Back in 2019, a friend of mine posted on Facebook asking us to support her friend who had just launched his own craft beer.
It was in the midst of Vietnam’s so-called craft beer boom. Craft was coming out of our ears, so to speak. It was literally and metaphorically on everyone’s lips as well. I was downing plenty of the stuff.
New brands were coming on-line all the time, tap takeovers were raging, and we even had a visit from the Beer Jesus himself, Greg Koch. I have a photo with him somewhere to prove it.
We want to be recognised as the best 100% Vietnamese craft brewery that brews consistently great beerCheeky, Deme Brewing
By the end of that year, Ho Chi Minh City would hold its largest craft beer festival to date, the Hoa Bia Festival, with no less than 24 local brands representing.
The aura surrounding craft just seemed to be getting bigger and bigger.
It was a great achievement given that the first craft barrels of this new era had rolled out in Vietnam just five years earlier in 2014 with Platinum Beverages leading the charge, followed closely by Pasteur Street Brewing Co. in 2015.
So being the smart aleck that I am, I replied to my friend’s callout.
I told her I’d support her friend if he sent me a six-pack to try first. If it tasted good, I’d spread the word through my networks.
Her reply sounded promising, saying that she would connect me with the brewer. His name was Siro, now 31, born in Hanoi, but who has called Ho Chi Minh City home ever since he can remember.
Some time later, Siro got in touch.
He seemed excited that someone had taken interest in his beer and he promised to send me some samples to try once their first batch was bottled and ready to drink.
I remember thinking, okay, this really is a start-up and so I set my expectations accordingly.
Eventually Siro got back in touch and asked where he could drop off his brews. When they arrived, I was surprised that the dread-locked Siro himself was on delivery duties. That’s just how lean this operation ran, as it still does now.
It’s not uncommon to see him or Cheeky, another of the four Deme partners, riding around town with a beer barrel strapped to their motorbikes. But that’s not just to ensure a healthy bottom line, it’s also about maintaining quality control.
“Brewing great beer is obviously the main thing we need to do as brewers,” Cheeky tells me in his trademark exuberant fashion between sips in the narrow District 5 alleyway where Deme’s small Ho Chi Minh City tasting room is located. “But keeping it fresh and making sure we provide our customers with a good product is also our main focus. That’s the upside to doing small batches, I guess, we can maintain quality.”
In the bag Siro handed me that thirsty Saigon arvo two-and-a-half years ago were four bottles of their flagship Ba Hoa IPA (6.1 ABV | 76 IBU), a couple of Deme glasses and some branded beer coasters.
I remember thinking it was thoughtful and that these guys were serious about what they were doing.
I immediately liked the old school painted-on labelling, like how Coke bottles used to come before plastic bottles and stick-on labels.
And the bottles were that brown-dark amber colour that reminded me of my Grandpa’s Carlton Draught tallies or “long necks” that filled his backyard shed and that he swigged from when he mowed the lawn.
It was simple, but effective and contrasted nicely to what is currently trendy with craft beer labelling. And importantly, it hinted at Deme’s awareness of the recycling movement in Vietnam that was steadily gaining traction.
The biggest surprise, however, was how good the beer was. It was big, bold and bitter. Attributes that I love in a beer.
But more impressive was how consistently good each beer tasted from one bottle to the next.
“Some people say our beer tastes like Jasmine IPA (Pasteur Street Brewing Co.’s outrageously successful flagship beer) because of its bitterness,” says 31 year-old Cheeky, who grew up in the alleyway just metres from where we’re drinking his beer. “It doesn’t, of course, but because Pasteur Street was one of the first pioneers here in Vietnam, it’s the first IPA that the Vietnamese drank. Whenever they drink a new IPA, they will always come out and say, ‘This one tastes just like Jasmine IPA!’ But that helped us a bit because we thought if they could recognise the Jasmine, then in time they could recognise us.”
The connection to Pasteur Street Brewing Co. runs quite a bit deeper than the glasses we’re drinking from, however. It’s where Siro got his start in the industry as the brewery’s video editor just as the brand was making its own name for itself.
“I jumped at the opportunity because Cheeky and I used to hang out a lot at the old BiaCraft in District 2, so there was an interest in craft beer before I even started working with Pasteur Street Brewing Co.,” says Siro.
“We were always looking for something new,” he says. “We wanted to try whatever was new when we saw it, whether it was a different brand, style or flavour. It inspired us to be creative with our own future beer plans.”
Indeed, apart from the love of great beer, creativity is the driving force behind the Deme brand.
The partners have backgrounds in design and the creative arts which is reflected in all of their branding, even down to the brand name and the beer itself. The word de me in Vietnamese implies that you are “into” something, you love it and want it and ba hoa (although it can translate to “three flowers” in reference to the hops used in the brewing process) means bubbling or popping in this case.
Meanwhile, their long awaited new release Hoi Hoi (which Cheeky describes with a grin as a “premium pilsner”), is launching on Friday March 26th here at Deme’s tasting room and plays on another clever and creative use of words and pays homage to Vietnam’s own bia hoi.
Traditionally, bia hoi was delivered to venues without CO2 and needed to have air pumped into it to pressurise (hoi) the keg.
Deme’s Hoi Hoi is refreshing and easy-drinking at ABV 4.20 (note the cheeky nod to stoner culture) and something the lads are confident the local market will embrace.
“We were born in 1990,” says Cheeky, reminding me just how young these guys are to be creating such good beer, “so we’re the first Vietnamese generation who were exposed to hip hop music; we do our best to connect to the community via local artists who use our space for small exhibitions and we regularly hold food and beer pop-ups at Vietnamese restaurants.”
While last year’s pandemic scuttled hopes for further growth in sales in 2020 off the back of a hugely successful launch year in 2019 that saw Deme sell 50% more beer than they had expected and which now sees their beer sold in 40 venues across Vietnam, Cheeky and Siro haven’t lost sight of what they set out to achieve long-term.
“We want to be recognised as the best 100% Vietnamese craft brewery that brews consistently great beer with professional service and to have a good reputation locally and internationally,” says Cheeky.
“And oh,” says Siro with a flick of his dreadlocks and raise of his eyebrows, “we want people when they travel to Vietnam in the future to say, “We must try Deme!”
Which gets me thinking. I wonder if I can help with that?
Boys, send me a six-pack and let’s take it from there.
What: Deme Brewing’s Hoi Hoi Beer Launch
When: Friday March 26, 2021
Time: 5pm to 11pm
Where: Deme Brewing at 84/37 Nguyen Bieu St., District 5, HCMC
Words by Matthew Cowan. Follow Matt on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon
Photos by Mike Palumbo. Follow Mike on Instagram at @mikepalumbo_