Craft Beer 101: Ask the Experts at Wishbeer
For a long time, the Thai beer market has been saturated by only a handful of brands. The recent wave of craft beers that have penetrated the market has livened up the scene and has given life to a scene that once considered by many as boring and dying. We visited Jerome Le Louer, founder of Wishbeer.com and get his insights on what craft beer is and what the future of the scene in Thailand looks like. These are his words.
Hello K. Jerome, thank you for having Siam2nite at the Wishbeer headquarters. Let us jump right in. First of all, I want to ask you about Wishbeer a little bit. When did Wishbeer start?
Thank you for being here! Well, Wishbeer started about 4 years ago. Myself I am French, I have been in Thailand for 13-14 years working in finance mostly. My last assignment was in a web company. I started Wishbeer as a side project, a hobby kind of and I was lucky because at the time the whole craft beer wave was just starting to pick up in Thailand.
A lot of new brands were coming in like Brewdog and Mikkeller. I got good traction thanks to that, starting off first with a B2C business model. After 2 years of that we thought we needed a place to really share the beers and meet our customers – beer is very social you know – so having a physical place is important. We started off with a pop-up store for 9 months and then moved to our current headquarters in January 2016 where we have the bar and the beer shop.
Do you call this “Home Bar”?
Yeah. “Home Bar” actually comes from home delivery. We wanted to keep the homey feeling so we called it Home Bar.
Well, clearly Wishbeer started off from a passion as craft beer enthusiasts. For some people who do not know “craft beer”, what makes craft beer different from normal industrial beers?
For us, we are not particularly focused on just “craft beer” if you really think about it. We are focused on good beers! Quality products. It happens that craft beer is often synonymous to quality. Well, to clarify there are a set of rules defined in Europe, the US – they all have their own definition. In general, there is a maximum production quantity if you are to be called a craft beer. You also have to be an independent brewery and also you need to use quality, natural products. Basically, craft means you do it with your hands.
So not industrial production where there is almost no love put into it? Hand-made beer in other words.
The characteristic of craft beer is also separated into different types and categories depending on the ingredients and flavors. Whereas in your normal industrial beer you typically have just your lagers. Can you give us an introduction to some of the different types of beers and how they may taste like?
Lagers do not have a lot of taste, especially industrial lagers. They do not use a lot of ingredients and it is made to be cheap and sell fast. On the contrary, in craft beers there is a focus on quality, taste, and aromas. The main ingredients of beer are water, malt, and hops. Depending on the ingredients you put you get sweet tastes – like some of the Belgian beers because they use more malt than any other beers.
If you look at the American beers they are more focused on hops and they tend to make the beer very bitter. Myself I lived in the North of France for a bit so I was raised with Belgian beers – so I like the Tripels, Belgian style very malty. But you know, as my pallet develops and I taste more and more beers I tend to like other styles as well. British styles like Guiness – creamy stout, is light but has a lot of flavors. You also have sour beers, where there is almost no sugar in it so it tastes very sour and it may be somewhat difficult for people to like it. I also like the IPAs.
IPAs or Indian Pale Ale is a very strong and particular taste, right?
Well it depends. You have levels of bitterness – there are IPAs with low bitterness and other IPAs with high bitterness. It all depends on the ingredients.
You talked about your pallet developing a bit earlier. As a Thai person who may have not really gotten into the craft beer scene just yet but is looking to explore it, where would you recommend that they start then? I for one would not jump right into the bitters.
True, but if you do not try you do not know if you are going to like it or not. My advice would not be “hey start with this or that beer”. Different people have different ways of starting things but I would say just try and see for yourself if you like it. Different people, different tastes. But the one thing I would say is to come back to it after you have tasted it – even if you do not like it – because as your pallet develops you might like things in 6 months from now that you do not like today. It is a bit like wine where your pallet and taste buds really develop as you experience things.
Obviously, it is easier to start with things that are not too extreme. Chalawan, a Thai craft beer, has a very good medium taste pale ale. It is nothing extravagant but it is a solid pale ale. Then you have certain IPAs that are low in alcohol so the bitterness is not too overwhelming. In essence you can start with anything with a low alcohol content because the lower the alcohol the weaker the taste of the beer because the alcohol supports the taste of the beer.
Is it generally true then that because craft beer has so many ingredients it is a little higher in calories than your typical industrial beers?
Actually, not really. The calories of the beers are mostly related to the alcohol content.
For those who are health conscious, they would have to drink the beers with lower alcohol content then.
So, what are some of the weirder or creative ingredients you have seen in some of these craft beers?
You know, the Americans they have fun with the ingredients. They tend to be more creative than the Europeans. Typically, the beers in Europe are very “traditional”. The kind of recipe that has been around for 200-years sort of thing *laughs*. But you know it is a good beer so you do not want to change it!
But because in the US where the scene is more recent, they can be more creative. Also, because there are so many breweries and they want to differentiate themselves from one another. I have seen beer with chili, bacon, and there is another one that came out, it is a donut flavored stout – like a dessert beer – it is quite interesting.
Would you say then that the US has a pretty impressive craft beer scene then because of the variety that you can find?
I mean there are thousands of brewers in the US! They are the ones who really started the craft beer wave. Now it is coming to Europe, to Asia. There are a lot of Thai brewers too which is very exciting.
With the Thai brewers emerging, what are some of the exciting ones you have been involved with?
They all have their own identities. Different brewers approach the market differently. Some stay very traditional. Mahanakhon for example has a white beer which we have on tap, they use something very close to Belgian wheat so it tastes very traditional. It is a good solid beer that does not take too many risks. Some go a bit more unique like Lamzing. They have a beer called "If You Like Pina Colada" which tastes like the cocktail. Stone Head does a lot of wheat beers which is also very close to the Thai taste preference. There are new craft beers coming out every month. Most recently we saw Yaksa and Spacecraft.
It seems quite easy to start a brewery here, which begs the question, can anyone start a craft beer brewery and get the right distribution?
It is kind of tricky in Thailand actually because it is illegal to brew. That as a start is already difficult. A lot of these brewers resort to perfecting their recipes locally then instead of brewing in Thailand, they brew somewhere else. Chiang-Mai Beer is brewing in Laos, Stone Head set up their brewery in Cambodia and the impressive thing about their brewery is that others are now using their facility to brew. They build this community together and they want to approach the market together. Others do their contract brewing in Taiwan, Japan – do you know Chalawan is brewed in Australia although they call it Thai craft beer?
The interesting thing about all of this is that these craft beer brewers seem to not view themselves as competitors, but more like a community that helps each other.
Yes, that is very true. They are building the market. The market is huge anyway so they are not really competing with one another. They brew very small batches that go out of stock very quickly. It is just the birth of the Thai craft scene.
The hope is to get picked up and distributed by Wishbeer!
*Laughs* hopefully yes!
Wishbeer carries quite a large variety of craft beer, the logical question would be what are some of the best sellers right now and what are some that you recommend people try?
For us we want to support good beer. We also want to support the craft beer scene in Thailand. What we try to do is be the marketing channel for these breweries so we organize a lot of events. There are different types of customers, those who know what they want and they only buy that, but because we have a lot of items that come out every week there are some customers that buy 10 different types of beers and try them all. If they like it they buy more if they do not like it then they just buy something else next time.
People are really on a discovery mode trying new stuff and seeing for themselves what they like. Things that sell well are all the wheat beers like Hoegaarden, Inedit. But also Punk IPA from Brewdog, which is a Scottish brewery. Chalawan does very well too. They are the first Thai craft beer that received a gold medal at the World Beer Awards making them very popular. German beers are also popular, they are not craft but they make good beers!
As a customer then, it seems like at the Home Bar you have quite a large selection on tap which is rotating as well as a big online presence for them to order online!
With that it seems like it may be best to come visit you in person. What are some upcoming events that people can look forward to experiencing all of this for themselves?
We try to make as many events as we can because customers ask for it. Our suppliers also ask for it. It is a good way to promote the beers that we have. For Songkran, we had a Thai craft beer festival where we had all the Thai craft beers on tap and in bottles. After that we had a Fuller’s English beer event where they were releasing a stout. Then after that we had a Baladin event, for which the Italian brewer came to Bangkok to appear at our "meet the brewer" event. So, drop by! I am always here in the shop so if you ever come, say hi and come chat some more about craft beer.
Words by Tang Kalayanamit
Images by Siam2nite