Drinking the Chesapeake

July 21, 2009

ScottKimballScott Kimball, assistant brewer at Coastal Brewing Company in Delaware, emailed to say “I recently read your book …  and I’ve been following your blog as well and felt inspired to start my own blog on growing hops and barley at home in an attempt to produce my own organic beer.”

Wow! Glad to hear how the fermenting revolution is spreading. Check out Scott’s blog over at Drinking the Chesapeake.


Organic Hop Crop in Colorado

September 18, 2008
Glen Fuller's organic hop farm

Glen Fuller's Organic Hop Farm

The Delta County Independent (by way of Glen Fuller) reports on Glen’s successful crop of organic hops harvested a few weeks ago in North Fork Valley, Colorado.

I’m happy to see this emerging trend of a relocalizing and organic focus on hop production. Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery has been contracting with local farmers to grow hops in Wisconsin for an ‘all-Wisconsin’ beer they intend to brew. I’ve heard Peak Organic say they are also working with a local farm in Maine to grow some small-scale organic hops. Then there was the farmer in West Virginia who contacted me about growing organic hops there.

I’ve actually received quite a number of inquiries now about how to grow organic hops of how to buy my crop! Let me clarify on that point – I’m not a farmer and I’m not growing any organic hops (though my next door neighbor just harvested a couple pounds from his yard and so did one of my office mates!). However, I am an owner of the Seven Bridges Cooperative in Santa Cruz, CA and our company does sell organic hops. We sell mainly to homebrewers but we are also wholesaling to craft brewers who are dedicated to making certified organic beers. Chek our website for details (www.BrewOrganic.com) and contact us if you are interested, supplies are limited.


Sierra Nevada Goes Organic

June 16, 2008

I visited the Sierra Nevada brewery last fall and spoke with founder and owner Ken Grossman about their sustainability efforts. Given the limited role sustainability plays in the company’s marketing, I was pleasantly surprised to learn how far the brewery has already traveled down the road to sustainability. Then in April I had the distinct honor and pleasure to join Ken on a panel about sustainability programs at the Craft Brewers Conference.

Sierra Nevada\'s organic hop yard
(Sierra Nevada’s organic hop yard abuts the visitor parking lot right next to the brewery in Chico, Ca.)

One particularly surprising fact I learned was that they have an on-site organic hop yard. Two weeks ago I ran into the Chicago-area Sierra Nevada reps at the Green Procurement Expo at Chicago’s Navy Pier convention center. I ducked over to their booth for a ‘coffee break’ during the trade show, and learned that they are soon releasing their first Estate Harvest Ale which will be brewed with the organic hops from their own yard. The bad news is that it will only be available locally around the company’s Chico, CA home.

I also just learned that Sierra Nevada has conducted a greenhouse gas emissions inventory and had the results certified by the California Climate Action Registry and has signed up with PG&E’s ClimateSmart program to offset their emissions. Here’s a short interview with Ken Grossman about both of these efforts that just appeared on the blog Beer, Maine & Me.


Biere de Garde Dog Needed

April 6, 2008

It’s happened more than once. I have a beer for review or that I am saving for something special. Then I have some people over and forget to put that beer away properly. Next thing you know someone is drinking that beer.

Garde Dog

That’s fine, I’ll get over it, except that it always seems to be someone who doesn’t particularly appreciate the nuances of fine beer. For example, I once had a bottle of Midas Touch in the fridge during a raging party. The next morning I found the full bottle sitting on a book shelf with the cap removed.

Clearly, someone had opened it expecting a lager or a pale ale – or at least something recognizable as beer. They probably tipped back a mouthful and had to restrain themselves from spitting it in the face of their conversation partner. “Eww! Chris drinks the worst stuff and calls it beer. I just don’t get it.”

So last weekend, as we were preparing to have some folks over, I moved a bottle of Garde Dog, the new biere de garde from Flying Dog, way to the back of the fridge thinking we’d never work our way through everything in front of it. Sure enough, my good friend Dave showed up toward the end of the party and he and I proceeded to stay up ’til 3am listening to records and working our way toward the back of the fridge.

“No! Shoot,” I blurted out before gaining control of my manners. Dave had the bottle of Garde Dog open in his hand before I realized what was happening. “Drat, well just let me have a taste of that before you drink it,” I suggested after explaining that I had received it from the brewery as a review bottle. So taste it I did, but notes I did not take, and the next day I couldn’t recall a thing about it.

During the next week I felt obliged to find a bottle of this beer so I could write a proper review of it but my efforts to locate a retailer proved fruitless. Tonight, however, I am enjoying a bottle of Saison Vos from Sly Fox brewing, which I picked up on Thursday while visiting a friend in Phoenixville, PA. Saison and biere de garde are closely related styles, the latter being brewed in northern France and the former in Wallonia, the French-speaking western region of Belgium.

Saison typically has a low floral hop presence, a malt accented middle with peppery spice and mild sourness, and a characteristically dry finish. Biere de garde is similar but has a rounder mouthfeel due to a higher sweetness and lack of spicing. Despite its name, the Sly Fox Saison might be better described as a biere de garde or even a Belgian style strong golden ale, with its 6.9% ABV putting it at the very top of the saison range, perhaps due to an addition of candy sugar. Delicious no matter how it is classified.


Grains of Possibility: Ways to Use Spent Brewing Grains

April 15, 2007

(This appeared as my Spring 2007 Column in American Brewer)

According to Gunter Pauli of the Zero Waste Research Institute 92% of brewing ingredients are wasted. Most of the waste is spent grain that still has lots of useful protein and fiber. From a business perspective, that spent grain is potential revenue that most brewers are either giving away or paying to have removed as refuse. Why let that grain go down the drain when that mushy malt can be turned into money?

Feed Is for the Birds
By far the most common use of spent brewers grain is as animal feed, primarily for cattle, but also for pigs, goats, fish and just about any other livestock. In a 2003 survey of 45 breweries, 38 said their spent grain was used as animal feed, mostly for beef cattle and dairy cows. Some brewers, like Allagash, Deschutes, and Kalamazoo claim to fetch a small price for their grains, but most breweries give it away for free, which is certainly better than paying waste disposal fees. But cattle feed is neither economically nor ecologically the most efficient use of spent grain.

AVBC Compost
(Anderson Valley Brewing Company collecting spent grain.)

Cattle require as much as 20 pounds of grain per pound of beef, and need 2,600 gallons of water to produce a single serving. A new United Nations study (Livestock’s Long Shadow, December, 2006) surveys the ecological damage done by livestock, including sheep, chickens, pigs, goats and cattle. According to the report, the world’s rapidly growing herds of cattle are the greatest threat to the climate, forests, and wildlife, and cause a host of other problems too, from acid rain to the introduction of alien species, from producing deserts to creating dead zones in the oceans, from poisoning rivers and drinking water to destroying coral reefs. The world’s 1.5 billion cattle produce 18 per cent of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. Fuel to produce fertilizer to grow feed, to produce meat and to transport it – and clearing vegetation for grazing – produces 9 per cent of all emissions of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas. Oh, and boy do they stink – cow flatulence and manure emit more than one third of emissions of methane, which warms the world 20 times faster than carbon dioxide.

As usual though, small brewers are among those at the vanguard of a trend that is addressing these problems. Many brewpubs now feature the very meat that was raised on the brewery’s spent grain, often times raised according to organic methods of husbandry, thereby supporting local sustainability and limiting some of the environmental woes caused by global, industrial livestock. But while reciprocity between local brewers and cattle farmers may be better than sending grains to landfill, there are still plenty of good reasons to seek more efficient and creative ways to reuse brewers draff.

Compost Is the Most
According to the International Soil Conservation Organization, 65% of the world’s soil is degraded. Directly staunching the causes of topsoil loss (poor agriculture and forestry practices) may be difficult for brewers, but compost is an effective and accessible way they can help revive soil health. Schlafly Beer in St. Louis used money from a Missouri Department of Natural Resources grant to research various uses for spent grain and found that compost was the best option. Another grant, from the County Solid Waste department, got their compost system up and running. A local vendor packages and sells most of the finished product, and a portion is also used on the brewery’s own half-acre kitchen garden.

Great Lakes Brewing Company Compost
(Patrick Conway, co-owner of Great Lakes Brewing in Cleveland, gets his hands dirty in one of the brewery’s vermiculture compost bins.)

Carrie Farthman, at Schlafly, raves about the new-found life for their brewery waste, “composting spent grain not only cuts down on organic solid waste in our local landfill, but it creates a product of great use to local businesses and the well being of the land. We are thrilled at the opportunity to treat the byproducts of our primary production process as a valuable asset to our community, economy and environment.”

Turn on to Some ‘Shrooms
Spent grain compost can also be used as a growing medium for mushrooms. Schlafly is hoping to use another grant to renovate storage areas at their Bottleworks to create incubation and fruiting rooms that will use spent grains and spent yeast to grow oyster mushrooms they will serve at their two restaurants. Likewise, Great Lakes Brewing Co. in Cleveland provides spent grain and scrap paper to their partners at Killbuck Farms to grow organic shitake and oyster mushrooms that are used in entrees at their pub restaurant.

Bakin’ the Barley Goods
Spent grains also morph into all manner of delicious baked goods. Glenn Brady, brewmaster at Silver Gulch Brewing and Bottling Co. in Fox, Alaska harvests draff from the middle of the grain load in the lauter tun right after the sparge in a technique he says avoids teig (the pasty proteins that settle on top of the sparge grains) and gets only still-hot grain, which he says reduces the chance of unwelcome infections taking up residence before the grain goes to its intended use as an addition to his homemade breads.

The historic Frankenmuth Brewery in Michigan serves their chili in a spent grain “bread bowl”. Granite Restaurant and Brewery in Toronto matches jalapeno spent grain bread with their Best Bitter as part of a prix fixe beer dinner menu. The bruschetta served at Hales Ales in Seattle is spent grain crostini topped with fresh mozzarella, vine-ripe tomatoes, and fresh basil, drizzled with balsamic reduction vinegar. And if you think that sounds good as a first course, how about following it up with their slow-smoked pork shoulder in Hale’s Stout with barbecue sauce served on a spent grain roll. But it might be a toss-up between that and their Pacific Rockfish breaded and pan fried, and served with tartar sauce, lettuce, tomato, and onion on a spent grain baguette. Then there is Firestone Walker, World Beer Cup Champion Brewery and Brewmaster two years running in 2005 and 2006, whose ingredients reflect their commitment to locally and regionally grown ingredients, including the spent grains used to craft their pizza dough.

Dog Biscuits, Ethanol and Bio-Plastics
Looking for something a little more unusual than bread? Try drying and milling spent grain into flour and baking it into your favorite cookies. One brewery rolls it on to their own homemade dog biscuits. The possibilities in the bakery are virtually endless, but scientific laboratories have been creating some even more unexpected products. In Japan, the Akita Research Institute of Food and Brewing has developed a new technology that drastically reduces the cost of producing polylactic acid, the spent grain-derived basis from which they are making biodegradable plastics. In Akita Prefecture, one of Japan’s major agricultural areas, most food processing waste is incinerated or discarded in landfills, so the new technology is expected to be an economic as well as an environmental boon.

Coors Brewing has been producing another petroleum alternative with their spent grain, one that brewers have always made in low concentrations, ethanol. But this ethanol is made from waste grains and spilled beer and being sold as commercial fuel-ethanol. In 2005, Coors and project partner Merrick & Company, opened their second plant together in attempts to meet growing demand for the product.

“We’ve basically taken a waste stream and turned it into a revenue stream,” says Steven Wagner, the Merrick vice president who helps lead the Coors ethanol project. The ethanol is sold under a contract with Valero Energy Corp., which distributes the beer-ethanol to Diamond Shamrock stations around Denver. With federal regulations mandating ethanol fuel use and bio-based product procurement, fuel production and bio-plastics may soon become the most attractive option for brewers everywhere.


Reporting for Active Beer Duty

February 19, 2007

by Melanee Meegan, the Minnesota Beer Activist

tellahousemarker.JPG

I had the fortune of staying with Chris O’Brien, when I traveled to Ethiopia last year. Per his request to bring beer with me, I traveled to Ethiopia carrying a six pack of assorted Summit Beers and Superior Ales. The first night I was there he set up a beer tasting to get opinions on some of the beer he’d been brewing. He then proceeded to give me an unofficial beer tour of Ethiopia which included stopping and drinking tella.

(Caption: A cup hanging on top of a stick is a t’ella house’s version of a fluorescent sign saying “the bar is open.”)

Tella is a fermented barley beer that women sell out of their home. They make their living room spaces into a bar area. If there is a cup on a stick in front of the house, it means the bar is open for business. Brewing and selling tella is a way that many women can have their own income. After leaving Ethiopia I had not only learned about the coffee industry but I had become very knowledgeable about the history and politics (and taste!) of beers and spirits of Ethiopia.

astertedgeownerdrinkingwithmel.JPG

(Caption: Drinking a “birille” of Ethiopia’s other fermented beverage: t’ej, a sweet honey wine.)

Chris’ book has finally been published and I haven’t been able to put it down. My favorite chapter is titled “Putting the Ale Back in Female”! After finishing the book I was more than ready to join the beer revolution.


King Pilsner, Bia Hoi, Snake Wine, & the Sex Machine

February 18, 2007

Chris rice paddy hat(A version of this story originally appeared in the Sept.-Oct. 2005 edition of Zymurgy Magazine)

Ruou-ing the Day in Sa Pa
Drinking snake wine and driving a motorbike on unpaved mountain roads in northern Viet Nam’s Hoang Lien mountains in Sa Pa sounds like a bad idea. But I’ve never been accused of being too smart.

Just What the Doctor Ordered
Much like the French require a table wine at meals, hill tribes of northern Viet Nam prefer ruou gao, or rice liquor, as their daily staple. It is consumed by men and women alike, with every meal, including breakfast. If the concept of drinking hard liquor with breakfast appalls the American sensibility, traditional Viet Namese medicine must surely send us into fits of hysterics.

Chris motor scooterWaiter, There’s a Snake In My Wine
Our first day in the northern provincial capital city, Sa Pa, we decided to take it easy and stroll a few kilometers to a H’mong village called Cat Cat, said to have a pretty waterfall. On the way, we noticed a house with an open front door that seemed to invite us inside. I stepped in and asked for ruou. A young lady nodded. We sat on little plastic chairs at a little plastic table on a little wooden veranda overlooking what must be one of Viet Nam’s most breath-taking mountain views.

The lady dipped a small beer glass into a container that resembled a gigantic pickle jar and drew a fresh serving of ruou ran, the medicinal snake wine of Viet Nam. It is usually translated as wine, but is more accurately called a spirit. The mistranslation is presumably a holdover of the former French colonizers’ predilection for wine, but the ‘snake’ bit is no mistake. The plastic liquor container held several snakes of various colors and sizes.

SnakeSnake wine is just one of Viet Nam’s endless variety of medicinal rice liquors. The base is normally the same, a strong distilled rice fermentation. But what goes in it depends on the condition to be treated. Snakes, geckos, seahorses, and starfish are especially effective in stimulating the male libido, while ginseng and mushrooms improve intelligence and longevity. The usual instructions are to drink a glass in the morning and one in the evening for a few weeks.

As I sipped a slow glass of ruou ran our presence attracted a number of local women offering us products of their specialty craft: woven and embroidered silk clothes, purses and blankets. It was a nice opportunity to chat with the locals except we didn’t speak a word of Viet Namese or any of the local hill tribe languages and they knew only enough English to name their price. We haggled a bit and settled on some pillow cases and a little mouth instrument that is something like a jaw’s harp. I was hoping that one of them might be able to show us some home-distilling, but the language barrier was too great.

A Village Distillery
But back to Sa Pa to continue our search for authentic village ruou production. The day after visiting Cat Cat, we rented motorbikes and hired a guide to show us some remote villages and help us find a proper village distillery.

Mt. Fan Si Pan (which I like to call Mt. Fancy Pants since the villagers wear exactly that), Viet Nam’s highest peak at 3143 m., flanked us to the right on the opposite side of a steep valley terraced up and down with rice paddies. The road alternated between bumpy dirt, rocks, and mud. I rode in search of ruou, and with the help of our friendly guide Thom, I found it.

We parked our bikes by a bridge and walked to the Zao village of Ta Van. We followed a footpath through rice paddies speckled with animals: black cows with flat scythe-shaped horns, dogs, pigs, and rows of ducks, to name a few. Eventually we came upon a cluster of buildings resembling barns. These were traditional Zao dwellings. Two-story, wooden-plank constructions.

It was in one of these houses that we were introduced to Mr. Son, a distiller of ruou. He runs a humble, rustic distillery, producing about 60 liters of rice liquor per month. It took but a few minutes for him to show us his set up and describe the process, which Thom translated into basic but adequate English terminology.

Rice mashA round, shallow pan about two feet across rested on a round earthen fire pit. The pan contained the mushy remains of rice that was distilled three days earlier. This was bound for the intestines of his farm animals, but Mr. Son appeared to be in no hurry to feed them. Behind the fire pit was a rectangular open-topped cement water tank with a spigot outlet near the bottom on one side.

Son explained the brewing and distillation process: steam 15 kg. of rice. Place it in the pan with 30 yeast cakes, cover with a bamboo lid and allow to ferment for 8 days. Then fit a section of wooden barrel around the top of the pan and top it with a lid. Insert PVC tubing through a hole near the top edge of the wooden cylinder. Run this PVC down through the water tank and connect to the inside of the spigot near the bottom of the tank. Boil the fermented rice with fresh water for about two hours until all the alcohol steams off, exiting through the PVC piping, precipitating as it is chilled by the water tank and draining out the spigot into a one liter jerry can at the bottom. One batch produces 15-16 liters of ruou gao, plain rice liquor.

This rice spirit is produced and consumed by men and women alike in the rural mountain communities of Viet Nam’s minority peoples like the Zao.

Son grows the rice himself but buys (or rather, his wife buys) packaged yeast cakes in the Sa Pa market. A bag of yeast costs about 12,000 dong and has enough cakes for four batches. One liter of the finished product sells for 10,000 dong. Which means that after expenses, the Sons make a little under $10 per batch of ruou, or $40 per month at Son’s rate of four monthly batches. In a country where the annual per capita income is just $480, this is a decent supplement to farm earnings.

Mr. Son was sure to mention that his ruou did not taste sour and would not cause a headache. But we warned us to be careful in town because unscrupulous or perhaps just ill-informed ruou vendors might cut their beverages with dangerous liquids.

Ruou pharmacy

(Caption: A ruou pharmacy with all the usual fixins’ – goat heads, geckos, ginger root and dried sea horses.)

Tram Phan Tram
At the time of our visit, Ta Van, like the rest of Viet Nam, was preparing for the new year’s Tet celebration. In previous year’s Son has prepared as many as 60 liters of ruou for this celebration but this year he was a bit behind schedule and hadn’t managed to store any away at all. He estimated that his village would drink about 100 liters of it during the week-long festival. I didn’t get a village head count, but considering that these villagers drink ruou at every meal during normal times, they must be gulping the stuff down when they ring in the new year. As they say in Viet Namese: tram phan tram, which means ‘100%’. In other words: ‘Drink it up and don’t leave a drop!’

We spent the rest of the afternoon motorbiking further and further down the valley. The road worsened the farther we went. My butt hurt, but my hands and wrists hurt even more from steadying and steering the bike over rocks, around boulders, and alongside passing four-wheel-drive vehicles. The latter were a particularly tricky proposition. On one side, a fearless ton of metal hurtling towards me. On the other, a sheer drop over the side of a cliff. My strategy: don’t think about it, just keep moving ahead, enjoy the scenery and look forward to the next sip of ruou.

We eventually reached Bang Ho, a village of Tay and Flower H’Mong people. This turned out to be more of a rest stop, and an opportunity to chug a can of the Viet Namese equivalent to Red Bull – a nasty little sugar soda with some energy drugs in it. That and a Choco-Pie did the trick and after a half hour or so of playing with village kids we headed back to where we parked the bikes and readied ourselves for the long uphill trek back to Sa Pa.

Drying herbsOne Part Dried Twig, Five Parts Rice Liquor, & You’ll Feel Much Better
Just as we reached the bikes I noticed some women chopping twigs and sun-drying them on an outside patio. Thom inquired but wasn’t able to translate the name of the plant for us. He was, however, able to tell us that whatever the plant, it was to be added to ruou as a medicinal ingredient. Medicinal rice liquor seemed to be every where we looked.

Ha Noi Rocks
It was tempting to stay longer in Sa Pa, but Ha Noi beckoned. We took a day train and watched the rice paddies roll by. Meanwhile I chatted with an American in the cabin next to ours. By a stroke of luck, Earnest happened to be recently retired from the US Fish and Wildlife Commission, and he had been responsible for enforcing international bans on trafficking in protected wildlife. I had been very curious about the status of the animals used in ruou and Earnest just happened to know all about it.

Cobra turns out to be the only problematic animal. This also seemed like the most common type of ruou; it was displayed prominently by vendors everywhere. According to Earnest, if a snake even looks like a cobra, it is illegal to export it. Luckily I had thus far refrained from buying a bottle of cobra wine. Everything else, he said, is okay. Trade in pangolin, rhino and tiger is also problematic but apparently they don’t use those in Viet Nam.

3 bahsThree Bahs in the Bay
‘Bah’ means three. Our guide in Ha Long Bay (which Americans know as the Gulf of Tonkin, where the Vietnam war touched off) was named Bah; My age is ‘bah bah'; and I am holding a can of ‘bah bah bah’ beer.
The Micros
In Ha Noi, we headed for a few of the ten or so brewpubs that have sprouted up in the last decade. Somewhat to my surprise, the customers in these pubs are almost exclusively Viet Namese. The phenomenon was explained to me as follows:

Many communist Viet Namese had been to East Germany and other beer drinking countries during the communist era. When these types returned home they couldn’t find the kind of beer they had come to enjoy. When the free market started gung ho in Viet Nam, the untapped market for European beers burst wide open and more than a dozen brewpubs opened in quick succession. The market shook out a little and is now more or less stable at about eight or nine brewpubs in Ha Noi.

Budhist Beer Altar (Caption: It is common to see beer and liquor placed as offerings on Buddhist shrines like this one in the lobby of a combination hotel/internet cafe/bar.)

Legends
We had a hell of a time finding these places. They weren’t listed in phonebooks, and asking around produced no results. Finally, we stumbled upon Legends, which apparently was the first brewpub on the Ha Noi scene. A German man named Werner Jung oversees brewing, but the company is, like all the other brewpubs, owned by a Viet Namese. Werner only brews lagers, including a standard pilsner, a dark lager, a weizen, and a Christmas bock, all brewed with imported German malt and hops.

Werner was generous with his beer and his time. In fact, he confided, he really doesn’t have much work to do these days. After establishing the recipes and getting the system set up and in good running order, he trained a local staff person to conduct most of the brewing. Nowadays his job is mostly quality control. And so we sat and chatted and checked the quality of his beers.

Their business is doing well and expanding. They opened location number two in 2001 at a prime corner location in the heart of the Old Quarter. Between the two existing locations they can seat more than 500 people and they are opening location number three any day now.

Red Beer
Another brewpub nearby within the Old Quarter is, in what must be an intentionally ironic marketing ploy, called Red Beer. The place is painted red and features a strapping young man raising a pint designed in a style reminiscent of communist propaganda posters. The pub had only one beer on offer during our visit, called, of course, Red beer. Billed as a Belgian style red ale, it tasted more like a medium-bodied lager to me, with just enough caramel malt to lend a reddish hue. It was served at near freezing temperatures which made it difficult to tell just what it really did taste like. The communist style mural entirely covering a two-story wall made it a worthwhile 15 minute pit stop.

Ostrich Eggs
Painted ostrich egg lights adorn the bar at King Pilsner.

Tennis with King Pilsner
Easily the most exciting of the three brewpubs we visited was King Pilsner. The brewer, another German, was wintering in Japan, but company chairman Mr. Binh was more than happy to spend the afternoon giving a tour and drinking liters of beer with us.

Binh raised a nest egg doing food and liquor import-export and used this seed money to open a fine two-story, multi-building brewery-restaurant-tennis court-office building complex. He describes his motivation for opening a brewery as a combination of dissatisfaction with the quality of beers available in Ha Noi and an analysis of market readiness.

TennisTennis and beer . . . why not? Binh’s philosophy behind this unusual pairing is that start-up restaurants need differentiation to succeed. His hope is that people will come for the tennis and wind up trying the food and beer. It was hard to tell how well this was working. The two tennis courts had waiting lines, while the restaurant was nearly empty on a Friday afternoon. On the other hand he has fifty employees, so something must be working.

We didn’t have time for a meal, but the all-Viet Namese menu looked tempting. We did taste the beer though, and it was fantastic – certainly the best I tasted in Viet Nam.

Binh calls his trademark product King Pilsner. That may sound a little boring, but this is no ordinary pilsner. King Pilsner is really more like a bottom-fermented porter, a ruby-black, roasty creation with a caramel colored head, that drinks clean and snappy like a pilsner but clocks in at a healthy 5.6% ABV.

In addition to the trademark black-colored King Pilsner, Binh also serves a Marzen, a Dortmunder Export, and ‘fruit beer’. The language barrier prevented us from determining whether the latter was an ale or lager, but the cherries in it were understated and presumably it was the low 3.5% ABV that made Mr. Binh repeatedly refer to it as the ‘Ladies Beer.’

All the beers were excellent, and with Mr. Binh as our host, it was we who felt like Kings. His hospitality was abundant. Eventually we stood, somewhat unsteadily, to go, and loaded ourselves up with his brochures and promised that we would encourage our few Ha Noi acquaintances to visit his brewpub forthwith.

bia hoi deliveryBia Hoi
There are various levels to Viet Nam’s drinking culture. There is the ruou, which is traditional and used as much for its medicinal properties as its intoxicating effects. Then there is the recent brewpub phenomenon, concentrating on western style lagers and ales and catering to wealthy, world-wise customers. But the masses of Ha Noi’s male population seem to subsist on the product of a different kind of microbrewery: bia hoi.

I have heard that there are hundreds of bia hoi breweries in Ha Noi, and there are certainly many hundreds of bia hoi outlets, which are called simply enough, bia hoi. Literally, fresh beer, or morning beer, bia hoi is, from what I could gather, technically a lager, brewed with as much as 50% rice adjunct. And while a handful of foreign beer aficionados might disdain such a brew, preferring to drink their more expensive all-barley beers nose held high in the air, Ha Noi’s populace has no such concern with beer esoterica, nor do most of the budget backpacker tourists. Indeed, it is hard to argue with a 20 cent liter of beer. It is even harder to argue with 5 liters of beer for a buck. So no one does. Instead, they drink it with gusto.

This ‘fresh beer’ is so called because it is delivered in plastic kegs each morning to retailers where it is drunk until it is gone, to be replaced with a fresh keg the following morning. The kegs are dispensed with the simple help of gravity. A hose is attached near the bottom and out comes the beer, unless a thumb or some other obstacle prevents the flow.

I saw this procedure in action on my first day in Ha Noi. I picked a direction and started walking in search of a bia hoi. I was utterly incompetent in my lack of even the most basic phrases in Viet Namese, but I was only after a beer which I figured couldn’t be too hard.

hai long biaA Handsome Pig
I wandered streets crowded with open-fronted shops selling everything from chickens and noodles to leather coats and dishwashers. The open market has hit Viet Nam with ferocity. Manufactured goods are plentiful and cheap. Cases of canned, massed-produced lagers filled many of the stores to their ceilings. I persevered through this marketing madness and after nearly an hour came upon a woman sitting just barely inside a room that opened out into the sidewalk. She sat on a yellow and green plastic keg and held her thumb over a plastic tube emanating from another plastic keg. A tray appeared in front of her and, removing her thumb, she deftly filled each glass with frothy yellow beer.

I found one empty stool in the noisy, crowded room and a glass of beer appeared immediately. From among the rambunctious crowd a man sitting nearby greeted me in English. He asked my name and nationality, and then told me how good looking I was. Then he asked my age, to which I replied ‘bah bah.’ The only Viet Namese word in my lexicon means three. I learned it by reading the guidebook’s advice on how to order one of Viet Nam’s main industrial beers called 333, or ‘bah bah bah.’ I thought he must not have been impressed by my linguistic attempt because he responded by saying “You are a pig.”

This was confusing. Was I an attractive pig? He must have noted the concern registering on my face so he explained that according to the Asian calendar, 1971 is the year of the pig, and hence I am a pig for being born in that year. He bought my round, I slurped it down hastily (for I was parched and slightly uncomfortable), and bid farewell. My first encounter with bia hoi was a bit overwhelming and I was ready for a nap back at the hotel.

Hide and Seek
The following afternoon I picked a different direction, hoping to find an area whose concentration of bia hoi establishments was better than one per hour. I lucked out, discovered numerous bia hoi and tested several of them. Eventually, after becoming lost in the back streets of Ha Noi, I stumbled upon a bia hoi production plant. Thrilled with my good fortune, I sat right down among dozens of men watching TV in a large open warehouse style room, and I waited for a beer. None came. Eventually a man sitting nearby waved to get my attention and motioned toward a kiosk against the far wall. I approached the booth and held out my dong (ahem, that’s the name of the currency in Viet Nam). The woman took what she needed and gave me a token. I returned to my chair amid the long communal tables and held the chip up high hoping some kind server would see it, take pity, and give me a beer.

My devious scheme went exactly as planned and I was swooshing down a ricey pilsner in no time.

As I swilled, a little girl, presumably one of the proprietor’s, was having fun shyly approaching me, putting her hands to her face like ‘hide and seek’, running away, and then returning to start over again. I could think of nothing better to do at this moment than enjoy the game, so I decided to repeat my own game – the token procurement one – relax a while, and hope that eventually I might figure out how to get a tour of the brewery.

After a couple attempts at conversation with anyone who would listen, I realized I was getting nowhere using English. I could just barely spy the brewery works through an open door in the corner of the room. Judging by the large, stark, red letters, I guessed that the words painted on the wall above the door were a warning something along the lines of ‘Woe to Ye Who Enter Here (especially nosey foreigners!)’. Feeling a bit out of my comfort zone with the huge language barrier, I took the cowards way out and just peered through the door a bit. It looked like a brewery. The yellow stuff in my glass tasted like beer. Given the previous day’s successful handsome pig encounter, I decided to just call it a day.

Ice beerIcy Ricey Beer
I found a number of ways to enjoy bia hoi over the next two weeks. First and foremost I learned that it is important to drink it early in the day or else risk being disappointed later on. To bia hoi drinkers, freshness is crucial. No one wants to drink it if it is even a day old. So most shops only buy one keg per day. They know it will sell out before evening, but to buy a second keg would risk having some left at the end of the night, translating into a loss. And so people drink bia hoi early and often. Customers seem to have no problem drinking liters of it during breakfast and lunch.

Viet Nam also has dozens of industrial breweries. They churn out myriad lagers usually containing a high percentage of rice adjunct. The bottled results are plentiful and available everywhere. To my palate they were bia hoi’s lesser cousin. However, one must drink something with dinner, so I tried it the way locals drink it – with ice.

A nice glass of rice adjunct pilsner filled with ice cubes. Sounds like a beer snob’s nightmare. But that’s the thing I like most about drinking beer in foreign places – it’s foreign. Experiencing the unexpected broadens the mind as well as the palate.

Beer and snailsMy favorite way to drink iced rice beer is with a plate of snails, oysters, crabs and fried fish. To properly enjoy this, one must be seated on a tiny plastic stool placed on the sidewalk, the smell of fried food wafting from miniature grills strewn up and down the street in every direction. Piles of shrimp shuckings and various shells must lay in a heap dumped disconcertingly close by on the curb only a foot or two from the dining area. Iced rice beer is just the thing for circumstances like these.

One Night Five Times
In Ha Noi, Highway 4 is a good restaurant specializing in these medicinal spirits. Although their clientele is mainly Viet Namese, they try to cater to the special needs of tourists as well, offering tasters of the various liquors. I tried a sampler tray called the Sex Machine – four shots of ruou that are guaranteed to get it up, including my favorite one called ‘One Night Five Times.’ But the Dam Duong Hoac was interesting too, in that it contained the testicles and penis of a goat.

One final worthwhile destination for the beer activist. Koto Restaurant is a showcase of culinary expertise developed by former street children. These kids were hawking newspapers and shining shoes until Koto took them in, trained them as chefs and professional servers, and employed them at their restaurant. Young people who graduate from the Koto training program are now highly sought after by top end restaurants around Viet Nam. The Koto Restaurant serves a range of Viet Namese beers and is well worth a visit. The walls are lined with pictures of famous people who have visited, such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton.


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