced a range of well-recognised IPAs, Pale Ales, Porters and other mid- or higher strength beer styles.
Until very recently, it was relatively unusual to find craft lagers widely available. That is now changing fast.
When we wrote earlier this year on the impact of COVID-19 on Saigon’s brewers, the consensus amongst brewers was to focus on winning over Vietnamese drinkers with the tourist tap cut off.
Besides the more challenging requirements to produce high-quality lagers, the competitive landscape disincentivised craft brewers from playing in the space.
There was also the perception amongst brewers that ex-pats and tourists sought out higher ABV styles to maximise value for money.
Visitors to Vietnam are often surprised by the range and relative quality of local lagers around the country, with strong regional consumer preferences for local beer brands like Bia Saigon, Bia Hanoi and Huda.
However, changes to drink driving legislation and new restrictions on higher ABV advertising alcohol, the craft beer market is pivoting toward a decidedly sessionable atmosphere.
From bia hơi clones to more standard craft lager fare, brewers have provided the market with a dramatic increase in the supply of more sessionable and lighter options.
One of the earliest widespread offerings was the Trăm Phần Trăm (‘Bottoms Up’) Crush Ale brewed by local brewer Rooster Beers for well-established gastropub group BiaCraft.
Launched in 2018 and coming in at 4.4% ABV, the lightly hopped was an early salvo in creating an affordably priced, sessionable beer targeted at Vietnamese drinkers.
More recently, in celebration of their second anniversary, new kids on the block Đê Mê Brewing launched their Hơi Hơi (‘Little Bit’) IPA.
Best described as a craft homage to Vietnam’s indigenous bia hơi, the Hơi Hơi IPA mimics the highly carbonated and in an ode to stoner culture, the ABV is a respectable 4.20%.
Most noticeable to consumers though has been the push by two breweries – Pasteur Street Brewing Company and Heart of Darkness – to promote distinctively branded, predominantly packaged craft lagers.
Pasteur Street’s God Water, a craft lager infused with Phu Quoc pepper, was launched in late 2019.
The craft lager has been part of the brewer’s push toward growing off-trade sales, in conjunction with their existing on-trade strength & national taproom network.
As part of the growing ‘lager wars’, Heart of Darkness took a slightly different tack and developed an endorsed brand – BiA – to differentiate from their core product.
Described as a ‘light, crisp and refreshing Czech- style Pilsner with a twist’, BiA has a distinctive black and red can design that has seen significant uptake since launching domestically this year.
This broader trend isn’t purely a Saigonese affair, either. Hanoi’s Turtle Lake and Da Nang’s 7 Bridges have in recent years brewed well-regarded bia hơi clones. Furbrew, another Hanoian brewer, has recently launched a ‘Light IPA’ coming in at a spectacularly low 1.9% ABV.
On the distribution and demand side, what has become noticeable in 2020 has been the uptake by bars, restaurants and retailers of craft lager options.
As venues seek to maximise consumption amongst local drinkers used to lower ABV options but avoid getting under the radar for encouraging drink driving, options like BiA and God Water are becoming attractive.
For an industry that has faced a series of painful challenges – from the end of international tourism to COVID-19 and regulatory changes – a greater focus on sessionability may be the key to success in the coming months and years.