Order a beer in Thailand and it's likely to be a Singha, Chang, or Leo. Despite a boom of illegal breweries and even a fledgling hop farm, the odds are forever in favor of watery lagers, especially when visiting the smaller islands.
I'm not one to scoff at an oversized bottle of Asian beer, especially when halfway around the world, but after a few weeks in Thailand I realized that I take for granted the buffet of IPAs offered at most American bars. So after a long day snorkeling on Koh Tao's pristine beaches, I was pleasantly surprised to find a tiny sign that read "Craft Beer" with an arrow pointing to a dark alley.
Although Koh Tao is far from undiscovered, the island is smaller and less posh than neighboring Koh Samui and lacks the full moon party draw of Koh Phangan, making this sign even more unlikely. Entering the cramped alleyway felt like walking into a literal tourist trap. There was almost no light, and the 50-meter passageway seemed like a perfect place to be liberated of my wallet. After an unsettling walk with my hands nervously guarding my pockets, I found a small cluster of shops known as the New Walking Street (Nay Pon Road), home to a bar sourcing some of the best beers in the world: The Beer Masons.
An overly friendly cat held court over their patio, while friendly bartender Simon Randall walked me through the four taps in bar's small, air conditioned interior. At the time, they featured offerings from Copenhagen's Mikkeller and To Øl, Minnesota's Surly, and New Zealand's Zeffer. He casually dropped statistics on each beer's current place on Rate Beer's rankings, and pointed me to fridges that housed another 130 bottles and cans.
"The experience we are providing is for quality over quantity, so if you are looking to party and get drunk, stick to ya buckets and binge drinking," said Simon, a British expat who arrived in Thailand in 2002. "It was quite the norm to get a warm Chang served after 10 PM on the beach back in the day."
Launched in 2014 with the mission of elevating the island's overall beer offerings, The Beer Masons initially served as middlemen, convincing skeptical breweries to take a chance on Koh Tao. Once they saw the demand, they opened their bar in 2015.
"There were some craft beers before we started in 2014, but in very limited spots and not the brands we are representing today," said co-owner Marek Novak, another expat drawn from Czechoslovakia by Koh Tao's reputation as a scuba diving hub. Hospitality workers on the islands are often short-term and lack English fluency, making it tough to maintain the level of beer knowledge one might expect at an establishment offering beers from breweries like San Diego's Modern Times. Even so, The Beer Masons now supply craft beer on-tap to four bars and bottled beers to more than two dozen restaurants. That's a serious presence on an island with fewer than 2,000 residents.
Since my visit in September, the Beer Masons have closed down the original Nay Pond Road bar and moved to a decidedly less sketchy location along the Sairee Village Main Road, where they've expanded to ten taps and host weekly tasting sessions. A recent rare arrival was a brandy-aged barley wine called Viciously Viscous from To Øl, the only keg found in all of Thailand.
Naturally, a high-AVB brandy-aged beer isn't the first thing most tourists reach for after a day on the beach, but the company's success proves that craft beer can thrive almost anywhere. And from their foothold in Koh Tao, they're also expanding to serve Koh Phangan and opening a second bar on Koh Samui, giving new meaning to the term "island-hopping."