Written by Freddie Quick

Lumbered with a somewhat simple drinking partner and an unsuitably snug pair of trousers for a sweaty sojourn around the city, Freddie Quick goes in search of Saigon’s best microbreweries.

My last experience of drinking locally brewed beer did not end well. Memories are hazy, but it involved a capsized stool and a sickly stomach.

After a suitable recovery period, I decided it was time to get back on the horse, so to speak. This time was going to be different, though.

A beer-loving colleague had claimed that Hoa Vien (28 Mac Dinh Chi, Q1) was a must, so I heeded his advice and made this my first port of call on my tour of the microbreweries of Saigon. As I hopped on the back of a xe om, I was excited at the prospect of sampling quality beer in pleasant surroundings.

First In

The novelty factor is a definite perk upon entering Hoa Vien, the first microbrewery to set up shop in Vietnam. A stylish Czech car from 1936 greets you on the way in before you pass an eight-foot imitation beer glass. Decked out in the style of a Bohemian drinking hall, the Brauhaus’s dark wooden furniture blends harmoniously with the copper tanks that stand behind the bar.

In the absence of a jolly Czech beer connoisseur to provide a beery low down, I pulled up a stool and inspected a pamphlet: “Established in 1995, Hoa Vien has become a familiar destination for beer lovers in Saigon. Due to the application of Pilsen traditional brewing technology and the supervision of Czech brew masters …”

It certainly seems this place is a solid choice for finding good natural beer in Saigon.

Fearful of being ossified before sundown, I opted for a 0.3 litre regular lager for VND26,000; with a lower alcohol by volume of 4.4 percent than its dark brother at 5 percent, I felt this was probably a wise choice. For those with more destructive aspirations and a posse of drinking partners, there is the 20 litre party keg on offer for around VND1.5million. Filled with nostalgia for the real ales I’d enjoyed in England, this lager was a more than welcome arrival. And this glass of beer, with its a hoppy palate and a smooth aftertaste, got me in the mood for more experimentation.

Hoa Vien is an intriguing blend between beer museum and drinking hall. Cabinets line the walls filled with traditional Czech instruments and a medley of beer trinkets. Real beer scholars can observe each stage of the meticulous brewing process; so if you want to see how they mash malt to activate enzymes or generate ethanol by catalyzing yeast and wort, this is your place. If like me you are bamboozled by such lager jargon, then check out their website (www.hoavien.vn) for a beginner friendly breakdown to brewing.

Serve Me, Wench

Next stop on the suitably mini-microbrewery tour was the Lion Brewery at 11C Lam Son Square in District 1, right beside the Caravelle. Distinctly different to the ambience of Hoa Vien, this establishment felt more like a vacuous school dinner hall. Unlike most German or Czech brewpubs that choose old-fashioned furniture, varnished benches and brass chandeliers, Lion’s decoration style is clearly different. Architect Nguyen Tu Nguyen says he wanted to make customers feel like they were sitting in a garden; therefore the ceilings are high and there are multiple windows to admit as much natural light as possible.
Just like in the previous drinking hole, customers can enjoy their draft beer while investigating the entire production process. Brewed by their very own master brewer, Lion’s’ beer adheres to the ‘German Purity Law’, which stipulates that only water, hops and malt can be used in the brewing process. With these three ingredients imported from Germany, they use a Kaspar-Schulz brewery- the oldest and most exclusive manufacturer in Germany.

Whatever Lion lacks in terms of setting there surely can’t be any complaints about the Munich-style beer. Going dark rather than blond, and accelerating to 5.3 percent, this beer (VND24,000) drafted from stainless steel tanks was fresh, full-bodied and über-tasteful.

Adding to the experience was our waitress who was dressed like a traditional beer maiden; resisting the urge to address her as a ‘fair wench’, my eyes flickered over a famous beer quote strewn across a banner on the adjacent wall: “In Great Britain it’s estimated that 92,749 litres of beer, each year are lost in beer drinking special hair.”

Confused? So was I. Still trying to decipher that strange fact, I was glad to notice the menu provided some solace, claiming that their beer contained healthy ingredients like Vitamin B.

Not only good to drink but also apparently good for your body. Feeling a creeping sense of merriment typical to someone with the tolerance of a 14-year-old girl, we hailed a cab and directed the driver to another brewy pastor for some more sampling.

The Master Touch

Arriving at Bia Tuoi Tiep on 107 Pasteur in District 1, was pretty impressive. A huge mural with a beer maiden honking on a trombone and a bubbling fountain grace the forecourt (a nice option for an al fresco ale), and behind, a grand mustard yellow building houses the Czech microbrewery. Perched atop another dark varnished stool, I selected half a litre of vang or gold beer and soaked up the surroundings. That now familiar whiff of a brewery hit me, an unusual blend of a bakery and a sauna.

The leader of this outfit is a Vietnamese resident who returned home after 20 years working for a number one Czech brewing company, Gambrinus Master, to start his own business. In 2005 he was successful in setting up the first Gambrinus furnace in Hanoi, and soon continued his development by adding Ho Chi Minh City to the expansion.

The beer here has been carefully brewed under close observation using the Gambrinus technological process. It’s this meticulous attention to detail that leaves the beer that has been plonked in front of me tasty and refreshing.

They claim the beer is “completely deoxidized and will not leave you with a headache,” but somehow I’m not so sure those sharing the 50 litre tank for VND3.4 million would vouch for the credibility of this statistic.

Drink it Like a Big Man

From here I progressed to the multi-purpose Lan Anh Country Club in District 10, which besides its gym, pool, restaurant and tennis courts, also boasts its own microbrewery. The stylish wooden house makes its own Golden Prague draught beer, importing ingredients from the Czech Republic to ensure that the gold and black beers on offer taste like the real deal. Here guests can also sneak a peak at the beer making process though the glass of a closed room on the ground floor.

The brew here is produced using the traditional Pilsner technology from the world renowned Staropramen brand. I decided to finish my beer bonanza with a one litre of black beer served in a traditional ceramic Czech mug.

If you still have a thirst for more brewed beer, and don’t want to gulp down a bia hoi that tastes like a puddle, then the city’s numerous Big Man Breweries will serve you up a foamy beer, but don’t expect much more than just that. Another option is the Nguyen Du Brauhof (98 Nguyen Du, Q1). Housed in its own villa and usually with a guest draft available as well as its own brews, keep this place a secret. Sometimes there are places you just don’t want to tell people about.