There are very few things in life as enjoyable as sitting down to an ice-cold beer after a long day biking, hiking, or sightseeing. Especially when it’s hot and you’re sweating like… well, like someone who has just biked 50 km in 28° weather.
In Thailand, where a good bottle of beer is enjoyed even more than a good bottle of wine in France, you have a variety of choices – brands from the big Thai breweries like Singha or Chang, imported brands like Heineken or Beerlao, and many European and American brands, big and small – that can run upwards of $12 per bottle.
But what about the little guys in Thailand, the craft beers, the small breweries that don’t have giant boilers and an international distribution network? Well, you’ll find it hard to get those, because home brewing or craft brewing (the same thing, for our purposes) is illegal in Thailand.
What you’ll also be surprised to learn is that Thailand’s craft beer scene doesn’t only exist – it’s thriving. So who are these law-breaking yeast wranglers?
“The illegality of it all is a legacy of Thailand’s early industrial period,” says Khun Wichit Saiklao, founder of Chitbeer, the ‘godfather’ of Thailand’s craft brew scene. “Back then everything used to be a monopoly, but while western countries moved away from that model (think Standard Oil, Microsoft, Bell Telephone, all penalized for being too big), Thailand, for a variety of reasons, did not.”
Hence, the dominance of the market by a few big breweries.
But with an increasingly well-traveled population bringing back a thirst for (and expertise in) whipping up homemade batches of suds, it was only a matter of time until an idea grew into a hobby, and a hobby into a genuine movement.
“I have 100 students who come to the classes that I hold every month on Ko Kret [an island in the middle of the Chao Phraya River in the province directly north of Bangkok] to learn how to brew. I’d say there are about 20 or 30 brands right now doing small runs of product,” says Khun Wichit. That number is growing, and if you know where to find them, beer connoisseurs have a good selection to choose from.
The obvious question is – aren’t they scared of being busted by the cops? He laughs when I ask. “Well, I think it’s more of an issue that the Revenue Department has to take up. Police are just regular Joes like the rest of us – they like beer just like you and me, so they’re less concerned with kicking the door down. That being said, they do follow orders, and we do wonder when – not if – the order will eventually come.” Indeed, it has before, and many brewers have had to explain themselves to police, usually after paying a fine.
But Khun Wichit is optimistic that change will come. “The social and economic benefits of a vibrant beer scene have been proven in other countries. I wrote a letter to my friends and fans of my beer that we will strive for the full legality of our hobby by 2020, so we have five years to change the mindset.”
But one thing is still of utmost importance to Khun Wichit, and it’s a question he and his craft brewing friends ask themselves all the time: are we still having fun? “It’s not about money, it’s about the skill, time, knowledge, and patience that goes into making a batch of good beer. If we’re not having fun while we do it, then what’s the point?”
One more refreshing reason to visit or return to Bangkok if you’re not already here.