A few years ago, Taey Chao was dumped by his girlfriend and needed something to take the edge off. His friends got him smashed on beer.
He has been chasing after the perfect hoppy taste ever since. But domestic Thai beers are like sex on a canoe: they're called lagers but they're fucking close to water. A good pale lager should be dry, clean, crisp, and carry a subtle flavor profile. It can be light, shouldn't be harsh, but doesn't need to be brave. It's often characterized by a smoothness, maybe even a breadiness. Some of the most popular Thai beers fail on all counts, so Taey and a handful of beer connoisseurs decided to take matters into their own hands, and the homebrewing movement of Thailand was born.
They might not be mass producers, and certainly don't have a far-reaching distribution network—few bottles ever go beyond the capital's city limits—but there are finally great craft beers that can call themselves Thai.
Taey Chao's Bangkok Sunburn, released under his label Team Alpha Brewing, is one homebrewed beer that is giving other local beers a run for their money. Bangkok Sunburn's recipe took him months to devise and improve upon, a project he took on during off-hours from Mikkeller Bangkok. It's a beer that he shared with Kjetil Jikiun, braumeister of the Norwegian Nøgne Ø, and received nothing but praise.
So far, the Bangkok homebrewing scene is a small community of producers serving a small community of consumers, but there's strong momentum. Last year, there were only four brewers. Now there are 20.
Brewing beer without a license in Thailand is illegal. The fine for brewing at home is only 200 baht (US $6), but selling homebrewed beer carries a fine of 5,000 baht (US $152) and a six-month prison sentence. Those aren't hefty punishments, especially since they're never enforced by the police—in fact, police officers have bought Taey's Bangkok Sunburn, and they love it—but there's always a risk that someone might come knocking on their doors one day.
These homebrewers understand beer, and they know that great beer requires the patience and imagination that isn't found in other brews. Taey says he brews for himself, while Thirdd of Seven Two Brewing says he does it to share his beer with friends, but they're all in pursuit of the perfect pint. They may not be looking for acknowledgement, but getting their name out is key to eventually ramping up production. At the same time, they're trying to stay under the radar enough that they won't get into any serious trouble should the legal winds change. "The government has heard about us, definitely," Thirdd said. There's serious interest in craft beers, both by Thai urbanites looking for new and exciting tastes, and by the massive bureaucracy that governs new Thailand.
"The beer scene here is like indie music," Thirdd said. They're trying to make it big, but somehow not deviate from their original vision.
Team Alpha and Seven Two both employ heavy metal and modern gothic imagery in their branding, because both Taey and Thirdd grew up with the genre. Their parents listened to music by Led Zeppelin and their contemporaries, which later influenced Taey and Thirdd's own musical tastes. "It's about showing how fucked-up society is," Taey said. In a way, the beer they're making is doing the same.
The small act of brewing bootleg beer is really part of the not-so-small act of shattering expectations. Thirdd's parents own a bar and were understanding, even though they initially wrote off his efforts as a mere hobby. Taey's family was much more skeptical about his passion, and wanted him to take up a spot in the family business. Even though they enjoyed his Bangkok Sunburn, they said his future would be nothing but dark if he journeyed forward. When he told them that he wanted to eventually operate his own brewery, they laughed. "I was out partying until late one night," Taey said, "and found them at home, still awake and waiting for me. They sat me down and asked me to lay out a plan for where I will be five years later, ten, 15, 20." He spent hours explaining how he wanted to make brewing an essential part of his life. They finally gave in, giving him their blessing to develop his true passion.
It can also be thought of as a grassroots answer to a duopoly that has been in place for decades—a duopoly that has moved beyond food and beverages and publicly waded into the political realm. Taey and Thirdd don't share those lofty visions, however. They just want to make beer, so they're building their empire of hops bottle by bottle, growler by growler.
"Sunburn," Taey said, "because living in Thailand is living in constant heat, living in hell." But the drink says otherwise. It starts with a punch of hops, moves on to a special dryness, but without a bitter aftertaste. It was a pleasant surprise for Taey to see that Sunburn's flavor matched his initial designs, that his execution echoed his initial concept. "My beer is like my son," Taey said. "I want to be proud of it."
Brewing remains something of a playground for Taey and Thirdd. "There's a charm in the unpredictability," Thirdd said. A few degrees in difference could produce a drastically different flavor from expected, and the result could either be a pleasant surprise or a complete failure meant for the drain. Taey's next batch will be an experiment, where he will use wild yeast to make a black lager. In the future, Taey and Thirdd will work on lambics. Even though the salty sourness isn't something that Thais are used to tasting in their drinks, the tropical climate and abundance of fresh fruit that is available form the perfect environment for lambic production.
Taey and Thirdd are far from ready to challenge the beer barons of Bangkok, but do they think they're about to graduate from homebrewing to run their own microbreweries?
All Taey and Thirdd would say was, "We're like cats, and cats are sneaky."