Line them up: beer is on sale in Vietnam.
Amidst speculation that Vietnam’s government will sell off $100m+ majority stakes of its Sabeco and Habeco beer brands, there’s a small effort brewing on the side for craft beer that caters to the modern tastes of the millennial Vietnamese.
Trending in Vietnam for the last two years, craft beer has caught headwinds from global media outlets like the Wall Street Journal. Angel investors have been pouring in cash and foreigners have moved from abroad to start their own brew trade in Vietnam.
When the Vietcetera team went searching for stories of Vietnamese-brewed craft beer, we found Saigon-based craft beer brand Tê Tê. Behind the effort, we found a ragtag team of humble entrepreneurs from various walks of life. Two Spanish brothers with backgrounds in design and biochemistry, an American web developer and a Maltese advertising agency veteran. An eclectic mix to find in Vietnam, Ruben Martinez, Luis Martinez, Michael Rowland, Tobias Briffa have teamed up to start one of Vietnam’s fastest growing craft beer brands.
Thanks to an introduction from Albin at Quan Ut Ut and BiaCraft, we had the chance to learn about the story of the team, the Tê Tê brewing process, and their two cents about living in Vietnam.
Looks like a stellar four man team. How did you guys come together?
Mike: The short story? We assembled a bunch of folks that got along from our ad agency work days. Our independent agency is called AstroPig. We all came from agency backgrounds, except Luis who is a legit scientist. We all knew that we wanted to do our own project, we just didn’t know what. Things started picking up momentum when Luis came over with his craft beer idea.
Luis: When I finished my master’s degree in biochemistry, I felt ready to start my personal mission of crafting my beer. Somewhere and somehow. I had been to Vietnam before, where I spent a year working for a perfume company. That’s when I spoke to my brother Ruben for his opinion. He was already in Vietnam when he asked me to come over again. We spent a month conceptualizing the brand and original recipe. After brewing our first experimental batch, we were pleased with the results. I ended up staying for the long haul with the original AstroPig team.
What’s it like balancing the work between AstroPig and Tê Tê?
We don’t draw lines between AstroPig and Tê Tê because we’re moving toward a common goal of establishing thriving, independent businesses.
Between the four of us, we have a collective set of skills that complement each together. If someone is occupied with agency work, someone else can step in and take charge on an initiative at Tê Tê. We love our team spirit.
Operations, sales, design. The work is divvied up between the partners. Luis focuses on production since he’s the brewmaster-in-chief. Ruben takes charge on sales, Toby on operations and marketing, and Mike leads design and web. Even though we all focus on different things, we’re all capable of filling in for one another.
How are you guys financing Tê Tê?
We’re pooling together personal investment and using revenue from our advertising agency, AstroPig.
A lot of the best ingredients for craft beer are overseas. Do you import from abroad?
Regarding local ingredients, we’re experimenting with various spices from Vietnam. Though at the moment, 95% of the beer’s content is imported to maintain quality and consistency. You can find the good stuff in Germany and other parts of Europe.
We market the brand as Vietnamese-made, so that our customers are proud of a Saigonese beer. We’d like to make sure the messaging is consistent with a local beer. We craft the taste with the Vietnamese audience in mind. Our first rendition is an entry-level craft beer, it’s only been 18 months since we started.
How do you start selling into restaurants here in Ho Chi Minh City? How do you convince them to try a new class of beer?
Albin Desforges and Mark Gustafson of Quan Ut Ut and BiaCraft are among the first catalyzers of craft beer in Vietnam. Their chef started with craft beer tasting sessions. It led them to explore the beer scene a bit more.
Ruben: We first started selling in Broma: Not a Bar. My girlfriend is the manager and we’re friends with the owner. Soon after, we were stocked at BiaCraft in District 2. Today, we have our product all over Vietnam with a focus on Ho Chi Minh City.
Will you open a tap room? Or are you more focused on distribution? Anything outside of Ho Chi Minh City or Vietnam?
We’d love to do a tap room. We’d make it the embassy of Tê Tê. We’re actively exploring that opportunity. Though we’re cash flow constrained due to expansion of the distribution business and it has to be the right location.
Can you tell us one short, memorable story about doing business in Vietnam?
Anything can happen, when you expect it the least.
We lost two crates after an event, nobody knew where the bottles went. We set up a meeting with our contact at Cargo Event Space in District 4 who owed us late payment and the returned crates. Nobody had a clue about who he was or what his personality was like, or if we’d ever get our lost inventory back. We ended up having a meaningful conversation. In an unexpected turn of events, he needed help with marketing and we ended up with a deal for space within Cargo. And that’s how we started at scale: we had a brewery inside Cargo, inside a shipping container. It was the right place at the right time. We were able to trade and barter our skills for what we needed.
And yes, we got those crates back.
The entire Tê Tê team came to Vietnam with no plan. How did all of you find your place here?
The job will find you. Just come and stay for as long as you can.
We all put in at least a year or two of working in a corporate setting within Vietnam before going headfirst into AstroPig and Tê Tê. And all of us found our corporate jobs after moving to Vietnam with only a vague idea of what to expect. We came prepared, but without expectations.
Even today, after 18 months of launching Tê Tê, a last minute distribution order means that we’re on our motorbikes delivering the crates and kegs of craft beer to our customers. One day we’re sitting in a cafe working on projects for AstroPig clients. The next day you’re shoveling grit and scrubbing metal. Things change fast here and we all learned to wear multiple hats.
What are some interesting things about Tê Tê that people don’t know about?
- Tê Tê’s lighter flavor makes it easier to drink. It’s become popular with Vietnamese women especially. We’ve met a lot of people who say “they don’t like beer” but actually end up liking Tê Tê. We have some hardcore fans that didn’t like beer previously.
- The meaning of Tê Tê in Vietnamese is the pangolin, an armadillo-like scaly mammal. In Vietnam and China, the pangolin is considered the most illegally trafficked animal in the world. People go after the animal’s scales and its blood, similar to rhino horn. Wildlife companies have approached us to help preserve and elevate the image of the pangolin. When brands choose lions and tigers, we choose a silly animal to represent us.
- Tê Tê also means to be high, buzzed, or happy in Vietnamese.
- A few of our agency clients include Quan Ut Ut and BiaCraft. We help with the execution of their marketing, advertising, and branding initiatives. At BiaCraft we took charge of the package design, bottling, t-shirts, and signage. We even painted the murals that are on the walls at Quan Ut Ut.
Who should I talk to next?
Austin Dinh. The mind behind Broma: Not a Bar and The Lighthouse. Enterprising business guy with a good eye for style and consistency.
Lucas Jans. He’s a software developer and the brains and drive behind Lac Brewing Co. He’s bringing the Oregon style craft beer to Ho Chi Minh City, specifically to District 7.