Bia Hoi, Nha Trang and Phnom Penh

Some time ago I wrote an article for the web-site on brew pubs and bia hoi (fresh beer) in Ho Chi Minh City, commonly known as Saigon.

On a recent holiday in South East Asia I visited Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, spent a couple of days in the sun-kissed city and premier beach resort of Nha Trang and met up with an ex-pat friend in Phnom Penh. If you’re thinking of visiting any of the above locations, and / or like reading about beers and brewing in different parts of the world, then I hope this article may be of some interest to you.

Bia Hoi

There is currently a high rate of inflation in Vietnam so I wasn’t overly surprised to be charged 7,000 dong, @ 20 pence, for a glass of bia hoi in a pleasant restaurant in the historic old quarter of Hanoi. Having said that an English friend who lives in Siem Reap in Cambodia, but spends a lot of time in Vietnam, told me a glass of bia hoi in Hoi Ann, another popular tourist destination, can be had for 3,000 dong.

Nevertheless, I certainly didn’t complain about paying 20 pence for a half pint of refreshing, if not particularly memorable, beer after a day spent visiting some of Hanoi’s excellent museums. The two photo’s demonstrate first, the lengths I will go to in trying to publicise the Ealing beer festival and second, the popularity of bia hoi, as shown by the number of empty barrels, on a sunny Sunday in Hanoi.

Louisiane Brew House, Nha Trang

This excellent establishment was described earlier this year on Rate beer by a Dutch reviewer as serving the best beer in Vietnam and it’s hard to argue with his opinion. Indeed, I would venture that this is the best beer you will find in what was once known as French Indochina – Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos – and is a class above the various beers that I’ve tried in Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia.

Opened 10 years by a French couple the restaurant, as was, changed hands around 6 years ago and the new owners commissioned an experienced brewer from Australia, who now works for the Lion Nathan brewery, to set up the brewery and train two Vietnamese brewers. A range of different dining options, including some excellent sea food, are still on offer, the Brew House is open every day from 7.00 am until the following 1.00 am, and the web-site provides lots more information.

The brewery has an international feel as the equipment was manufactured in Europe, the malts are from Australia, the hops are imported from New Zealand and the yeast is purchased twice a year from a company in Oregon. The head brewer speaks very good English and tours around the brewery are available most days at 15.00. The hospitality offered at the end of the tour, it was a real treat to be able to try the beers before they are filtered, was so good that unfortunately I’ve forgotten the brewer’s name! The photo’s show the brewer and I sampling some of his fine beer.

My friend Max Bahnson, better known as the Pivni Filosof, says in his recently published book – Prague; a Pisshead’s Pub Guide – that the only beer that can be called Pilsner in the Czech Republic is Urquell and adds that this should apply to the rest of the world. Max wouldn’t approve of the name of the Brew House’s top selling beer, Louisiane Pilsner, but I’m confident that he would like the beer! It’s a clean tasting and well hopped beer with citrus flavours – thanks to the New Zealand hops? and a good bitter finish. All in all, a beer that would definitely hold its own in Max’s favourite pub, the Zly Casy.

May I take the opportunity to recommend Max’s book which is irreverent in style but full of useful information about where to find the best pivos and hospodas in Prague. See his web-site; for further details. Much as I enjoyed the Pilsner my favourite beer was the Louisiane Crystal Ale, I understand it is only available in the summer months, which could be described as a crisp pale ale with a light hop nose and an aroma of various tropical fruits.

Space precludes me from reviewing the other beers but they were all to my taste and I’d urge anyone who is anywhere near Nha Trang to go and check them out. I should add that the friendly and efficient staff all speak good English. The brewery doesn’t intend to rest on its laurels as plans are being made to brew a mandarin influenced beer for the next Vietnamese New Year celebrations and they’re considering producing a cider if the right sort of apples can be sourced.

Kingdom Brewery, Phnom Penh

Max is going to be unhappy again as the Kingdom brewery, which opened in Phnom Penh in October 2010, describes its first beer as being a pilsener.

The beer, in 33cl bottles with an attractive label showing a clouded leopard, is now available in over 500 outlets, mainly in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, and the company plans to start selling draught beer in the near future. The assistant brewer, who was kind enough to show my friend Dave and I around the brewery, told us that the beer is already being exported to Singapore and Hong Kong. The brewery sources its malts from the famous Weyermann's maltings, a protected historic monument which will be familiar to anyone who has visited Bamberg.

The brewery won its first award in April 2011 by way of a gold medal from the International Institute for Quality Selection, Le Monde Selection, in Brussels.

The brewery has a web-site which is not, in my opinion, particularly user friendly but the staff at the brewery, and the brewery tap, are very hospitable. The brewery tap has good views of the Tonle Sap river and a range of t-shirts, glasses and other products are on sale. The photo’s show the assistant brewer and my friend Dave – in a “retro” Guinness t-shirt – and the charming taproom manager, Zana, with her assistant manager.

I like the beer which is well hopped and has a crisp and dry taste. We were also able to sample a couple of bottles of the brewery’s new dark beer, which had not then be released to the general public, and were impressed by it – not least because the other dark beers generally available in Cambodia are, in my experience “export” style stouts with a high ABV, thin body, sharp taste and a metallic aftertaste.

As I said in my previous article beer is very unlikely to be the predominant reason for a British beer lover to visit Vietnam and Cambodia, there are many other reasons for visiting these fascinating countries, but the range of beers available is increasing and long may this continue!

John Bush - July 2011