Heart of Darkness Craft Brewery: Building An Asian Craft Beer Empire
Journey. Exploration. Collaboration. It only takes a few minutes of dialogue with Heart of Darkness Craft Brewery’s founder John Pemberton to get a taste of what the scene is all about. Upon mention of those sacred words “craft beer,” he immediately perks up and begins oozing with insightful perspectives, observations and experiences about his hop-fueled obsession.
As Vietnam’s craft beer scene has started to take root, we thought it was high time to pop over to the Heart of Darkness taproom to get the lowdown on what’s next for the local market, the current demand for Vietnamese exports in Southeast Asia, and the mutually beneficial collaboration efforts within the brewing community.
Would you say the craft beer scene is firmly established in Vietnam?
Not yet. As a whole, craft beer in Vietnam is still in its embryonic stages and there’s lots of work to be done. Once our bar is full of Vietnamese customers then we’ll be well on our way. The framework has been laid, but I feel like we’re just getting warmed up. In America, the scene started in the late 1980s. It took about 20 years before it gained widespread traction. When I lived in New York in the late 90’s people were saying the craft beer scene was oversaturated and it wouldn’t last. However, it continued to grow steadily and then experienced massive growth in 2013. But now it’s official. Craft is here to stay.
In your opinion, is there a future in exporting Heart of Darkness beer to other Asian countries?
Our brand was built for that. One of our primary goals has always been to build an Asian craft beer brand. There is massive potential for craft across Asia. We are already exporting to Thailand and Singapore, and next month we plan to launch in Taiwan. We are also in conversations with distributors in Hong Kong and working on China too.
The ownership of Heart of Darkness are all experienced Asian regional managers. My partners and I have been managing large business across Asia for the last 10 years. For us, the idea of expanding the brand across Asia wasn’t even a conversation. It was just baked into the plan from the start. It is second nature to us.
The major benefit of being an Asian brewery and distributing from within the region is the freshness of the beer. When we launched in Singapore, we were sharing beers with customers that were literally less than two weeks out of the fermenter. That is freshness you can taste. So many times in Asia I’ve been excited to see my favorite beers in a bar, only to find that they were old and stale. That beautiful hop profile I was looking forward to tasting was all but gone due to it being too old, or simply not cold chained—shipped and delivered at a consistently low temperature—all the way to my hand.
So, what does your team do in order to ensure your exported beer arrives without losing its desired profile?
If the shipping process takes too long or the cold chain isn’t maintained, that characteristic hop profile most people are after will most likely suffer. For those that aren’t familiar, the hop profile is simply the unique flavor of the specific hop used.
For us, we can export a fresh batch from the warehouse directly to Singapore’s taps in only 10 days. With such a speedy export timeline, we are able to guarantee the quality of our beer will remain wholly intact when it hits the taprooms.
Back in America, many microbreweries don’t pasteurize or filter their beers which often causes significant damage to its flavor. One of the easiest ways to avoid losing that unique “kick” of craft beer is to filter, pasteurize and ship within an allotted time frame. However, this can vary depending on the combination of hops, malt, carbonation, water, and yeast. Having a firm understanding of all the properties of your beer is integral to delivering a top-notch batch of brew.
What are some of the biggest obstacles to exportation?
The logistics don’t pose that much of a problem. We are completely compliant and the regulations have not brought about any issues. Our primary concern is with delivering our beer internationally without sacrificing the quality.
The problems occur when you hand over your lovingly-made product to others. Not every dock hand or customs official understands the importance of keeping craft beer chilled 100% of the time—many people assume it can be treated the same as mainstream beers and left out in the heat. With good distributors that have well-established supply chains, your chances of encountering this kind of issue are reduced. This is why we only work with trusted professionals that understand how important the cold chain is in ensuring the quality is as close to perfect as possible.
Which is most economically efficient, exporting cans or bottles?
That topic is actually the source of a huge debate. Yes, there is a difference. Our brewmaster, Duane Morton and I prefer cans. But, the current market perception is that bottles are a premium product, while cans are viewed as disposable. However, cans allow the opportunity for creative design and actually keep the beer in better condition over a longer period of time. That isn’t to say bottles are bad. Both packaging solutions have their pros and cons. We’ve chosen bottles as we feel they work better for the markets we will be going into first. We also plan to buy a canning line in the future.
Can collaboration between breweries be beneficial? If so, how?
Collaboration is most certainly beneficial and for many reasons. It makes for an efficient way to piggyback each other’s brands, creating more market collateral and increasing awareness of each other’s brand. When separate breweries have a lot in common they are still able to hold onto their individual roots, while simultaneously promoting both brand images across different markets. Moreover, it’s just good fun hanging out with other brewers exploring each other’s beer styles and brewing techniques. Sometimes, we just like to geek out for the day and brew together.
Tell us about a recent collaborative project?
We’ve teamed up with renowned Hong Kong brewery Little Creatures Brewing to produce a collaborative beer we have named Creatures of Darkness IPA. It’s a full-bodied craft beer featuring three different kinds of Australian hops which finishes with a bold and bitter piney spice. We had a wonderful time working together on this project, brainstorming potential recipes and trying them all out. Finally, we struck that perfect balance. We have another really interesting collaboration in the making right now, but I can’t talk about that just yet. But I am super excited and deeply honored that a big US brewery has approached us.
What makes Vietnam an ideal place for a thriving craft beer market?
The craft beer scene in Ho Chi Minh City is full of great people, all of whom consider Vietnam to be their home. The brewing culture is all about sharing and being directly involved in the collaborative spirit. This exploratory mindset generates a rich scene of its own, and the ripples are definitely beginning to spread across Asia. Right now, Vietnam is fertile ground for growth and serves as the perfect springboard to spread the love for craft beer further around the continent.
Do you think the Vietnamese palate is ready for craft beer?
The Vietnamese are accustomed to intense, bold flavors in their cuisine. This enables them to naturally appreciate the profiles of complex beers. Their already diversified palate makes for a much smoother transition to the world of craft beer.
Another significant factor is the highly socialized food and beverage culture. On any given night, locals can be seen going out together in big groups, most often gravitating toward face-to-face interactions rather than being glued to their smartphones. And it is this kind of mentality which makes Vietnam an ideal candidate to embrace craft beer culture. The scene revolves around experiencing, discussing and interacting with a variety of beer styles, and if you spend time drinking with craft beer fanatics, the beers at hand are often the hot topic of conversation.
Which other characteristics are helping the Vietnamese transition to craft beer so quickly?
Vietnamese are naturally curious, and that curiosity is genuine. They are eager to embrace, understand and explore the diversity of the world and the craft beer market. Not to mention they already have a strong affinity for beer and that’s a huge advantage. Getting the local Vietnamese population on board is going to be an integral part of our success.
Is the current economic climate here also supportive of that?
It’s a well-known fact that Vietnam has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. This puts Vietnam in a strong position to contribute to the expanding market. Unlike Thailand and China, who seem to be shooting themselves in the foot with counterproductive alcohol restrictions, Vietnam appears to be giving the craft beer trend a warm welcome.
Do you think craft beer produced in Vietnam can add value to the country’s global brand? If so, how?
The craft beer market in Vietnam has seen a significant amount of international press as of late. From Drink Magazine to CNN, the Boston Globe and Vice’s Munchies, craft beer in Vietnam has made its way into the global spotlight. The more publicity it attracts, the more people will recognize Vietnam as a desirable destination. From afternoon to nightfall, craft beer tours are in full swing, and there are not many other markets that have undergone such spontaneous and cohesive growth in such a short amount of time.
Where do you source your hops from?
We treat our brewery more like a playground. We have a massive library of international hops, and our brewers Duane Morton and Peter Mallon have free reign to experiment. Although we’ve used large amounts of American hops, we are by no means limited to that. We’ve used loads of hops from Australia and New Zealand, as well as Noble hops from the Czech Republic. We really love Australian Galaxy hops in particular, which have a big aroma and are ideal for bittering fragrant IPAs and pale ales. Our goal is to really push the envelope. We want to embody the spirit of experimentation.
How do you decide which hops to incorporate into your recipes?
We love our hops and focus on making good, solid beers using primarily malt, yeast, hops and water. The trick to getting strong but enjoyable flavors is selecting hops that blend well with all your other ingredients. This is how we are able to create such vibrant flavors.
To achieve this, we must also time the additions perfectly and make sure the water profile helps balance the malt and hops. This will produce a drinkable beer with serious flavor and these are all critical factors for us.
So while we have a reputation for making hoppy beer, they are still very approachable—they are playful and not just bitter. The fact that one of our flagship beers, Kurtz’s Insane IPA, is one of the scene’s best selling beers tells me that our approach is working well.
Which non-craft beer is most often in your fridge at home?
Saigon Special, but I try to only drink beers that are worth getting fat for.
Can you remember your first experience with craft beer? When was the moment of your conversion?
I was brought up on lagers like Stella Artois, but my first eye-opening experience occurred when I tried McEwan’s IPA. At the time, I was in England working on my degree when I came across this beer in Edinburgh. It was a game changer for me. The hop and malt profiles were something I had never experienced before, and it left a strong and lasting impression on me.
Later on in 1998, I moved to America and experienced Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Dogfish Head’s 60 minute IPA. They both really blew me away and are still two of my favorite beers to this day. My taste has significantly changed since then, but I love those beers for nostalgic reasons and because they are both iconic US craft beers.
What are some of your favorite beers that Heart of Darkness has produced?
Of all the brews we’ve created, the Kurtz Insane IPA and the Director’s Cacao Nib Porter have been some of my favorites. Right now, I’m really loving the Loose Rivet IPA. If you haven’t tried that one yet there is no time like the present. It’s fantastic.
Which Heart of Darkness beer would you suggest a newcomer try first?
The Sacred Fire Golden Ale and the Primeval Forest Pilsner are excellent beers to kick-start your craft beer journey. They are both light and drinkable which makes for a refreshing introduction to the world of craft beer.