31 March 2019
I can hardly believe that these lovely looking bottles have been chilling in my fridge, untouched, since delivery three weeks ago. But I know which one I’m going to start with, now the time has come, as I intend to drink them in their natural order.
Pours a mid-golden colour with a good head. Tropical and piney notes hit the nose as soon as it is in the glass, with just a hint of something catty in the background. Substantial, malty body, with a medium finish, and the hops linger in the mouth and nose well after the beer has gone down, giving citrus and grapefruit with a slightly dank edge. A solid and very quaffable pale, with a decent bitterness and good hop presence.
The Be Craft Beer project was delivered as something of a new year’s gift in a video posted to YouTube in early January by P’Chit, Thailand’s most prominent craft beer agitator. Under the project, selected Thai brewers each design a beer which is then pre-sold via the Be Craft Beer website. Once sales targets are reached the beers are brewed at Stone Head’s brewery in Koh Kong, Cambodia, and sent directly to customers after packaging.
Each brewer and beer was introduced in a series of short videos released over the couple of weeks following the project announcement. Needless to say, as soon as the sales website was launched I put in my order for four bottles of each the six beers. This wasn’t a hard sale to make, if I’m honest - but the videos introducing the project were exceptionally well made, and did a great job of presenting the beers in a thoughtful, informative, but approachable way.
Slightly hazy, light gold pour with a small head which lasts well. On the nose I'm getting green fruits, gooseberrys and acidic notes. Crisp, yet malty body, with a very dry finish and just a hint of bitterness, backing up delicate hop aromas of tropical fruits and wet grass.
As promised, my box of beer arrived early March, and I chilled half of it immediately, waiting for an opportunity to dig in. My criteria for indulgence were simple: I wanted to sample all six beers in one session, and I wanted to do it on a fresh palate. Hence the delay between reception and consumption. And so we arrive at the last day of March, a Sunday afternoon (hiding, as best one can, from the Chiang Mai smog - I feel the pollution affects my palate and ability to taste, just as much as my health and ability to feel happily human).
Hazy orange pour, with sweet, tropical fragrances bursting out of the glass. Soft and light in the mouth to begin with, but that initial impression soon gives way to an explosion of fruitiness with a dank undertone in the finish. This whole flavour experience happens towards the front of the palate, leaving merely a faint juicy memory after the swallow, encouraging another. Especially easy to sup, despite the highish ABV.
And so, mid-way through the tasting, I can say that things are going well. I’m loving these beers - and that’s a relief. For anyone unfamiliar with the Thai craft beer scene, it is essentially impossible to open a micro/craft brewery here due to brewing laws maneouvered into place by the macro-brew oligopoly. Despite that, Thai craft brewing has been thriving in recent years - partly underground, but largely through the practice of Thai brewers brewing abroad at contract breweries and importing the product.
Mid-coloured, almost clear pour with a small head. Caramel and light tropical fruits on the nose. In the mouth, this is mainly about malt - a weighty, malty body with a significant caramel sweetness accompanied by understated hopping offering pine and slightly floral tones. A sturdy, filling ale, subtle in its bitterness and hoppiness, a little old-school, and that's not a bad thing.
Contract brewing has its limitations, though, in terms of control over the details. And many of the packaged Thai craft beers now available have flaws which are more reflective of processes, procedures or equipment limitations at the contract breweries than the brewers themselves. In contrast, the beers I’m currently tasting are all produced at Stone Head’s brewery - which, while it is not actually in Thailand, is Thai owned and run. And, literally, just across the border.
Thick with a firm tan head. Plenty of roast and chocolate on the nose. Mouthfeel is quite slick and there's a medium amount of body for the style. The flavour is bitter chocolate and coffee, with some roasty sourness coming through. On the outbreath, I'm getting roast barley. A medium finish, avoiding any cloying sweetness, though it does leave its lactic slickness in the mouth - and down the side of the glass.
I’m enthusiastic about this project as it works on several levels. It raises awareness of craft beer locally (and, almost passive-agressively, awareness of the legal absurdities of brewing here - all the bottles have “Made in Cambodia” on the label). It provides what could become a workable interim model for Thai craft brewing (between out-of-country contract and in-country, brewer-owned brewing). And it opens access to Thai craft beer at a lower price point than is currently normal (without the markup that inevitably comes from contract brewing).
Hazy, mid-brown with a solid white head. Chocolatey nose, full aroma like a brownie. Rich and luxurious in the mouth, still putting me in mind of that brownie, but now with vanilla ice-cream too. Then, subtly, slowly, the roast asserts itself - this beer is big and dessert-like, but ultimately not sweet. The finish is burnt, bitter and adult. Not overly boozy, but complex and deep. A late-night beer.
I have enjoyed every one of these beers. They are well brewed, well packaged, and each expresses or plays off its style with confidence. I believe they’d stand their ground in any market or competition in the world. They are testament to how far Thai brewing has come both in terms of technical mastery and creativity within (and without) the established boundaries of beer styles.
It was reassuring to see how quickly sales numbers ramped up once Be Craft Beer opened up their ordering system. And it is even more reassuring to see that the project seems to be growing (partners have recently been added, to increase retail distribution for future brews). But then it’s also not surprising - the demand for craft beer is very strong here. My hope remains that a project like this ultimateley plays a part in raising home/nano/micro-brewing to the national agenda. At some point, even the establishment has to realise just how absurd - and costly - those “Made in Cambodia” labels are.