What does it take to open a new craft brewery? And open one in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam? And be the first with both a complete brewing operation and fully functioning restaurant on site? Not to mention, what does it take to actually brew quality craft beer in Southeast Asia? “It all started with yogurt actually”, joked Loc Truong, East West Brewing Co. General Manager and one of its four founding partners. Turns out he wasn’t joking.

Since moving to Saigon, I’ve had the opportunity to follow the development of the East West Brewing Co. team and even tap a first keg or two. These guys are passionate about beer, that I can assure you. But it takes more than passion to succeed here. So, back to the beginning. And yogurt.

The Team

Loc Truong was born in Vietnam but raised and educated in the US. He met California native Steve Gutiérrez while both were attending university in San Diego. The friends shared a passion for beer, with Truong going on to work for industry giant ABI and Gutiérrez building a career in the hospitality sector. Eight years ago Truong returned to Vietnam and, ever the entrepreneur, identified a market opportunity for yogurt. He contacted Gutiérrez, who had experience running something similar as a senior in college, but nothing really came of it. However, the two did keep in touch.

Eventually by 2014 Truong explained, “I had a plan, it was just about getting the parts together. Since then, it’s been two and a half years in the making”. Looking back Gutiérrez is thankful “it’s so much better to launch a brewery together than a yogurt shop”. I wholeheartedly agree! But Truong, with an MBA courtesy of the elite China European International Business School, and Gutiérrez as Sales lead are only two of the four founding partners. Shawn Scott leads Operations with ten years of culinary and management experience in his native Canada and across Vietnam. Last but certainly not least, head brewer Sean Thommen brings over a decade of professional brewing experience from Portland Oregon – perhaps one of the most well established craft beer communities in the world.

In addition to the four partners, the recipe for a successful restaurant and brewery would not be complete without the talents of a head chef and passion of a local brewer. Enter Cyndi Tran, Executive Chef of East West Brewing Co, with over a decade of experience at some of the world’s premier hotel names such as Four Seasons and Loews Hotels. Hailing from LA, Cyndi’s family has both Vietnamese and Salvadoran roots, meaning her cooking pallet is wide and talent is fierce. Getting the chance to taste a bite of her spent grain granola, an evolving component of what was eventually an incredible Valentine’s dessert dish, made me a fan for life.

Last but not least, Trung Dau, a Saigon local, works as a brewer under Sean Thommen. Dau is working to become the first Vietnamese Master Craft Brewer ever. Thommen describes the match between the brewers as a perfect fit, that Dau “Really wants to make a  career out of it. He sees where this market is headed. Excited by the opportunity to elevate Vietnamese beer to that of revered Vietnamese food“.

East West Brewing Co. also benefits from a silent investor group. Achieving the formidable scale of operations they have – a staff of over 30, a seat dining & bar area for over 150 guests, barrel aging room, rooftop patio, and distribution at a growing number of other bar and restaurants – would be impossible without such start up funds. Though small by ‘big beer’ standards, the East West Brewing Co. operation stands out as the largest ever launch in the two year history of Saigon’s craft beer scene. Instead of a slow and steady approach, they have jumped in with both feet and are certainly making a splash.

The Concept

The team at East West Brewing Co. hopes to “connect cultures through craft beer”. The initials SG (Saigon) and SD (San Diego) are appropriately featured on the crest within their logo. Much like the mission of craft brewers around the world, the East West team strives to use fresh and fine quality ingredients in everything they do – from the brews to the food that is paired with it. Beer ingredients include internationally sourced hops as well a twist on tradition with premium local coffee or Vietnamese palm sugar in the respective Coffee Vanilla Porter and Modern Belgian Blonde brews.

Walking through the massive glass doors of East West Brewing Co. at 181-185 Ly Tu Trong Street, in District 1, you know you’re in for an experience and not just a beer. It’s certainly one of the most sophisticated tap rooms I’ve ever seen, by both Eastern and Western standards. The aesthetic of craft brewing compatriots Pasteur Street Brewing Company, or Bia Craft, is decidedly eclectic and shabby-chic featuring lots of wooden panels, darker, and more intimate spaces for a pint. Conversely, East West Brewing Co. is massive with brand new shiny fermenting tanks beaming from the back of the tap room. Furniture is light and airy and the front wall facing Ly Tu Trong is entirely made of glass.

While I first thought this seemingly up market California design vibe was a nod to the West, it turns out it’s more about appealing to the East. Instead of the expected 60/40 or 70/30 split in favour of expat guests over locals, “it’s been the opposite” Gutiérrez shares. And while craft breweries have certain hipster design connotations in the West, for the growing Vietnamese middle class, it’s a step up from traditional brews. For some, part of the appeal of coming out for a night of premium craft beer is a premium atmosphere and culinary experience that goes along with it. During one of my recent visits I saw a table of Vietnamese order what appeared to be a few bottles of wine and Champagne to go along with their beer. Yes, for the uninitiated that don’t love beer as much as the Prostly team, they also serve wine and spirits. If the higher end decor and wide drink menu brings in more Vietnamese drinkers and introducing them to the world of premium craft beer in the process, who am I to judge.

The Build

Perhaps it’s the American influence in the East West Brewing Co. concept, or sheer enthusiasm for the booming craft industry, that has spurred the ‘go big’ mentality observed at the operation. “Every great city in the world has an iconic local craft brewery and we aspire to fit that role for Ho Chi Minh City” they share. From breaking ground in May of 2016, to the soft opening in January 2017, they have achieved the nearly impossible.

When reflecting back on the construction process, Truong is now able to smile when discussing the incredibly heavy rainy season, by all accounts the biggest in years, that pushed back construction by one month during summer 2016. It was the challenges with permits to brew on site in the city that had Gutiérrez most concerned, “Thankfully there is always a way. That’s where the Vietnamese partners really come in. They make it happen.”

He goes on to share that while staffing was relatively easy given the interest in the operation and growth in the industry, the nine initial training days prior to their rush to open before the Tết holiday (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) was not likely enough. Given how new the craft concept is, and how unique the range of eight brews on tap are, “We didn’t give them enough time to teach them about craft beer”. Further server education is something the team worked on as they continued to optimize during the soft launch period. In the final construction push before opening, Gutiérrez admits “I was surprised by the progress we achieved in the final four weeks”. The end result is certainly impressive.

While construction is clearly the most visible part of the development process, it’s not the only one. Prior to even opening their doors the team made ‘pre sales visits’ to well over 150 venues in the city. Setting up distribution to get the East West name out there and beer onto people’s lips is paying off. While working to keep up with demand at their own taproom, they are limiting new distribution to 10-20 new outlets per month. After success in just the first few weeks, the team estimates that within six months the demand will outstrip capacity of their current tanks and brewing schedule. If you ask me, it’s a very good problem to have in the grand scheme of things.

Beyond ‘what you know’ another critical component in a successful craft beer launch is ‘who you know’. Here the East West Brewing Co. again appears to have succeeded. The supportive craft beer community within Saigon continues to impress me beyond belief. The entire East West team openly praises other craft brewers who have shown proof of concept when to comes to quality craft beer and tap rooms appealing to the Vietnamese as well as expat and tourist crowds. Industry leaders Pasteur Street Brewing Company, and Bia Craft paved the way for new launches in fall 2016 including Heart Of Darkness and LAC Brewing Co., which in turn kept buzz and excitement high for the latest Q1 2017 openings, of Winking Seal Beer Co. and of course East West Brewing Co. And so the momentum of the entire industry grows. The soft launch of East West included visits by several brewers in the city, not to mention the Sunday industry nights they host.

The Beer, Oh the Beer

You can build a slick taproom, hire the most enthusiastic staff, and design an impressive menu, but if the beer doesn’t deliver, there really isn’t much point. Thankfully, East West Brewing Co.’s line up of eight year round brews most definitely deliver. Plus rotating monthly feature brews include the likes of Irish Red Ale (for St. Patrick’s Day), Makrut Lime Saison and a Christmas Tripel IPA. Thommen explains his brewing approach, “The key is range. You want to push the envelope on both ends of the spectrum. The true art of professional brewing is really in consistency” he adds.

A few notable selects from the lineup thus far:

  • A favourite with the expat crowd, Summer Hefeweizen is everything you want on a hot summer day – which happens to be pretty much everyday in Saigon. A classic German wheat ale, with German noble hops, served with a fresh orange wedge. Perfection.
  • The surprise hit with the local Vietnamese drinkers has been the Coffee Vanilla Porter, which uses cold press coffee from locally sourced shade grown coffee beans for a velvety smoothness. Think bittersweet cocoa, toffee, caramel, nuttiness and strong vanilla cues. Basically, think the best trip to Starbucks, ever.
  • Taking things one step further in terms of coffee and chocolate notes, is the Independence Stout. Not to be underestimated, this 68 IBU and 12% ABV brew can sneak up on unsuspecting drinkers. The brewers recommend this beer is to be “savoured and respected”, and rightfully so.
  • True to it’s name, the East West Pale Ale is an inter-pacific blend of German malt, New Zealand and American hops, crafted in Saigon. The team expects this to serve as the flagship for the brewery and are already serving it at multiple bars around the city.

Why choose just one, when you can have them all? The taproom features four x 150ml sampling flights, or opt for the “King’s Flight” with no less than ten glasses. 330ml pints range from 75-100k VND, while four glass flights are 175k, meaning East West rings in close to the top of the craft beer price spectrum in the city.

During my visit the team was literally in the final stages of brewing the Saigon Rosé. I was lucky enough to try it both in the fermentation tank and literally from the very first keg ever tapped. Swoon! With over 40kg of raspberries per 1,000L brew, it may count as an official serving of fruit in your daily diet. As I sip (read chug) the Rosé, Thommen goes on to explain that across the entire East West lineup, it’s one of the most expensive (raspberries aren’t cheap) and hardest beers to technically produce. With only 12 IBU, 3% ABV and such subtle floral, berry and citrus notes, perfecting the right balance of this ultra light, ultra bright pink beer is a challenge. “There’s nowhere to hide if things go wrong”. While still very much a beer, the Saigon Rosé has the potential to completely win over radler or cider drinkers and sparkling wine fans, and IMO, anyone who has a pulse.

The Future

These days, offering brewery tours and a hospitable taproom are a basic expectation of many craft brewers. True to the theme of “going big”, East West Brewing Co. has an aggressive plan ahead far beyond tours. For those who love music, Friday nights are host to live music from 7 to 11pm. For those who love to brunch, the ‘Keg & Eggs Sunday Brunch’ offers buffet stations and unlimited beer and beer based cocktails. Rounding the weekend off, Sunday evenings are industry nights. Once the sizeable rooftop patio opens, any night of the week, any month of the year, can turn into a party for you and 150 or so close friends. Last but not least, if you’re the type of person that, um, likes to ‘play the field’, you’re in luck. East West has teamed up with Vespa Adventures in a new Saigon Craft Beer Tour. On this five stop tour across the city’s best craft brewery taprooms and restaurants, you’ll have your fill of dozens of different brews, and the piece of mind of having someone else do all the driving. East West Brewing Co. is the final stop in this debaucherous adventure.

Tapping into a smaller group of well educated home brewers in the city, there are plans to offer brewing lessons to the public. The experience will include several hours brewing alongside the East West team to produce a signature brew in a 100L pilot tank. A few weeks later, participants are invited back to taste the nectar of their efforts. Perhaps a beer and food pairing dinner? Or simply cart away your signature brew in bottles with custom labels to enjoy at home.

The East West Brewing Co. team is also looking beyond its walls as it plans for the future. Though no official announcements have been made, the team sees itself as a true community partner, and is working on a complete corporate responsibility plan. Perhaps being Saigon’s first American style craft brewery and kitchen won’t be the only thing they are known for. Only time will tell. Until then, I’ll happily sit back with a pint of the Saigon Rosé and see what happens next in this booming beer town.

Note, East West Brewing Co. is Saigon based craft beer brewery and restaurant, not to be confused with East West Brewing Company based out of Eastown, Michigan USA. Both operations are less than a year old, and sure to confuse folks on Google searches. While we wish the folks in Michigan success in bringing quality craft beer to drinkers, we have never met them and this article is not about them.

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