BANGKOK — “Can you eat Khao Man Gai (Chicken and Rice) every day? Can you eat Som Tam every day? No, but you can drink beer every day,” a man says as he pours a chestnut and brown sugar stout from the tap.
After his Chinatown craft beer joint Let the Boy Die was temporarily shut down in December after one too many raids, Pipattanaphon “Pieak” Poompho isn’t quite fighting the law as much as he is working around it to keep the suds flowing.
Now he’s doing so at a new craft beer-focused venue on Soi Ekkamai 10.
Goldencoins Taproom has only been open a month, but it’s already known to beer drinkers from his former Let the Boy Die regulars to passers-by. Golden Coins, the meaning of which comes from his mother’s maiden name, was the signature brew in six varieties at Let the Boy Die.
But pick up a bottle of this Thai-made beer and don’t be surprised to find it says “Made in Vietnam” as Pieak from time to time would fly northeast to a city near Ho Chi Minh where his beer factory takes place.
That’s because of the legal challenges Pieak and other brewers have faced.
So as his peers have done, architect-cum-brewmaster Pieak has gone great lengths – and distances – to outsource production of his beer to a foreign factory for import back into Thailand.
“It’s impossible to do it in Thailand now. We have two choices: Either hire an overseas factory to make it or build a factory abroad on our own,” Pieak said.
Pieak is not the only one whose homebrewing business is stifled by legal barriers. As it’s not possible to produce domestically, seven other independent brewmasters do the same, including Melbourne-bottled Lamzing Beer and Stone Head from Cambodia.
The 1950 Liquor Act states beer can only be made in a factory or brewpub. A 2000 Finance Ministry regulation says for producers to gain legal status, they must make more than 100,000 liters per year and be a limited company with capital of at least 10 million baht.
That pretty much rules out small players and microbrews entering the field dominated by ThaiBev (Chang, Archa) and Boon Rawd (Singha, Leo). A brewpub like the Tawandang German Brewery on Rama III Road cannot sell off the premises.
On Saturday night, police raided the home of a 28-year-old Nonthaburi man and reportedly arrested him for selling his homemade beer.
Pieak said those laws miss the point.
“The law can’t focus purely on the quantity,” he said. “Let’s look at it as an art, not an intoxicant. Its unique characteristic is smaller production but more quality.”
Producing abroad doesn’t just raise costs, but adds import duties of up to 60 percent. That means a bottle of Golden Coins wholesales for 110 baht. A pint of the stuff at Goldencoins sells for 180 baht.
In contrast to law written decades ago, craft beer emerged as a trend in Thailand only a few years ago, along with other tastes which have shifted away from mass-produced uniformity to embrace handicrafts such as zines, DIY sneakers and handmade tote bags.
More bar patrons are looking to drink something other than Singha, Hoegaarden and Paulaner. About 800 people gathered last year west of the capital in Kanchanaburi province to enjoy free-flow craft beer of nearly 20 brands at Craft ‘N Roll Carnival. The event was credited as the biggest craft beer festival to date.
“The law hasn’t been changed to fit the society these days,” said Yannakorn Apirajkamol of Craft ‘N Roll. “Its limitations don’t stimulate development and competition.”
The law can change in the long term as more people, especially the authorities, acknowledge the culture of craft beer, according to Col. Wichit Saiklao, who is known in the community as the father of Thai craft beer.
“Craft beer is very new in Thailand,” said Col. Wichit, whose Chitbeer is credited as one of the first homebrews. “The poo yai still don’t know what exactly it is. They don’t understand craft beer culture, therefore, to rush to the change of legislation is futile. We should do what’s possible now.”
Wichit will soon open Mitr Sampan Brewery in Nonthaburi’s Pak Kret district. The brewery, which is expected to go into production at the end of the year, was described by Wichit as the first “open brewery,” a place where independent brewers can produce and sell their products.
“It shares the same concept with an open kitchen. We build an opportunity for underground brewers to be on the grounds,” Wichit said. “If we do this, we will have 20 to 30 brands of beer with high quality, then we’ll get poo yais’ interest in changing the laws.”
As the founder of online craft beer community Craft Brewery is Not a Crime, Pieak believes the movement calling for the change of legislation is fruitless. He opts to focus on making good beer at a reasonable price to expand craft beer to more consumers.
“I support good beer no matter if it’s legal or illegal,” he said.