As the big guys muscle in, we ask: Is the Thai craft beer scene under threat?
On the first weekend of September, Show DC Oasis Outdoor Arena transformed into an oversized beer garden for the first edition of the Bangkok Beer Festival. Organized by Stone Head, one of the first Thai craft breweries to go “legal” (more on that later), the event lined up other boutique labels like Lamzing, Mahanakorn and Outlaw, each of which sold their beer for around B200 a pop. Inconspicuously among the small-timers, you could also find Singha, who not only charged B100 less for a large beer, but also helped bankroll the festival.
Though the organizers never claimed Bangkok Beer Festival was dedicated to craft beer, Singha’s presence, alongside Chang, Leo, San Miguel, Magners and Estrella, does raise a pertinent question: with the Thai craft beer market’s slow but steady growth, what’s in it for “Big Beer”?
BOOM OR BUST
This situation is far from unique to Thailand. In practically any market where craft beer exists, you’ll find reports of craft brewers coming under attack from the big guys. Over the past seven years, more than a dozen of America’s most popular craft breweries have reportedly been purchased by global beverage companies.
However, in Thailand, where prohibitive homebrew laws strangle any competition for industrial brewers Singha and Chang, there’s an extra twist in the tale. Thailand’s small brewery regulations stipulate you must brew at least 100,000 liters per year if you’re selling on-site or 10 million liters per year for distribution.
In spite of these legal hurdles, Bangkok’s craft beer scene has been booming for around three years. More and more budding brewers are taking their bottling operations abroad, incurring the heavy hit of import tariffs just to sell here in Thailand. While that means we pay around the same price to drink “Thai” craft beers as their American, European or Japanese counterparts, there’s been no shortage of bars popping up to sell them, including local-only specialists like Let the Girl Kill (747 Charoenkrung Rd., 080-599-6177) and Chit Beer (219/266 Baan Suan Palm, Koh Kret, Nonthaburi, 083-999-0935).
Singha has previously dipped its toes in the craft beer market. In 2009, it launched Est.33, its own attempt at a “Thai premium craft beer” that’s available straight from the brewery at Crystal Design Center’s swanky Est. 33 by Singha pub. At Thaifex Fair back in June, Singha even took the bold step of selling its beer under the glow of marquee lighting spelling out the word “CRAFT.”
“They seem to be pretty aware of the whole craft beer thing in Thailand,” says Bank Ratchapol, one of the owners of Taproom, Phrom Phong’s 26-tap craft beer bar that has another branch in Ari, referring to Singha. “There are rumors that the big guys have already enquired about buying some small breweries, which may seem a bit scary, but at the end of the day it comes down to taste.”
Earlier this year, Boon Rawd Brewery (Singha and Leo) was reportedly in talks to buy Full Moon Brewery (known for its Cha La Wan label, brewed in Australia and imported back here). When we put this to a Boon Rawd spokesperson, they told us, “Even if the discussion happened, the deal didn’t go through and wasn’t successful.”
Rather than feel threatened by the prospect of corporate buy-outs, Bank remains upbeat: “Mass beer will be a good speaker for craft beer. They can help expand the craft beer market and make people outside our community aware that other beers exist.”
BACK TO THE FUTURE
The current craft beer boom traces its roots back to the trail blazed by a few pioneering importers who gave Thailand a tantalizing taste of America’s small-batch IPAs and ales. Back in 2012, Beervana was the first company to import “craft beer” to Thailand, starting out with Rogue, a brewery from Oregon in the USA. To introduce Bangkokians to the idea that spending B250 on a beer is perfectly sane, Beervana founders Aaron Grieser and Brian Bartusch first had to give away 400 bottles as samples. Nowadays Thailand sits alongside Brazil, South Korea and the United Kingdom as the fastest growing markets for American craft beer (American Brewers Association, 2015).
Bartusch disagrees that big beer’s involvement in the Thai craft scene will come to any good, citing past experiences in the US. “I think it’s bad. [Singha] are trying to grasp and follow a trend but their motives are purely profit-driven,” he says. “[The big beer companies] are trying to get some recognition from the craft world by sponsoring events and likely buying craft brands just like the big breweries in the USA and other places. But it’s a marketing ploy and certainly does not come as part of the quest for better beer that led the craft movement.”
Rather than embrace the craft movement, Thailand’s restrictive market means we’re falling behind others in the region. “Look at Vietnam, 12 new breweries and brewpubs in the past three years! In Thailand, zero. Of course big beer companies in Thailand would never lobby to change these archaic regulations because they have a monopoly,” he says.
Monopoly or no monopoly, the craft beer scene can take some positives from big investment. Chit Beer’s Wichit Saiklao was one of the first of a new-wave of local brewers, and has been fined three times for hosting brewing workshops at his bar on Koh Kret island. Despite this, he welcomes the contribution that big breweries can make to the craft beer scene, if it strengthens the standard of local brews.
“I’m always happy to see the big guys getting involved in the Thai craft beer scene,” says Wichit. “Just because its craft beer doesn’t mean it has to have a limit on who can get into it. “It’s a normal thing to have new players in the scene as it’s just verifying that this trend is growing.”
Ironically, Wichit’s knows better than anyone the complicated measures it takes to make a craft beer legal in Thailand. He is part of a collective of local brewers leading a new project called the Mitr Sam Phan Brewery, a cooperative which could revolutionize the Thai craft beer scene. Together with Deva hops farm, Pattaya’s Wizard Brewery, Red Stone Brewery from Phatthalung, Kitten Beer in Prathumthani and Mickleheim Brewery from Bangkok, he is on the verge of opening the "largest craft brewery in Thailand," which would allow up to 10 aspiring beer-makers at any one time to practice their craft legally and let the public taste the results. All going to plan, Mitr Sam Phan could be up and running as a legal brewpub before the end of the year, giving craft brewers a safe environment in which to perfect their product taking their operations abroad.
This complicated (and expensive) solution to Thailand’s anti-brewing laws is not the perfect situation, but until this country introduces a level playing ground for big and small breweries, it should help with the one thing most people want: better beer.