When I lived in New York I fell in love with American craft beer,” says John Pemberton, the man at the helm of the recently opened craft beer brewery, Heart of Darkness. “Then I moved to China, but there was no craft beer, so I started home brewing.”
John was born in Australia and raised in the UK, is a fluent Mandarin speaker, and was flirting with the idea of opening his own brewery. However, it took a conversation in a bar in Saigon to give the idea shape.
“My neighbour, Tony, said to a friend, Andrew, who I had just met, ‘We should go back to John’s place as he’s got better beer’,” he recounts. “So we went back and Andrew took a big slug of my IPA and said ‘We’ve got to open a brewery’.”
Not too long after, Andrew and John together with a third, silent partner, started work on what eventually became Heart of Darkness. With their own purpose-built brewing facility in Binh Duong and a three-storey venue in downtown Saigon, Heart of Darkness has hit the market with a bang.
Kurtz Is Insane
“We take a more traditional approach to brewing,” explains John as he talks about his beer. “We do mess around sometimes with all small-batch stuff, but it’s not a focus. It’s just fun. We’re trying not to be too gimmicky.”
With 13 beers on tap — they hope to increase this to 20 — made to recipes created by New Zealand brewer, Duane Morton, the Heart of Darkness serves up five core beers and one rotational beer. These include the Sacred Fire Golden Ale, the Kurtz’s Insane IPA and the Primeval Forest Pilsner, beers which are also distributed outside of the brewhouse and are made in 1,000-litre batches.
So successful have early batches of the core beers been that within a week of sending up 31 kegs to Standing Bar and The Republic in Hanoi, they were getting a new order.
“Hanoi just exploded,” he says.
It’s a good problem to have but it means careful planning.
“We’re already having to be careful with our capacities,” he adds. “We’ve got the capacity to brew 20,000 litres [per month], which is probably one of the biggest right now on the market, but we’re at a stage where we have to plan carefully to maintain that capacity.”
Besides their core beers, at present an additional seven brews are produced in small batches and are only sold at Heart of Darkness’s venue in downtown Saigon.
“We’re very careful how we balance that range,” explains John. “So there’s a lot of malt-full stuff that’s not so bitter, a good entry level into craft beer. There’s a lot of lighter beers — we’ve got a nice pilsner with a hoppy twist on it which is very drinkable and very approachable to the new craft beer consumer.”
However, what John really wants to develop is interest from Vietnamese drinkers. Biacraft in Saigon’s District 3 already has 70 percent Vietnamese customers, something he wants to emulate.
“We want to be a destination location for the Vietnamese,” he says. “If we can [get that same balance of customers], I will be a happy man.”
To achieve this goal, Heart of Darkness has deliberately divided itself into three separate spaces — a ground-floor beer garden and tap room, a first-floor restaurant and a second-floor sports bar. They’re also looking at the beers they’ve created and how they sell them to customers.
“Our [Sacred Fire Golden Ale] is definitely designed with the Vietnamese market in mind,” says John. “It’s 4.5%, very easy drinking, but bright playful hops at the front end and not too bitter.”
Using the 60-litre brewing system that they use for small batches, Duane Morton and the team at Heart of Darkness are playing around with other ideas and seeing what works for the Vietnamese market.
“We just want to play around and tweak it and get feedback on it, and tweak it again,” he says. “So with the small batch system we have the ability to really play with the recipes until we can see what works.”
The final cog comes with training.
“It will take a while but we’ll train our teams to understand the beers, to talk with authority about the beers,” says John. “The last thing we want is for a newcomer to craft beer to walk in, ask for an IPA, and then pucker up and run screaming from the craft concept.”
Heart of Darkness is at 31D Ly Tu Trong, Q1, HCMC or online at heartofdarknessbrewery.com
Photos by Bao Zoan