Most Thai lawmakers don’t spend an evening during the work week sipping a raspberry wheat beer with other craft brew enthusiasts, but Tao is different.
“It’s part of democratizing this country, if we can pass the beer bill, it's a very clear symbol that Thailand is ready to change,” the 31-year old told VICE World News, wearing a white tieless shirt and enjoying an evening with friends last month just weeks before new coronavirus restrictions closed bars across Bangkok.
Since breaking into politics a few years ago, Taopiphop ‘Tao’ Limjittakorn has been on a quest to champion craft and artisan beers in a country where major breweries dominate the market.
He first made a name for himself in 2017, when he was arrested for illegally brewing beer and spent a night in jail. Two years later, a customer invited him to a political gathering. He joined the progressive Future Forward Party, an eclectic, youth-focused movement that stunned the military-backed establishment by finishing third in 2019 elections.
The party was later dissolved in a controversial court case slammed by international observers. But Tao and other opposition MPs switched to a newly-branded force called Move Forward and attempted to regroup.
He rode out the political turbulence but could not escape the economic savagery of the pandemic, which forced him to close his own small bar.
Thailand’s craft beer market exists in a legal gray area. To be licensed, brewers need to pump out at least 10 million liters of beer annually, and laws on advertising are restrictive. The volume requirements mean small brewers have a “big barrier to entry,” Tao said.
Critics argue the rules unfairly advantage beer behemoths in a sign of wider trends in the Thai economy where a number of key families and players hold sway. A new ban on online sales of alcohol during the pandemic have also unfairly hit smaller brewers, critics say.
When Tao used parliament question time to challenge the status quo, a senior finance official said regulations are designed to ensure high-quality brewing standards that protect the public from unsanitary or unhygienic manufacturing.
Undeterred, Tao is pouring his energies into new legislation that would make it possible for young entrepreneurs to brew beer inside Thailand without onerous requirements.
If it is to have any chance of success he will need government support, and he is busy lobbying others to his side. While the response has been encouraging, there are over 100 bills ahead of his proposal, meaning it’s unlikely to be voted on any time soon.
Until then, prospective craft brewers have two options: to brew illicitly like Tao did or to have batches of orders made over the border in Cambodia or somewhere further afield like Australia and then pay high import taxes to bring them in.
Despite obstacles the industry is growing, with a number of new beers trickling into an increasingly crowded market. The most headline grabbing is Chit beer, considered the origin of rebel brewing culture and run by a former soldier on an island in Bangkok.
But it is also going more mainstream: One of Thailand’s massive beer conglomerates, responsible for the popular Singha and Leo lagers, recently invested in Full Moon, one of the largest and oldest craft breweries.
Industry insiders also say Thais are no longer satisfied by a handful of traditional lagers and want to branch out into the craft brew universe. But unlike other countries, the underground nature of brewing has imbued the local scene with a certain anti-authoritarian flair.
“It’s really been the last three or four years that has seen an explosion in craft beer,” explains Brian Bartusch, who’s had a front row seat. He is one of the founders of Beervana, the first large-scale importer of craft beers to Thailand.
Over time he’s seen the love of craft beer move from small pockets of expats to Thai entrepreneurs and drinkers across the capital and beyond. Sales of craft beer have surged by as much as 40 to 50 percent in yearly growth.
“It’s exciting to see Tao fighting the good fight, and exciting to dream that the laws might change,'' Bartusch told VICE World News, though his optimism has been tempered by the reality of Thailand’s economy where big players and their interests remain influential.
Tao’s colleague Sirikanya Tansakun, chair of the economic development committee for Move Forward, said Tao is known for focusing on difficult, “untouchable” topics, including workers rights in the sex industry and special education. Craft beer may not seem related, but it’s yet another area that’s seen as an uphill battle in Thailand.
“No other MPs were working on this issue,” he said.
Tao’s recent mid-week drinking session last month wasn’t entirely social. Owners of a new beer startup called ‘One more Ale’ had arranged to meet him.
They wanted to get his opinion on two of their creations, a New England IPA and a Raspberry wheat beer. Co-founder Wanussanan ‘Ice’ Jaritwong and a group of friends met in college and started trying to brew after being wowed by his first IPA.
“We like beer,” Ice said with a smile when asked why they wanted to start the company. While craft beer has become trendy among younger Thais especially, Ice doesn’t believe age is a barrier to broader appeal.
“My old man likes to try every beer I bring home... I don't think the older generation has a closed mind, they just didn’t have many options.”
Tao believes that the small industry can grow even more, and that they will have support of consumers who want independent businesses to thrive.
“I think Thai people really love the story about David and Goliath, you know, with small people trying to fight a big corporation.”