A Taste of Freedom
23 June 2017
In Thailand, producing and selling your own beer is illegal. Yet, for some years now freedom-loving craftsmen brewers play with the law in order to o er an ever-increasing choice of artisanal beers, sold under the cloak or elaborated abroad.
APRIL 2017, IT’S 8 PM AND BAR 2203 IS CROWDED. Brewers and lovers of fine pints could not miss the event organized by the creators of Udomsuk beer. The night’s program: a tasting of eleven different home-made beers!
To promote the evening, a simple flyer posted on social networks with just a date and the list of beverages to be discovered… The address was then sent by private message after contacting the organizers, for an evening almost categorized as “underground”, as the entire circle of beer craft in the Land of Smiles reveals to be.
For most people, “Thai beer” means Chang and Singha, Leo or Tiger, in a market dominated by two giants: Boon Rawd Brewery and Thai Beverage. Yet for the last three or four years, alternatives have been emerging: Chitbeer, Stonehead, Lamzing, Sandport, Devanom, Udomsuk, Golden Coins…
Although a wide selection is on offer on the current market for brew enthousiasts, Thailand has a special feature: producing or selling home-made beer is illegal and can be penalized by up to six months in jail and a 5,000 Baht fine for production, a penalty which can be doubled for selling and is expected to harden up in the coming months.
According to the Liquor Act of 1950, alcoholic beverages can only be produced at a factory or in a brewery. In order to obtain legal status, brewers must reach a quota of 100,000 liters per year and be registered as a limited company with a capital of ten million Baht. A regulation that makes production on a microbrewery scale virtually impossible.
At the end of January 2017, Taopiphop Limjittrakorn, a 28-year- old Thai, was arrested and sentenced to a suspended one year and ned 4,500 Baht for brewing and selling eponymous beer in his bar. The media coverage that followed his arrest has put the spotlight on the aberration of this outdated legislation.
To deal with or to circumvent it, “there are two options, either to manufacture your beer abroad and then import it back into Thailand, or own a proper brewery” explains Wichit Saiklao, founder of Chit Beer and ‘The father’ of artisanal beer in Thailand.
Expatriation for Importation
“Stonehead, Lamzing, Sandport, Devanom… we are about a dozen to produce our beers abroad. Their number have increased dramatically in recent months, following the arrest of Tao, while the beers brewed locally have decreased. People are a little scared, they are more cautious,” says Panitan Tongsiri, owner of Stonehead, a beer brewed in Cambodia.
From Vietnam to Australia via Korea, many of them took off to produce their beers abroad, before importing them into Thailand, the only ‘legal’ solution at the moment to officially distribute their brands in bars and supermarkets.
“Stonehead sales represent a production of one thousand liters per day, it can be found at Tops Market, Villa Market, in all major cities. It is only sold in Thailand and I do not want to export it elsewhere,” adds Panitan.
For his part, Tao has teamed up with Stonehead to bring out a “legal” beer. “Before I was arrested, I was already planning to produce my beer abroad, I even thought about the United States… Meanwhile, I will make the first batch in Cambodia. I am still under probation, I no longer brew at home,” says Taopiphop.
Obviously, brewing beer abroad involves additional costs, linked to transport and import taxes, which have an impact on the final retail price. Thus, these beers are marketed and sold in bars and shops at a similar rate to the foreign brands.
For the owner of Udomsuk, “making your beer outside of Thailand requires producing more and does not allow us to follow the day- to-day stages of fermentation. It conflicts with our idea to offer a quality beer and I prefer to organize discrete tasting events like this one tonight”.
An ideal that carries risks: “This legislation is a challenge and that’s why we protect ourselves, we keep ‘under the radar’, we ask not to take photos of us, in order to allow us to continue producing our craft beers as long as possible, until the law changes,” he
Having successfully legally commercialized his Lamzing beer, Thirdd Yookongsak is thinking about reselling the brand, returning to Thailand and going on creating new flavors, “I want to go back to artisanal beer, continue to improve what I do. The illegal side might be exciting, but I do hope that one day all of this will be legal, because we would all be winners: consumers would have more choice and we would be able to o er an alternative culture to farmers, it would be good for the whole economy”.
In order to legally produce beer in Thailand, Wichit is preparing to open Mitr Sam Phan Brewery, a cooperative brewery, in collaboration with Deva Hops Farm, Pattaya’s Wizard Brewery, Phatthalung Red Stone Brewery, Kitten Beer in Prathumthani and Mickleheim Brewery. Everyone could come and brew his own beer. In order to open such a facility, one must be able to produce between 100,000 and 1 million liters per year, and must not sell outside the brewery. “The brewery is almost ready, we hope to get the license soon and start producing. We are now forced to find a way to work with the current law, but I hope that in three or four years it will be a legal activity” he concludes. Confident, Panitan adds: “It will eventually change one day, even if for the moment we do not see much coming.”
The local scene is indeed evolving. With a tight-knit community of passionate brewers and a loyal audience, with a strong presence at various events and in bars serving these Thai artisan beers, it could, hopefully, soon switch from underground to mainstream…
In conclusion, Thirdd summarizes the situation: “Life is like a glass of beer!”