Barley Mowat 

On Vietnamese Beer and Local Festivals

with 4 comments

In short, the beer in Vietnam is shit. Truly awful. And no, the high humidity and heat did not alter my taste buds to appreciate flavourless dreck like absolutely everyone insisted it would. At several points during this trip, I found myself sweating out my last remaining ounce of bodily fluid, panting like a dog in danger of imminent heat stroke, and I still had no desire to quench my thirst with cheap lager any more than water. Plus, once the danger of dehydration passed, I would have absolutely murdered the shit out of a double IPA.

Woe to me, though, as Vietnam plays home to a wide variety of beers but hops are not a primary ingredient in any of them. For local brews, there are lots of options to drink for a wide range of prices, and here is how bad each of them are.

Bia Hoi — This translates to “Fresh Beer” in English, perhaps playing off the widely held belief in Vietnam that “fresher is better.” This is a philosophy which is hard to argue with when it comes to vegetables and unrefrigerated street meat but makes less sense when talking about beer. This no-name domestic lager is marketed as “brewed fresh today” and then sold to unsuspecting locals and tourists alike for anywhere from $0.30 to $1.50 per glass, depending on how much of an unsuspecting tourist you are. Based on my five samples, I’d peg that thirty cents per glass mark at about five dollars overpriced. This insipid backpacker-fuel is easily the worst beer in a country not exactly known for great brews. That, plus the fact that any beer actually brewed fresh today would be sickly sweet unfermented wort, means that the marketing strategy shows off the ignorance of the brewer, distributor, server, and consumer all at once. Sure, it’s cheap as hell, but just because something is cheap doesn’t mean you want it, nor should have it. If you don’t believe me, I have a $0.10 punch in the nose to sell you.

Bia Hanoi, Bia Larue, Bia 333 — All are pretty dismally bad: watery, slightly sweet takes on that global workhorse, the American Premium Pale Lager. Of the three, 333 and its Coors Lite-inspired “doesn’t honestly taste like much” approach might be the best of the lot. Of course, a “Best in Show” prize of this sort is a dubious honour, at most.

Much like how a vodka-chugging contest only proves that everyone involved are idiots.

Bia Saigon — Available in several horrible variants, the “Lager” version wins for both creative naming and actual flavour. I had one can of this that sort of, maybe, resembled a watered down Czech Pilsner, and that instantly made it the best locally brewed beer I had in Vietnam. Subsequent attempts to try this beer again exposed me to the dreck that constitutes their other lines (“Special” and “Export”), and also informed me that my not-awful opinion of “Lager” was either a fluke, or the subject of altered taste buds due to low-grade food poisoning.

Rochefort 8 — Okay fine, it’s brewed in Belgium and yes, it cost me damned near $15 for a 33 cl bottle, a price that–when considered in context of average prices and wages in Vietnam–would translate back to something like $100 for a pint in Vancouver. Still, this was by far the best beer I had in Vietnam, and even given the crazy price I’d absolutely do it again.

General Advice— In case it wasn’t clear, don’t drink the freaking beer in Vietnam. If you don’t trust me and, much like spoiled milk being passed around at a frat house, absolutely have to try it for yourself, do yourself a favour and only try beer on draught or from cans. Bottles are often left out in direct sunlight, and I did not encounter a single one that wasn’t light struck.

If I wanted watered down pseudo-Mexican crap, I could have bought a Corona.

If you absolutely must drink something, mixed drinks and hard liquor are all cheapish. Mid-range whiskeys of a variety of styles and qualities are pricier than the local beer, but all substantially cheaper than the same thing being served at home (~$3-$5). Scotch and Bourbon are especially ubiquitous in that region of the planet, so much so that the duty free shop at Taipei-Taoyuan International Airport looks like a high-end outpost of the Scotch Whiskey Heritage Museum in Edinburgh.

For something lighter, reasonably good wine from Chile, France and Australia can be found, but only at a modest discount over North American prices. This excludes the local vino (prefaced with “Vang”, or Viet for “winery”) including the semi-ubiquitous Vang Da Lat, which is available for a tiny fraction of the price of good wine, and not without cause.

Personally, I did not try this offering, as it was only ever proposed to me as a drink choice by a snickering Sharon, who upon cross-examination proclaimed it to have “a certain odeur de sewer.” Most moderately respectable Viet bottle shops and restaurants don’t even deign to carry it. A little bit of online research reveals that this particular type of wine has been known to be poured for well regarded sommeliers… while they were drunk… by snickering friends. They did not finish the glass.

So yeah, drink whiskey while in Vietnam.

– – – –

Now on to a brief note on local beer festivals. Unfortunately, I’ve had to part ways with Farmhouse Fest due to a conflict with this here blog. It basically boiled down to the other partners at Farmhouse Fest wishing to exert a level of editorial control over this blog to avoid me from, well, doing what I do best and going all Chuck on the breweries and importers associated with the festival, the festival itself, other festivals, the weather, banjo-playing hipsters, and society in general.

When faced with this reality, I offered to withdraw my participation and the other partners accepted that offer. BarleyMowat.com has been built on the principle of being beholden to no one but this bitter, opinionated bastard, and in the end I just wasn’t willing to move on that front. Other, more reasonable, people might have offered up some sort of control, but other people aren’t as stubborn and short-sighted as I am. Plus, other people smell weird. You ever notice that? But, I digress.

I end my participation in that endeavour amicably, and wish the remaining crew nothing but the best of luck with their excellent festival. On the plus side, not having to work on June 27th frees me up to, you know, actually enjoy the fest which is pretty good compensation for watching it evolve from the outside in.

Written by chuck

May 8th, 2015 at 2:22 pm

Posted in Beer and You

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4 Responses to 'On Vietnamese Beer and Local Festivals'

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  1. Good on you Chuck.
    It must have been a tough decision to withdraw from the festival.
    My level of respect for you went from 10 to 10.5.

    Yutaka

    12 May 15 at 09:23

  2. On a scale of?

    🙂

    chuck

    12 May 15 at 09:38

  3. Interesting about the fests, conflict of interest is something I take seriously with my blog and I think you made a good call. This industry has a certain amount of “lets pat each other’s backs” in it which can make it hard to get honest opinions. I think you made a good call, and quite frankly it’s way more fun to go to a fest than organize it!

    Vietnam, never been there but no surprise with the beer being bad. Looks like Rochefort was YVR bar prices there, curious if you brought back any Whiskey?

  4. Nope, didn’t bring back any whiskey. I generally only bring back liquor I can’t find locally, even if it’s cheaper via duty free. While the whiskey was plentiful, it was not anything special.

    chuck

    15 May 15 at 15:56

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