We often talk about local flavours, especially when it comes to cocktails. The reasons are simple: we love the taste, and they remind us of home.
The funny thing is that the definition of local differs depending on where you’re standing. We’re quite familiar with Singaporean flavours, but how about those of the countries close by? Do others in the region express their uniqueness through their drinks? Can we get a glimpse of another land through a beer glass? We tested this theory with Vietnamese brewer Pasteur Street Brewing Company.
An Unusual Provenance
By now, craft beer has taken on quite the life of its own in the US, and has started to extend its branches to Southeast Asia. While this is not a new phenomenon in Singapore, other countries in the region, Vietnam among them, are at the beginning of their craft beer journey.
Beer and brewing are not new to the Vietnamese, and they have, in fact, a vibrant beer-guzzling culture. A selection of locally brewed lagers that was commonly served with snacks and street food, all the way from conventional spring rolls to fried crickets. Craft beer however, was pretty much unknown there until very recently; the bygone pre-craft-beer era was less than five years ago. Naturally, there were some enterprising folks who saw this opportunity.
What’s interesting is that it wasn’t the Vietnamese who started getting recognition for incorporating local flavours in their craft beer. In 2014, Pasteur Street Brewing Company was set up by a small team of Americans in Ho Chi Minh. We’re not sure if they were actually the first craft brewery in Vietnam; but they were definitely pioneers.
Good Morning Vietnam
According to brewer Dave Byrn, the company’s goal is to be “Vietnam’s craft leader”. An ambitious goal for a young company set up by a band of foreigners, but Pasteur seems to be living up to the claim. They picked up the gold at the Asian Beer Medal for their Spice Island Saigon Saison and at the 2016 World Beer Cup for their Imperial Chocolate Stout. All this before their third anniversary.
Of course, the brewers are no novices. Founders John Reid and Alex Violette are veterans in the American scene. Head Brewer Dave Byrn himself left a comfortable corporate job to make beer in Florida. He might be something of a masochist, because taking an 80% pay cut was just the tip of the iceberg. When Reid and Violette offered him a job brewing beer in Vietnam, he packed up his bags and relocated halfway around the world.
Byrn is both modest and coy when he describes his process in creating Vietnamese craft beer. He just makes things which he likes and he thinks people might also like. He just happens to like the flavours in Vietnam. This has resulted in some rather interesting creations such as a Passionfruit Wheat Beer, Durian Wheat Ale and Watermelon Wheat Ale.
We’ve only tasted the Passionfruit, and it’s quite unlike any beer we’ve ever tasted. It actually bears a striking resemblance to a pure passionfruit juice, with a very tart, fruity flavour. The natural bitterness of hops helps to add balance to the beer, but there’s no mistaking it for anything ordinary.
The passionfruit is only one of the local ingredients that Pasteur Street has picked up. Vietnamese jasmine, coffee and pomelo also features on the list of reagents. Yet, it’s not a matter of ticking things off a list and calling a supplier in Vietnam. There are few formal supply chains set up, which means that obtaining these fresh fruit involves a long drive to the grower and a fun time figuring out how to get all the produce back to the brewery. It’s a great deal of hard work and investment for uncertain rewards; not all experiments end up working out for the best.
While the local ingredients feature prominently in their beer, Vietnam is rather short on one very important piece or the puzzle: hops. Without it, beers lose their characteristic refreshing bitterness. Importing the bitter flower has proved to be no mean feat, but worth the effort to make sure the beer is freshly made on site in Ho Chi Minh.
Subtlety and the fine line
Heavy bitterness from the hops is the bedrock of modern IPAs, but Byrn combines it with jasmine flowers for a pleasing result. The Jasmine IPA is far lighter and more floral than the usual Indian Pale Ale, with a feathery light aroma and body. The jasmine is noticeable, but it doesn’t fight for the limelight, nor does it obliterate the character of an IPA. It works well in the scorching heat and humidity of Southeast Asia. It also goes well with a nice crunchy banh mi sandwich.
Its one thing to include local flavours in a drink, and it’s another to make a drink that works these flavours into a harmonious whole. What keeps this fusion of cuisines from becoming a gimmick is the quality of the beer itself. Would it be a drink that people want to enjoy on its own merits?
To achieve that, the differentiating flavours must sometimes be even more subtle. The Porter Roast beer used a combination of espresso and Vietnamese coffee. What came out of the bottle was acidic, fruity but not excessively so. It had a wonderful roasted grain flavour and the pleasant bitterness and lingering fragrance of a well roasted cuppa. It reminded me of the dripped Vietnamese coffee we get here in Singapore, which was after all, part of the point. Oh, and it was quite delicious.
Summing it all up
Well, the question remains if we felt like we caught a whiff of Vietnam itself.
Well, of that there can be no doubt. The beers felt at once familiar, but also exotic. Unusual combinations of flavours worked unexpectedly well, melding to make a delicious whole.
What’s the last word on these unusual brews? We’d use the term memorable.
If you’d like to check out some of these beers, and get some Vietnamese food to boot, you can check out SPRMRKT’s ongoing Vietnam festival, which runs till 20th March 2018. You can get details here.