Furbrew’s co-founder Thomas Bilgram is the self titled ‘craziest brewer in Hanoi.’ As the first independent brewery making craft beer in Hanoi, Furbrew are the old hands in a young market. Thomas invited us to visit Furbrew’s Hanoi beer garden ‘The 100’ to find out a little more about their story and to sample the now famous Pho Beer.
Tell us about the concept behind Furbrew. How did it all begin?
My friend, and now business partner in Furbrew, Trung suggested we work together as he’d seen an opportunity in the market for craft beer in Hanoi. I started as a home brewer and love the industry as it welcomes non conformists. It’s my target to be an experimental, border seeking brewhouse where we do all the fun stuff in craft beer.
Outside of making good beer, what is the mission for Furbrew?
On our bottles we have three words – Unconventional, Unexpected, and Untraditional. These three ‘Un’ words are our concept. It’s what I strive for with my business and my beer. We have made over 100 beers so far and we’ve learnt a lot from all of them.
The other thing I strive for is being a responsible business in Vietnam. That means not wasting resources, hiring Vietnamese staff wherever possible, and investing in local development. I would like to source more ingredients from Vietnam but the fact is that most basic ingredients like malt and hops just aren’t available here. We found liquorish through the Chinese medicine shops for example. It is a conscious effort to source local ingredients wherever possible.
What separates your brand from other craft beer brands in Vietnam?
Our variety and experimentation probably sets us apart. However many of the craft breweries in Vietnam are making great beer with unusual ingredients. One of the really important things for me is bottle number two. It can be fairly easy to sell the fist bottle of a craft beer, especially a unique one like the pho beer. If I saw that in a restaurant, I’d want to try it out of pure curiosity. It is bottle number two that I’m most interested in, someone choosing to drink a second shows it’s really a good beer and not just a gimmick.
We are just about to upgrade to a 1000 litre system but have, and always will, brew small batch experimental beers. With these beers we can play and try new things without it being too bad if the brew doesn’t work out. We never really waste a beer. A few times we’ve ended up with something very different to what we thought. It’s usually still a good beer, just different. So we call it something else and put it on sale. If a beer really fails then it ends up in the gin barrel!
Tell us more about how your pho beer came to being. How did you manage to incorporate one of Vietnam’s most famous soups into a beer?
There are a couple of bars doing a very popular pho cocktail so my business partner Trung convinced me to try making a beer version. I thought he was out of his mind but I love a challenge. I began by gathering family pho recipes and all the ingredients from the local market. We tried combining the flavor during the boil and also with cold infusion. I was pleasantly surprised by the first try! It took three months to get my head around the recipes and perfect the balance. One of the tricks is that the beer is quite sweet, this helps with the umami flavor of pho. It doesn’t taste it but the sweetness is needed to bind the spices together.
What’s your opinion on collaboration between those making craft beer in Hanoi?
I think nice brewers make nice beer! I don’t see us as competitors but as colleagues, all of us in the industry. Luckily, a lot of people share that view and a group of us meet from time to time. It’s a chance to be close to other people with the same passions. It’s also a great way to get critical feedback from knowledgeable people.
I have no interest in my competitors making bad beer. It would just turn customers away from craft. For me it’s a Scandinavian attitude. Brewers there will all drink each others beer and let them know, in private, their honest opinion. If you build those personal and business relationships, collaboration is so much easier.
Furbrew was one of the first to launch craft beer in Hanoi. How has the craft scene changed since then? What do you think the landscape will look like in ten years?
Ten years is a long time in Vietnam. It’s more than double the time we’ve even had craft beer in Vietnam. I don’t think we’ve reached 10% or even 5% of the production that could come. If you look at Hong Kong or Seoul where craft beer has been around for longer, the market is still growing.
I would call us the first independent brewery making craft beer in Hanoi. I like that there are more Vietnamese run breweries here. Thom Brewery, C-Brewmaster, Homie and others. It’s great that they are part of the developing industry. I feel that breweries here are trying to adapt to the Vietnamese beer taste, with sweeter beer for example. That is not to my palate but they have had some success in selling it. Perhaps that will grow or be a way for Vietnamese drinkers to be introduced to craft.
You have recently branched out into gin and we hear that whiskey may be next. Can you share more about that?
Gin is the one thing I drink when I’m not drinking beer. I couldn’t find a good one in Vietnam so decided to make some of my own. For Furbrew, our gin is not really a branching out as it’s made of leftover beer. It’s a way to increase earning by using beer that isn’t going to go on sale but has already had time and resources put into it. Sadly whiskey takes a lot of time and storage space to make, it’s not particularly economical to barrel something up and wait two years to see what you have. Gin is ready to drink straight from the still so it’s a much more immediate turn around.
What are three tips you’d give to someone wanting to start their own brewery in Vietnam?
Don’t, don’t and don’t! I’m only partly joking. If you’re going to start a brewery in Vietnam you need to go for it and jump in fully. It’s also essential to work with a Vietnamese partner, someone who can help navigate the business side of things and has experience building businesses in Vietnam.
I’m very lucky to be working with Trung, we have the agreement that I do the beer and he does Vietnam! You need help beyond the language barrier. It’s about understanding culture and business practices. You also need the ability to navigate the inevitable roadblocks and challenges you come across.
In your opinion, has Vietnamese craft beer developed enough to have its own category on an international scale? If so, what are a few things that define Vietnamese craft beer?
The simple answer is no. I would begin with asking: What is craft beer? Some will say it’s about experimental ingredients, others feel it’s based on restricted quantity. For me it’s about making the beer I want to make and then assessing production cost and deciding what to charge based on that!
While there are a growing number of Vietnamese breweries making craft beer in Hanoi, there are not enough brewing for long enough to learn who they are and what their beer is all about. I love to match beer with food and believe there are lots of opportunities to find new flavors within Vietnamese cuisine. The challenge is still out there for someone to make a fish sauce inspired beer.
Who should we speak with next?
I would like to nominate Thao Quach who runs The Railway Hanoi, a coffee shop located right on Hanoi’s famous train street. She is also a prize winning competitive eater who must convert all the food she eats into to positive energy and good vibrations. It is impossible not to be happy with Thao around.