Brewing Discontent: Frothy Passions Erupt When Thai Craft Beer Goes Big

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski / Flickr

BANGKOK — Crack open a bottle of Chiang Mai Weizen from Thailand’s first legal craft brewery, Chiang Mai Beer, and out pours a light straw color, almost golden or banana yellow. There’s a slight haze, typical of the weizen, or wheat style.

However, its recent debut started a firestorm on social media, with this particular beer becoming the focal point for a controversy that’s been brewing ever since the race to produce a large-scale, Thai-made craft beer began about two years ago.

In December, Chiang Mai Beer won that race, becoming Thailand’s first domestic craft brewery to distribute on a large scale. It got around the illegality of home brewing by sending it to be bottled in Laos and shipped back to Thailand to be taxed as “foreign-made beer.”

Despite this feat, critics were quick to slam it as awful and blame the move to large-scale production.

“The weizen has no mark of weizen at all,” proclaimed Yaksa Brewery. “The beer was too light. There was not a single trace of wheat. Every smell was overwhelmed by the rotten and damp smell. I tried to continue drinking it to really know it, but I had to give up. The beer was clearly infected.”

Artid Sivahansaphan, who runs a popular beer fanpage called it flat, weightless and hardly worth the bottle’s 180 baht price.

“When the brewery was still underground, they used to produce beer in a keg, and I have tasted it,” Artid wrote. “It was pretty good, unlike these two beer lines, that are not up to standards.”

Reached by telephone, he blamed the alleged low quality on the brewer’s lack of expertise in brewing large quantities of beer, which is vastly different from small-scale, underground craft beer.

But the beer has not gotten a bad rap from everyone. Q, the founder of popular beer blog Beercyclopedia said it’s true to style, or as Q put it, “good for a wheat beer.”

I’d agree with that. Chiang Mai Beer comes across to an experienced palate as a sincere effort to brew a wheat (weizen) beer.

The first sip was pleasantly surprising, at least because it wasn’t completely god-awful like the online banter led me to believe.

It tasted like standard homebrew; a taste familiar from sampling many Thai-made craft brews during the past few years. Flat and slightly metallic – but drinkable, with a minor funk (not the good kind).

 

Trouble and Toil

For its part, Ohm at Chiang Mai Beer says they’ve heard the feedback and brought in professional consultants and are conducting lab tests to improve upon their debut batch.

The negative reviews however kept stacking up in what could be seen as a backlash fed by the growing pains of an infant industry moving from passionate hobby to commercial opportunity.

Avi Yashaya, half of the duo of Let The Boy Die put it succinctly:

“I think this situation goes to show what the importance of ‘craft’ is about, keeping quality and experimentation ahead of scale and ambition.”

Despite the Macbeth-hits-brewtopia drama of ambition oustripping wisdom, Yashaya still sees it as part of the process leading to a better future for Thai craft beer, however.

“I'm thankful he's pushing Thai craft to a potentially bigger audience while doing it with total legitimacy,” he said.

Legitimacy is an important commodity here. Just like in hip-hop, experimental music or Khaosan Road-bought academic degrees, it separates the “crafted” from the “manufactured.”

Chiang Mai Beer is conceived in Thailand with some locally sourced ingredients (this weizen’s wheat grows in Chiang Mai’s Fang district), brewed in Laos and then “imported” back into Thailand.

And for now it’s the only viable solution for a real Thai craft beer sold legally in the kingdom.

Chiang Mai Beer may not be the one to put Thailand on the map for beer nerds, but remember this is a country that has purposely stymied the efforts of brewers to create beer worthy of competing.

And producing great beer takes time. The question posed by netizens has been whether getting beer out quickly is worth releasing a product that doesn’t taste right.

“There’s certainly something off about the beer, I think there might be a problem in the brewing production process,” said Wasawat “Taey” Chaowanachinda, founder Alpha Team Brewing.

The flat and funky taste of the Weizen, he added, could come from any number things.

“I can’t say for sure that it’s the brewer, the bar owner or any one specific element.” he said, adding that brewing beer is a complicated process where everything must be tightly controlled, and one small mistake can lead to a funky brew.

Taey believes something could have happened during at any step: “Carbonation process, brewing process, stocking process…it’s hard to say."

Additional reporting Teeranai Charuvastra