Craft Beer is Illegal Here … But Rebel Brewers Are Fighting Back
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because craft beer can have a rebellious edge too.
Trendy locals in bootleg Iron Maiden shirts and fashionable farangs (foreigners) populate heavy wooden tables laden with fried cheese snacks in a bar in Bangkok’s eclectic Ekamai neighborhood. Classic rock blares from a faux vintage guitar amp in the corner. In between bites of jalapeño poppers and poutine, the patrons sip imported craft beer, angling glasses for maximum Instagram impact and snapping selfies for their followers. The scene is reminiscent of any hip neighborhood bar in the U.S. But in Thailand, it’s a sign of a growing rebellion: Brewing craft beer is illegal, and posting a selfie with your adult beverage of choice could land you in jail.
For years, Thailand has married its infamous party culture with a peculiar attitude toward alcohol, beer in particular. Only factories that churn out at least 10 million liters (more than 2.5 million gallons) a year can brew and sell beer. This effectively makes Thai craft and home brewing illegal. But a growing number of brewing operations are thriving underground, honing their craft, experimenting on friends and neighbors, and relying at times on crowdfunding. Foreign brewers too are joining the rush.
Everyone I know is doing something illegal.
Brian Bartusch, craft beer manufacturer
Taopiphop Limjittrakorn, a man arrested and fined 5,000 baht (approximately $150) for making and selling beer out of his home, got a hero’s welcome after receiving a suspended one-year jail sentence. He has since gone on to open his own bar with the assistance of a crowdfunding campaign. American craft beer firm Beervana is importing drinks into Thailand and other countries in the region. Some Thais, like 31-year-old Panitan Tongsiri, are opening craft beer operations across the border in neighboring Cambodia and Laos and even overseas in Australia. In December, Panitan’s beer brand, Bannock, became the first craft beer to be sold in Thai 7-Eleven stores. Other are defying the law openly, working in the heart of Bangkok — Beervana founder Brian Bartusch estimates there are about 20 craft brewers that have started up in Bangkok since 2015. Today, beer is the most consumed beverage in Thailand, says Charoen Charoenchai, professor of agricultural technology at Rajamangala University of Technology Thanyaburi.
“These beers are brewed by the same generation of young people [as those drinking it], still energetic and willing to face challenges,” says Charoen. “So they feel that they belong to some sort of a society — a craft beer society.”
The challenges are plenty, but with pint-size loopholes. Bars in Bangkok must close by 1 a.m. — except those that can afford to persuade officials to be more lenient in the enforcement of the law by paying a “fine.” Walk into any of the thousands of 7-Elevens in Bangkok at the wrong time of day and you’ll see a large curtain pulled down over the beer cooler stating no alcohol is sold until 5 p.m. Those in the know just pop around the corner to a local Thai bodega where you can purchase one of the few mass-produced Thai beers like Chang or Singha anytime. The mass-produced beers are legal, of course. Just not before 5 p.m.
But there’s a growing demand for beers that aren’t produced on an industrial scale. Chang’s parent company, ThaiBev, and Boon Rawd, maker of Singha, are exploring the idea of “premium” beer, developing new products featuring minimalist packaging and European-style brew profiles.
The “outlaw” nature of the craft beer explosion actually makes it more attractive, suggest experts and beer importers. “It’s a good time to be in beer,” Bartusch tells me over a beer. He holds up a flyer for a tap takeover featuring a cartoon hop character. Advertising alcohol in Thailand is heavily regulated and advertisements featuring cartoons are expressly prohibited. “Everyone I know is doing something illegal,” Bartusch says.
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Consumers and brewers feel that they are “daring” the law, says Charoen, which gives the risks they take a “romantic quality.” And even those Thais who manufacture their beer beyond the country’s borders before importing it back think of such tactics as an opportunity to go straight with their craft … after illegally refining their recipes in Thailand. “You have to make illegal beer first,” says Panitan, who also helps run the Seri (Free) Beer campaign.
According to Charoen, the regulations against craft beers — imposed in 2001 — are designed to prevent competition. “It is known that officials are paid monthly salaries by certain companies,” Charoen claims. And blaming social ills on alcohol is misplaced, states Panitan. “It’s easy to blame alcohol,” he says. “We focus on the wrong part of our problems.”
The regulations aren’t going anywhere, especially with the military-led rule in place in Thailand since 2014 that has witnessed what Freedom House, a human rights NGO, has called a “decline” in personal freedoms. “The law will not change. Nobody has power enough to move this mountain,” says Charoen.
But the illicit craft beer movement is growing too. Younger Thais, says Charoen, are “attracted to these beers because of the diversity of flavor that they have not experienced before.” And as long as authorities allow the law and the craft beers, seemingly at odds, to co-exist, brewers and customers won’t mind.
“If we cannot change it,” says Panitan, “we will be fine.”