If there’s one thing I’ve found that unifies disparate nations far and wide, it’s their beer cultures. There are, of course, the obvious ones like Germany, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Australia, Canada and, of course, the U.S. But then there are places that many people wouldn’t necessarily consider to be synonymous with this millennia-old fermented favorite.
Case in point: Vietnam.
I was in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) a few weeks ago and got to experience the Vietnamese beer culture first hand. As expected, it manifest itself most ubiquitously in the form of bottled and canned pale lagers—typically the country’s domestic 333 brand, or city-specific offerings like Bia Saigon, both from Vietnam’s largest brewer Sabeco; imports like Heineken and Singapore’s Tiger brand were also prominent. They’re widely available at most street food stands for around 15,000-20,000 VND—a whopping 75 cents to $1 in U.S. currency.
However, locals put their own spin on the beer drinking experience by—get ready for this—pouring it over large cubes of ice. While most Westerners would cringe over the practice, it actually makes sense considering refrigeration is not always a given, especially at those aforementioned street stands. (Believe it or not, the lack of refrigeration is a good thing. There are fewer places on earth you can get such delicious street food as Vietnam, primarily because everything is super fresh—it has to be.) Even when the beer is refrigerated, drinkers still get a mug with ice.
But lately something’s been changing in that Southeast Asian country. The influx of international investment that’s occurred over the past decade-plus—thanks to the normalization of diplomatic relations with the West in the mid-’90s—has not only whetted the growing Vietnamese middle class’ appetite for Western fashions from the likes of Dolce & Gabbana, but also for new frontiers in beer. Yes, craft/micro-brewing has come to Vietnam. I’ve sampled a couple of the brands, Gammer and Big Man Beer, both of which are influenced heavily by Czech and German traditions.
Most commonly, one would find “black” and “gold” varieties. The closest approximation, flavor-wise, of the darker of the two ranges from a slightly sweeter German-style Schwarzbier to a roasty, coffee-like porter-ish expression. The golds tend to resemble, in taste and appearance, unfiltered Czech-style pilseners. In the bars that offer them, they’re available on draft and, in many cases, 5-liter minikegs. Craft brewing in Vietnam is still in its infancy—think early-to-mid ’80s in the U.S.—but it’s a clear sign that the movement toward artisanal, flavor-forward beers is a truly global one. And although the styles may have originated in the West, consumption practices are 100 percent local in nature: Regardless of how cold the blacks and golds are coming out of the tap, many are still putting ice in their glass. I guess old habits die hard.