Vietnam has an amazing beer culture.
Beer has been part of Vietnam for over a century. French who colonized Vietnam in the latter part of the 19th century brought with them not only expertise in wine-making, but also beer-producing. The first brewery, established in the 1890’s, is still operating and produces more than 2 billion liters of beer annually. As alcohol levels in Vietnamese beer are low (typically 2-4%), it’s not unusual to see locals imbibing as early as 8 am.
I am not a beer aficionado but after my trip two years ago to Vietnam I can see how one could become hooked on this beverage. Beer was everywhere we went throughout this long and slender country---from the finest restaurants to street-food stalls. Locals were consuming it on every street corner---as were well-dressed business men. It seems like beer is morphing into Vietnam’s coolest, hippest drink as upscale beer shops are springing up on nearly every corner not already occupied by a street vendor selling beer.
For the tourist, the variety of local and regional beers can be overwhelming. First, it appears that each city has its own beer named after the town: there is Bia Saigon (“beer from Saigon”), Bia Hanoi, Bia Hue etc… To complicate matters further, there are many producers of beer made in their name-sake city. Moreover, the increasing beer culture has led to a glut of microbreweries. Some have adopted the more traditional European styles, while other microbreweries specialize in home brews called bia hoi.
Bia hoi, the people’s beer,” is consumed in frightening quantities by everyone from street vendors to Vietnam’s newly rich. Sometimes called “fresh beer,” it is an unpasteurized, unpreserved product made before the sun rises and often consumed prior to sunset. Throughout the day motorcycle delivery men can be seen in large cities delivering bia hoi in everything from 100 gallon drums precariously perched on their mopeds, to mountains of sky-high piled small plastic jugs. Much of it comes from large breweries, however, mom-and-pop producers flourish as well. At about 15 cents a pint, it is often cheaper than bottled water.
Just this year the first book on Vietnamese beer was published in English. Beer Guide to Vietnam was written by Jonathan Gharbi. The book describes every microbrewery and brew pub in Vietnam, as well as other beer establishments. But in Hanoi (where bia hoi is king) pay attention in finding them---many are simply known by their address (often missing), or even the intersection they inhabit. New ones pop up and old ones close to relocate a few blocks away. No worries, it will be a fun treasure hunt…and a beer will never far away.
For those of you who are coming on the February 2016 trip to Vietnam with Wine-Knows, we will be sampling some of the country’s best. Here is a list of some of their highest rated beers: Bia Hanoi, 333, Saigon Special, Bierre Laure, and Saigon Red. You can be sure that bi hoi (the people’s beer) will also be on our list of must-trys.