The moment you land in Ho Chi Minh City, the first thing you’re going to want to do is head out to the streets to get your fill of Vietnamese food – Banh Xeo, Banh Mi, Bun Rieu, you name it.
This is a country that is known for its spectacular cuisine that is bolstered by the country’s agricultural roots. You’ll find foods that display a brilliant fusion of traditionally Vietnamese with a touch of French influence. Loads of herbs, fresh vegetables, noodles, baguettes, meat cuts ranging from the classic chicken, beef and pork, to seafood from the local coast of shrimps and crabs.
In what was probably a career high point, Anthony Bourdain likely contributed his bit to popularising Vietnamese cuisine when he sat across former US President Obama in classic Vietnamese eating style. (Image Source: BBC)
It’s a country that has also become synonymous with the late travel writer and presenter Anthony Bourdain, who explored the country on his TV series Parts Unknown, famously having former US President Barack Obama sat across on plastic stools chatting over a plate of Bun Cha on a starkly commonplace metal folding table.
Funnily, for a travel series that’s covered much of the globe’s unique cuisine, the Vietnam episode in particular seems to really have stuck – you can’t help but hear the late travel writer’s name tossed about while waiting at the immigration lines at the local airport. “What do you want to eat?” is probably the line that comes next.
Amidst the bustle, you’ll find a slew of food stalls lining the streets. (Image Source: BBC)
Here restaurants don’t hold much suasion. You get a sense that perhaps the best treasures are to be found roadside, and where you least expect it. You almost feel a compulsion to turn away from anything that looks too curated as an establishment – the messier, grittier, and low-fi, the better.
Another thing you’ll notice is that aside from the cuisine, or perhaps well integrated into which, is the wide availability, consumption and array of beers.
In fact, Vietnam is one of the world’s top 10 beer markets. Here, a cold fresh pint is the beverage of choice to beat the sweltering heat.
Today, we’re in Ho Chi Minh City for just 1 night and we’re going to explore its range of beers, starting with arguably the most popular label – Bia Saigon.
Let’s delve alittle deeper into beers in Vietnam and also Bia Saigon.
The French were responsible for bringing beer, amongst other influences, to Vietnam in the mid to late 1800s during what was known as the French Indochina period which officially lasted from 1887 to 1954.
Amongst whom, a Frenchman named Victor Larue had set up probably the first domestic brewery known as the Brasseries et Placieres de L’Indochine Brewery, which later expanded into the Brasseries Glacières d’Indochine (or abbreviated as BGI Brewery) in 1875 in Ho Chi Minh City.
The Saigon Beer Factory, which was first started by Victor Larue as the BGI Brewery, still stands and is in operation today. (Image Source: Doanh Nhan VN)
BGI’s European-style Lager beers quickly took off and was popular with both locals and foreigners, in particular the 33 Export label.
Eventually post-reunification, Vietnam’s beer scene changed radically and the major domestic beer companies came to be under the ownership and management of the newly recognised local government. BGI was the largest at the time and was now renamed Saigon Alcohol Beer and Beverage Joint Stock Corporation or SABECO. Eventually as the government realised it could not manage a major successful beer brand, the company was eventually partially privatised, now belonging to Thailand’s largest beer company, ThaiBev.
The new SABECO ownership led to the creation of the now ubiquitous Lager beer brand – Bia Saigon.
33 Export Label was probably the first “real” beer in Vietnam, by which I mean one with a standard recipe and proper distribution vis-a-vis homebrews.
As such the name “33” itself was derived from the original 33-centilitre bottle that it came in when it was first distributed in the 1900s.
This was the beer that was for most of the last century been the staple of Vietnam, and was also quite a hit with the Americans during the Vietnam War.
Yet, as the local government took back Saigon, they felt it best to expunge one of the country’s most popular beverages from its colonial origins and so renamed it as “333” beer instead.
While the original “33” rice beer back in the 1900s came from the French who took inspiration from the Germans, it has since gone on to undergo several iterations as the brand changed hands. It is today a Lager beer made using barley instead.
Color: Dark Gold
Aroma: Yeasty, with a touch of light honey, fresh citrus, with a gentle bittersweetness.
Taste: Medium-bodied, with a light maltiness of honey, oats, lots of cereal. It is of medium richness – not overly bright nor too sticky rich, a very good richness indeed. A very gentle bitterness, accompanied by caramel and light tropical fruit. A delightful creaminess and a smooth body to go.
Finish: Slightly savoury on the finish with a light hoppy bitterness.
This was very enjoyable – a great mouthfeel and balance. It isn’t particularly complex but its notes are neither too bright nor too dark, which is what exudes that nice balance. The level of richness is outstanding, this is like a denser version of the standard Bia Saigon Lager with that added touch of fruit, more caramel and a light bitterness to counterweight the sweetness.
After Vietnam’s reunification, the local government had taken control of BGI Brewery which now became the Southern Brewery Company (as Ho Chi Minh was located in the South of Vietnam), and at the time was still largely dependent on “33” Beer for sales.
As the new government wanted to distance itself from any colonial associations, “33” Beer was renamed “333” Beer.
Yet, the government felt that a greater push towards nationalism and patriotism could only come from a completely local homegrown brand – this led to the creation of the Bia Saigon brand. This came hand in hand with the renaming of the Southern Brewery Company to the Saigon Beer Company, also known as SABECO.
The Bia Saigon Lager is the first flagship beer from SABECO and similar to the “333” Beer, is produced using malt barley.
Color: Dark gold
Aroma: A strong wheat scent, with malt coming in after. It’s lightly bitter with notes of fresh hay.
Taste: A nice hefty body, with more tannins from black tea, delicate florals, marigold in particular. It’s lightly sweet, but more malty on the palate, with a lightly bitter taste and gentle notes of honey oats.
Finish: Short and crisp. With some leftover notes of rice husk and rice crispies.
Very well balanced, it isn’t exceptionally flavorful but it is nonetheless a decent and nice easy drink. The flavors are fairly mild but easy as it isn’t particularly bitter (which is great for begrudging beer drinkers). It’s considerably brighter in profile and lighter, with not so much richness.
Export labels typically contain a higher alcoholic content as the additional alcohol helps to keep flavors intact better for overseas shipping and storage, aside from which there’s typically not much other major differences unless specific markets impose their own requirements.
As this Export label came from Vietnam as well, it’s probably safe to say the only difference is in the ABV.
Color: Dark Gold
Aroma: Wheaty, as well. Slightly more towards a hoppy bitterness and darker flavors of caramel.
Taste: This is noticeably richer, creamier and deeper in flavor than the standard Lager. It leans towards a sweeter honey and malt, with a touch of aromatic coffee and brown sugar.
Finish: Alittle more effervescent, and again the more intense malty and slightly bitter espresso that comes through, with a touch of cereal notes of rice crispies, malt husk and roasted malt. There is a slight woody char of burnt notes to it.
Alot richer and denser than the standard Lager expression from Bia Saigon. Stronger notes of rich honey and malt, with barely any bitterness, albeit it does get alittle cloying after awhile. This is nonetheless more full and flavorsome with more complexity as well, and a very aromatic profile of char, burnt sugar and aromatic roasted coffee beans.
Bia Saigon Special is a label targeting the higher-end segment of beer consumers (albeit still very affordable particularly for foreigners in Vietnam) and can be easily found in convenience stores.
This is the re-release of the Bia Saigon Special which first debuted in 1999. The new Special label is designed to suit what SABECO saw as changing tastes and preferences of consumers – particularly those more discerning and looking for something more sophisticated.
The new release debuted in the early part of 2022 and comes with a new design, but more importantly a differentiated recipe. It is brewed using Yakima hops from the Yakima Valley of Washington, which is actually one of the oldest hop-growing region globally. This is supposed to give a longer-lasting, more refreshing taste. Bia Saigon also says that they’ve used a special brewing technique known as dry-hopping, which involves adding the hops once more during fermentation to enhance the light fresh aroma and taste of the label.
Color: Dark Gold
Aroma: Convincingly lighter, with a cleaner nose, and more of an emphasis on the citrus, with just a twang of lightly tart yogurt.
Taste: Medium to heavy mouthfeel, it’s creamy, smooth with an almost lightly buttery texture and taste. It’s also quite gently sweet with honey, also lightly bitter, and then richer and maltier, with a waft of herbaceousness.
Finish: Clean, again a light creamy butteriness lingers, after which a light savouriness; lightly salted butter.
This is alittle more hefty especially in mouthfeel, which is quite distinctive, almost like a light butter. It isn’t too sophisticated but it is big on what simple palette of flavors it contains – very smooth and buttery, slightly more sweet than bitter, but really more textural than it is focused on the taste. It is nonetheless very easy to drink, with a richer mouthfeel, and quite honestly you’d be forgiven for forgetting that this contained any alcohol.
If Bia Saigon Special was about the hops, Bia Saigon Gold is about the yeast. This label is also catered for the higher-end segment (again, still very affordable and available) and is supposed to be brewed using a special strain of yeast. Like the Bia Saigon Special, this also undergoes a longer fermentation time to create a more distinctive and stronger tasting beer.
Color: Gold, un-ironically.
Aroma: It’s quite acrid and vegetal, with a touch more minerality, and then on more sour notes of balsamic and sour yogurt. It’s at once umami, savoury and bitter.
Taste: There’s honey, straw, and then back on the umami-savoury funkiness of yogurt and smelly tofu. A medium to heavy body, it starts out lightly sweet and malty before turning very funky.
Finish: Short, with a hoppy yeasty somewhat bitter, umami aftertaste.
Not the most enjoyable frankly. From its aromas it can be quite difficult to get through and isn’t the most appealing. It’s somewhat funky like overly fermented, left out beer that’s gone sour. Maybe the yeast went alittle overkill. Not particularly enjoyable and quite hard to get past. These are some tough flavors to love.
As we’ve seen from the Bia Saigon Special and Gold, the brand has been trying to expand its portfolio of variations to capture more discerning, higher-end consumers in an increasingly competitive beer landscape in Vietnam. These days, there are plenty of great quality craft options that are ready to give Bia Saigon a run for its money.
As such, the brand has sought to grow a portfolio of higher-end, more sophisticated beers that communicate their technology, brewing technique and unique value proposition to customers, muscling out the mindshare occupied by smaller brands without the same deep pockets.
The Bia Saigon Chill focuses on its use of a proprietary -2 Degree Cold Filtered recipe, which sees the beer fermented at -2 Degrees to create a more refreshing and cool taste, and is said to preserve the aroma of the yeast used.
Color: Darker Gold
Aroma: Lightly sour, with apparent notes of yeast and hops, with a gentle touch of passionfruit.
Taste: Medium body, with a creamy, lightly buttery and sweet palate. It continues to deliver fruity notes of passionfruit, nashi pears and pomelo rinds, with a richer maltiness.
Finish: Crisp and refreshing, with light citric zest and savouriness.
This is decent with alittle more dimension and complexity than the other Bia Saigon expressions. On the plus side, good mouthfeel and a creamy body. But on the minus, the palate is still fairly muted even if it does contain more notes – that is the notes are all quite gentle and light. Additionally, the savouriness on the finish is alittle off center and dissonant.
The experiments continue! This time combining two of Vietnam’s famous beverages – coffee and beer! This was just bound to happen.
And beyond how predictable and somewhat cliched this is – we were totally down with this and super excited to try it. We like coffee, we like beer – what could go wrong?
This apparently was the result of a survey SABECO ran on the younger folks’ demographic which showed that they were most keen on trying new novel drinks – which really explains the multiple more experimental novelty labels we’ve seen. As SABECO mentions, beer is no longer solely for the purposes of quenching thirst, it has got to be exciting, refreshing and appealing.
With the Coffee Infused label, Bia Saigon sourced coffee beans from the highland Tay Nguyen Farm and combined them with their beer for this creation. The company doesn’t disclose the exact process, but I’m guessing they let the coffee beans marinade in the finished beer for some time before canning.
Color: Darker Brown-Gold, Diluted Cola Soda
Aroma: Light espresso opens up, with cereal notes of wheat and oats coming through later, lightly sweet. There’s also notes of s’mores roasted marshmallows, milk chocolate and cacao nibs.
Taste: Wheaty, with a typical malty bittersweetness and then light hops, and then more on milk chocolate.
Finish: Quick fragrant burst of smooth aromatic espresso sans the bitterness.
It’s okay; it’s certainly interesting but the integration of the coffee with the beer could be better married and more cohesive. Aside from its aromas and light espresso taste, these seem like two separate things chucked into the same can. The coffee could come through on the palate more.
With one night in Ho Chi Minh City, the city of great food, the grittiest people, heaps of history and culture, we wanted to explore the city through one of its most beloved liveblood and beverages – beer. And where else to start but the country’s most popular brand – Bia Saigon. We went from grocery store to convenience stores to hunt down ever Bia Saigon label currently available and amassed all seven labels and tasted them.
1. 333 Beer 👍👍👍 – Unanimous Favorite
2. Bia Saigon Export 👍👍 – Flavor Turnt Up
3. Bia Saigon Lager 👍👍 – Can’t Go Wrong Classic
4. Bia Saigon Coffee Infused 👍 – Special Mention For Novelty
5. Bia Saigon Special (Yakima Hops) 👍
6. Bia Saigon Chill 👍
7. Bia Saigon Gold 👎 – Unanimously Disliked
It’s often said that one of the best ways to quickly get to know a place is to eat like a local – and that we did!
From the historical “333” Beer an homage to the original “33” Beer, to the birth of Bia Saigon, with the standard Lager label, and its more jacked up sibling, the Bia Saigon Export, to the more recent novelty labels, Bia Saigon Special, Bia Saigon Gold, Bia Saigon Chill and Bia Saigon Coffee Infused, we’ve taken our palate on a real tour around Ho Chi Minh City, and the best part is we’ve ranked it all for you!
As they say in Vietnam,
Một, Hai, Ba, Dzô! (1,2,3, Cheers!, pronounced Mot, Hai, Bah, Yo!)
@111hotpot & @ChopStickPride