When thoughts turn to craft beer, Belgian styles are rarely the first to come to mind – which is a little surprising, since Belgian brews are considered the original ‘craft beer.’ In Saigon, craft beer brings to mind some of the well-known classics—maybe you think of Pasteur Street Brewing Co., Heart of Darkness, or Platinum. The craft beer scene has grown rapidly, and has become one of Vietcetera’s top trends of 2018.
Made for centuries by passionate individuals, Belgian styles are brewed in small batches and are rarely ever produced for capital gain. Over 1000 distinct beers exist in the country, hailing from over 200 breweries – numbers that become all the more impressive when you consider that the entire population of Belgium is only 11 million, roughly the same as Saigon.
As the craft beer revolution sweeps Vietnam, it was only natural that the Belgians would come calling. Belgo is Vietnam’s first Belgian brewery. Founded by Belgians, serving Belgian-style beer and food, made by Belgian brewmasters and chefs. It even features an entire brewery imported from their home country. We caught up with co-founders Gauthier Lagasse and Francois Schwennicke to find out all about Belgo Craft Beer.
What is it about Belgian beer that initially appealed to you guys?
Gauthier: Every Belgian is passionate about beer. It’s in our culture. We drink beer from a young age. At school, they even used to serve alcohol-free beer. Beer has been with us both since the beginning. This is how it is in Belgium. When we go out it’s all about what beers we drink. In France, they talk about wine, in Italy, they talk about food. In Belgium, we talk about beer.
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So how did Belgo come about?
G: We’re beer lovers, we have a passion for it – but we’re not experts in any way. I approached Francois in 2016 about making Belgian beers in Vietnam and together we came up with the idea of not only producing Belgian beer, but also a proper Belgian pub. Our original idea was to produce ben in Vietnam in collaboration with a famous brewery in Belgium. We even took a trip to Belgium, but it didn’t work out.
Francois: We opened the pub first, in November 2016, but import issues meant we couldn’t immediately open the brewery. So we started by becoming the best Belgian beer bar in Saigon, with over 35 types of imported Belgian beer. Overnight, that’s what we became known for – and then something funny thing happened.
G: One day, I asked a Vietnam-based Belgian beer equipment supplier if he knew anyone who could help us brew – and he said, “yes, me.” That’s how we met Gert, our Belgian brewmaster. He’s trained in one of the best brewing schools in Belgium.
F: We all meet three times a week and I’m constantly amazed at how passionate he is. Beer is two things: there’s of course, the recipe, but there’s also the brewery itself. People say, “It’s easy to make beer”. Well yes, in your kitchen with a kit. But on a large-scale, it’s pure chemistry, you have to be in there every day.
G: It’s basically a challenge – but for him, it’s a passion.
Did you really bring an entire brewery over from Belgium, piece-by-piece?
F: Yes, exactly right. The brewery was owned by a famous Brussels beer company, but they became so successful that the capacity was too small, it was already 20 years old. So we bought it.
G: The easy option, which most breweries in Vietnam do, is buy equipment in China. It’s affordable and it works – more or less. But as we wanted to do Belgian beers, there are technicalities in the brewing process that makes them different to others. In the brewery we bought, the brewmaster was tweaking things for years to make very special beers – which we can now do for our [farm style] Belgo Saison and [abbey style] Belgo Royale.
OK, let’s talk about the beers themselves. What makes them stand out?
G: There are many things that make Belgian beers different. Most beers take three to four weeks ferment, but Belgian beers can take up to two months. Yeast makes up to a third of the entire flavor of a beer, but most brewers re-use the same yeast. Here, we’re producing our very own yeast.
At Belgo, we’re playing a lot on the balance between the yeast, the malt, the hops. If in the same sip you can balance them all together, along with maybe some spices and fruits, you have something truly special. Our recipes have evolved because of that, and we’re constantly talking to our customers to get their feedback.
How has the public reacted to your Belgian beers? Was it difficult to educate the Vietnamese market?
G: It was actually very quick. From when we started importing Belgian beers, we were a place for experts. Every bottle has a story, every beer has a profile, and people became curious.
So when we started with our own beers, our range went from our easy drinking Belgo Blonde and Amber, to the complex Belgo Royale They’re all typically Belgian, but we made sure some are not as strong as in Belgium. Our target from the beginning was to do beer for the Vietnamese. We’re of course happy to have expats and tourists, but the Vietnamese now make up 80% of the people that become to Belgo.
That’s a surprisingly high number. How do you feel the Vietnamese palette is evolving in that regard?
G: It’s like cheese. When I was working for a fine foods importer, I learnt a process: when you want to introduce cheese to a country that doesn’t know much about it, as Vietnam used to be, you start with an easy, spreadable type. Then you move to a hard type like gouda, then a soft type like camembert, and then into the smelly, tasty kinds.
Look at Japan and Korea: now they eat the most disgusting, delicious cheeses, which the Vietnamese don’t yet like. So what’s true for cheese is true for beer. If you go to those countries, they’re now producing the most amazingly complex and strong beers, because there’s been an evolution. The same will happen here – it doesn’t happen in a year, but it’s happening faster than we all thought.
You’ve made great efforts to recreate the classic Belgian ‘pub’ in your massive bar/restaurant. Why was that so important?
G: We want to give them the full experience: it’s the beer, it’s the food, and of course, it’s the environment. Here, we’ve recreated the atmosphere of an old brewery bar from Belgium. The original space wasn’t like this, we rebuilt it with bricks from an old French villa. We want people to feel like they’re in Belgium.
F: The Vietnamese want to have new experiences and new flavors. The people that come here have travelled, they speak English and they’re willing to experiment. We’re not a beer club, the people here are mature, they have good jobs, they want a classic atmosphere and they’re looking for quality.
You’ve recently started bottling you beers, what’s special about this with Belgian beers? Do you have plans to export?
G: Similar to wine, Belgian beers referment in the bottle, so they change flavor profiles and age in interesting ways. It’s the classic Belgian way of drinking. Most people have this idea that beer on tap is better than bottles. But in Belgium, it’s often better in the bottle.
We have two styles right now, the classic Blonde and a new limited edition style called Full Moon beer. I was reading about the impact of the moon on gravity, so we tried making a beer only during the full moon cycles. I was there at the brewery at 3:30am on a full moon night as we made it.
F: We’re starting with Saigon, which will allow us to learn about the market. Then we’ll think about other cities – Hanoi, Hoi An, Da Nang – but there are 12 million people here, so we’ll start here to see how things progress.
What does the future hold for Belgo?
F: We’re focused on Vietnam for now, and the Vietnamese. There are 96 million people here, and that’s exciting. We enjoy the challenge.
G: That’s the amazing thing about Vietnam. There’s a dynamism and a growth that allowed us to be entrepreneurs and open Belgo. I always dreamed of opening something like this, but I never thought I’d actually do it. I was carried by the vibrancy of Ho Chi Minh City. In Europe, it’s very defensive. But because so many things are happening here all the time, you really feel like you can do it as well.
Who should we speak with next?
G: The guys at Red Door Coffee on Dong Khoi. It’s a specialty coffee and art space, where you can sit back, let the time freeze, and enjoy a cup of coffee with many choices of beans from renowned roasters around the globe. It’s also where your eyes tread from coffee brewing at the bar, artwork hanging on walls, to old architecture integrated into modern life. Belgo beers are on the menu and they’re extremely enjoyable in this cosy environment.
Photos and editorial by Pavan Shamdasani.