Over the past two years, craft beer has exploded on the market. But who’s drinking it and will Vietnamese drinkers get on board? Words by Matt Cowan and Edward Dalton. Photos by Mike Palumbo, Bao Zoan and Julie Vola

 

The last few years in beer in Vietnam have been a whirlwind. First came the explosion of beer clubs which announced the arrival of a maturing market between the ages of 18 to 35 looking to drink beer, but in a different way. It was new, and it was very loud, but the product was the same.

 

Now it’s craft beer on the rise, driven for the most part by expat brewers who have worked out that Vietnamese drinkers are ready to drink something new and in a completely different environment.

 

There are already at least 10 craft beer brands in Ho Chi Minh City, up from zero in 2013. In Hanoi, there are close to six with that number set to rise even further.

 

While regular craft beer drinkers in both cities are familiar with what’s available and where to get it, newcomers to craft beer, often Vietnamese, are less so, and this is the target segment craft brewers are looking to convert.

 

Creating Value

 

The marketing tactics being employed by craft breweries in Vietnam make for some interesting analysis.

 

A lot of planning goes into concepts that aim to tempt drinkers away from their regular drink towards craft beer. In countries like Vietnam where cheap beer is plentiful everywhere, this is challenging.

 

Why should someone who’s happy drinking Tiger for VND20,000 start drinking something they’re unfamiliar with for four or five times the price?

 

This is when marketers talk of “value propositions” and how companies create value for target customers. Craft breweries will always find it tough to create value in the eyes of blinkered customers who are looking for cheap beer and nothing else.

 

However, the smart brew pub, rather than ignoring this segment, will have something up its sleeve to tempt those who are tight-fisted to at least give craft beer a go.

 

For example, one of Biacraft’s strategies for tempting its target demographic — Vietnamese males aged from 25 to 35 years old — is to make craft beer as accessible as possible in price, location and taste.

 

It offers beers starting at VND40,000, including samplers which are cheaper. This is not a high mark-up, and as brewer Tomas Bilgram of Furbrew in Hanoi says: “There are plenty of cheap beers out there already for people who just want to get drunk, but good beer needs good ingredients, lots of love and some playful experimentation.”

 

Because quality craft beer is difficult to produce on a small budget, Furbrew targets beer lovers at the high end of the market. Plus, they only brew small batches, including one-offs and seasonal beers.

 

Furbrew experiments using a combination of high-quality imported essentials with local ingredients. There aren’t too many places where you can find beers made using seahorse, squid ink and hand-cleaned fish-sauce salt crystals.

 

At Heart of Darkness in Ho Chi Minh City, they’re also positioning themselves as a premium beer brand. Their raw ingredients are imported, their brewer is from New Zealand, and their brewery is state of the art.

 

“I think we have a fair price point and we believe in our price point,” says John Pemberton, a co-founder of Heart of Darkness. “We’ve invested a lot of time and money making sure our product lives up to the premium brand we market ourselves as.”

 

Despite perceptions, drinking at craft beer pubs like Heart of Darkness won’t break the bank because they offer a range of beers in different sizes that vary in price. Besides, the idea behind craft beer is quality over quantity.

 

Smaller breweries like 7 Bridges Brewing Co. and Long Bien Brew in Hanoi, who are now coming into the market, are following an unoriginal but logical strategy by offering premium beers along with what industry insiders call ‘entry-level’ beers designed to nurture the tastebuds of newcomers to craft.

 

“Mass-produced beers are like plain white bread. Anyone can enjoy it, but no one craves it,” says Simon Johansson, one of the three co-founders of 7 Bridges Brewing Co. “Our beers won’t be made for everyone to love each one, they’ll go in different directions.”

 

Over at Long Bien Brew, founder and brewer Andrew Kirwan says that he’s already getting positive feedback from Vietnamese drinkers on his range of beers, which include an IPA, a stout, an Irish red ale, a Scottish amber ale, and a German wheat beer.

 

“I’m going for a balance between sweet and bitter, as the bitterness of many craft beers often masks the overall flavour.”

 

Back at Biacraft there are 30 taps and 40 different beers on rotation at any given time. At Heart of Darkness, they have 20 taps showcasing their offerings. This means that venues can cater for entry-level drinkers all the way through to seasoned ale professionals.

 

Given the Vietnamese palate for beer is said to be different from that of non-Vietnamese, this is a smart strategy. One of the brains behind Biacraft’s strategy, Albin Deforges, says that it’s needed a lot of patience, research, and trust in his gut to get where his company is now.

 

“Our marketing was initially based on our knowledge of the Vietnamese market for beer. Then we opened a teaser in District 2, which gave us greater insights into the market, followed by the establishment of Quan Ut Ut, which has worked as a tasting ground for our beers. What we discovered was that our Vietnamese customers were ready to try something different.”

 

Biacraft selected its second location in District 3 to increase the likelihood of capturing their target demographic. It’s located just off Cach Mang Thang Tam in a quiet street.

 

There are a number of coffee shops and traditional Vietnamese restaurants in the area, where Biacraft’s target demographic is likely to go. It makes perfect sense to plonk a pub right where they’re likely to hang out anyway.

 

East West Brewing Co. in Ho Chi Minh City, while not up and running yet, have located themselves thick in the heart of their target demographic, too.

 

Like Heart of Darkness, it’s located on Ly Tu Trong, a block or so from Ben Thanh Market, and is hoping to capture the higher end of the Vietnamese market and tourists in the area. East West, as its name suggests, will target Asian and Western customers with its beer and food menus. It hopes to have an immediate impact on the culture of Vietnamese drinking which has been more about getting drunk and enjoying friendship rather than appreciation of beer itself.

 

Same But Different

 

With so many beer offerings, exotic names, and flavours for the average drinker to remember, craft beer as a concept runs a risk of losing value. The temptation to call any of the beers just “craft beer” is too great. So what are some of the things craft breweries are doing to create brand recognition to differentiate themselves?

 

7 Bridges Brewing Co. draws inspiration from the famous bridges which span Danang’s rivers. “Our Fire IPA incorporates local tastes like chilli, ginger and other spices, and is inspired by the fire-breathing dragon bridge in Danang,” says Simon of 7 Bridges.

 

For avid readers, the origin of Heart of Darkness name needs no introduction. It’s apparent that co-founder John Pemberton is keen to push brand recognition hard, something done by naming beers after characters and imagery in the novel from which his brewery gets its name. There are beers such as Kurtz’s Insane, Pitiless Folly, Sacred Fire, and Primeval Forest, with creative images to match.

 

Unlike Biacraft, which has positioned itself as a place where customers know they can try almost any craft beer brewed in Vietnam, Heart of Darkness sells only its own beer on the ground floor of its Ly Tu Trong venue.

 

For Heart of Darkness, aside from choice and variety, another important aspect of its brand recognition strategy is about education, not just for new drinkers, but for staff as well.

 

“We want our staff to be able to talk our customers through the experience of having one of our beers and ensure they don’t get wiped out in the process,” says John. “It’s important for someone having their first craft beer experience to enjoy it, so they’ll come back.”

 

Heart of Darkness has also been able to partner with P4G, the sub-brand of the popular Pizza 4Ps, to provide food for customers different from other breweries.

 

While East West plans to offer its customers dining as well as drinking, they will be the only venue that brews its own beer onsite. Customers will be able to dine on Asian and Western food while watching the next batch of beer brew. That’s something East West’s Trung Dau is excited about.

 

“It’s kind of like a new revolution in drinking. It’s just the beginning. It’s going to be great in the future.”

 

Whatever the marketing strategy, whatever the plan, how the rise of craft beer in Vietnam plays out will continue to be interesting and attract attention outside the country. The exciting thing for brewers here is that Vietnam is embracing craft beer and creating an environment for experimentation, which can only mean good things for the continued rise of craft beer into the future.

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