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.
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 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.
Well, I’m outta here. I leave tonight for my annual vacation. After last year’s brief experimentation with a beer-friendly location (Belgium) we’re right back into the tepid light lagers of the tropics. Specifically, this time Sharon and I are off to Vietnam.
While Vietnam is not without it’s own, unique, take on beer, it doesn’t take much research to realize that it’s all pretty awful. If the idea of “street beer served as green as possible in plastic jugs” doesn’t thrill you, there are a few established breweries around Hanoi (the biggest city I’ll visit), and I imagine I’ll even try their beer. I might also go to the blatant Pilsner Urquell ripoff just for the novelty.
However, the fact that these breweries all seem to specialize in that wonder of wonders, light tropical lager, doesn’t mean I’ll like them very much. Don’t expect much of a beer post when I get back, is what I’m saying. I’ll likely head over to the on Belgian bar I found online and spend my time there. Chimay is sort of authentic Viet, right?
Check you suckers later.
So, I’ve been busy recently. You’ve probably noticed due to the lack of blog updates. Well, it’s for good reason folks, because I’m working on a side project that will directly benefit you. Why pimp my side project here? Well, what’s the point in even having a semi-popular beer blog unless I can shamelessly promote my other gigs on it?
If you’ve read any of my reviews of local beer festivals, you’re probably aware that I’m not exactly a fan. They tend towards the absurd, cramming hundreds (or thousands) of people into a fenced-off concrete-paved area, and serving them ordinary beer in tiny glasses. At least there’s usually a big cover charge to get in, so they have that going for them. Yet the attendees still find a way to get far too drunk.
To be honest, it’s not all bad. If you’re new to craft beer, these festivals are a great way to familiarize yourself with the broad, dazzling array of offerings out there, all in a very short period of time. Plus, brewery representatives frequent these festivals so you can ask them about the beer on offer that day, or their other products.
At least, you could if the line behind you wasn’t shoving you out of the way because it’s Their Turn, Dammit! Or if the people at the booth actually were the brewery reps, or knew anything about the beer. In reality, they’re often just festival volunteers who are there to work a few hours then drink for free.
Fast forward a few hours and things get louder, drunker, and generally not my kind of party. Yes, I’m a snob, and yes, I’d like to be somewhere with excellent beer, small lines, and a pastoral setting in which I can sip my beer out of a non-shitty glass without someone jostling me hard enough for my monocle to fall out, and into my beer.
That’s fine, I guess. It’s been pointed out that beer festivals aren’t really intended to be for people like me, and that there are a lot more people like that than like me. I get it, and accept it, but really I just want a festival that’s more geared at the high end beer geek.
No such place exists. Until now. I’ve teamed up with five other local beer geeks who are just as frustrated with the local scene to create our own festival. We were going to call it Horse Blanket, because we’re esoteric and cool and whatnot, until someone Googled “Farmhouse Fest” and found out that all the domains/handles were free. Farmhouse Fest it is, then.
The people serving you the beer will be from the brewery. The beer in your glass will be interesting, unique or awesome, or quite probably, all of the above. The glass itself won’t suck. The location will be the UBC Farm because, let’s face it, everything is better on a farm.
Actually, let’s talk about the farm a bit more. The main thing going out to UBC gets us is space. Huge spaces. With trees. And orchards. Look at our Facebook page, and you’ll see what we’re talking about. Thus, instead of a tiny hall crammed with brewery serving tables all lined up in a row, at Farmhouse Fest you’ll see individual tents with quite a bit of space between them. Room to breathe. Room to set up picnic tables and barrels, or to spread out a picnic blanket. We’re serious about that—it’s a nice field and there will be lots of open space, so slow down and enjoy yourself and your awesome beer.
I could rant a bit more about why it’ll be awesome, or you could just go read the damned website already. I wrote most of it, so it’s basically like Bonus Blog. Tickets will be going on sale at noon today, which should be right around now. Click here to buy ‘em. Best do it fast, though, because there aren’t very many of them.
Aside: Yes, those are fifty dollar tickets. Yes, that might seem a bit higher than the other festivals you’ve been to. No, I don’t think that’s too high. Did you read all that hot air above about space? You know what space is made of? It’s composed primarily of absent ticket-purchasing festival goers, and YOU have to pick up their slack. Frankly, having seen the finances, I’m surprised by how low we managed to keep that price, given our very low ticket cap (by local festival standards) and the extremely high cost of some of the beer we’ll be serving.