Thai brewing: Rebel microbreweries thirst for change in the law

Brian Spencer, for CNNUpdated 15th March 2017
(CNN) — The droning buzz saw of a motorized longtail boat cruising up Chao Phraya River drowns our conversation, so Wichit Saiklao stops mid-sentence, smiles, and raises a glass of his homebrewed weizen, a crisp, golden-hued ale that goes down easy on balmy afternoons like this one.
From Bangkok I've taken a train, then a bus, then a ferry, then a motorbike taxi to reach Koh Kret, a small island located about 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Thailand's capital city in Nonthaburi province.
It's where Saiklao -- friends call him P'Chit -- founded Chit Beer, his open-air, riverside microbrewery and the de facto home base of a growing resistance to long-standing laws prohibiting Thai people from brewing and distributing their own beer.
As outlined in the country's 1950 Liquors Act, those caught doing so face a nominal fine of 200 baht (about $5.50) for brewing, and another 5,000 baht ($140) and/or six months in jail for selling it.

'I want change'

P'Chit devotes his weekends to spreading brewing knowledge.
Since launching Chit Beer in 2012, P'Chit has not only committed both acts openly -- and paid 10,000 baht ($280) in fines following a minor sting operation -- but also trained scores of aspiring homebrewers at his on-site Brewing Academy.
When I visited, the academy was fully booked for the following three months.
"We all know that brewing is illegal, and I know they can come any time they want and shut this down," says P'Chit.
"But at the same time I want change, and I think the only way we can create change is to create an army of brewers."
On weekdays P'Chit, an active colonel in the Royal Thai Army, manages two IT firms and teaches electrical engineering to cadets at the Thai royal military academy.
For the past few years, however, he's dedicated his weekends to honing his brewing talents and to sharing his wisdom with students.
His pupils have developed a thirst for knowledge through being exposed to the myriad styles and nuanced flavors of imported craft beers that have been arriving into Thailand in recent years.
During these roughly six-hour sessions, P'Chit discusses the legal risks before walking pupils through each step of the brewing process.
Students return a week later to bottle their beer, then again to collect it once it's finished fermenting.
"I tell everybody that we need Thai beer to speak for itself," he says. "Don't worry about the legal stuff -- just keep brewing, keep quiet, and spread the knowledge."
"My goal is that 2020 will be the year we push for legalizing homebrew in Thailand."

A homebrewing army unleashed

Pheebok Beer distributes around 50 bottles per week and sometimes they sell out in a few hours.
Back in Bangkok at buzzy Sathorn hotspot Junker and Bar, twentysomething journalist and homebrewer Hook, who withholds his last name due to legal concerns, fills our glasses with Serious Ghost and Wife, a hoppy, full-bodied IPA that's among five core brews from Pheebok Beer, which he co-founded in 2014.
A self-taught brewer, Hook spent a year experimenting on a refitted soda-making kit before going public with Pheebok, distinguished by the ghoulish imagery splashed across its bottle labels.
Keen to avoid the long hand of the law while also subverting it, Hook exclusively distributes Pheebok Beer to Junker and Bar in limited 40- to 50-bottle shipments per week.
Followers keep tabs on availability via Pheebok Beer's Facebook page. "Sometimes these sell out in a few hours," he says.
Like Hook, another homebrewer, Toon, started brewing last year using modified kitchen equipment. He and a group of friends soon co-founded Sandport Beer, which only makes its beers available at private parties, live gigs for local indie bands, and, on occasion, select Bangkok bottle shops.
"We'd been friends for around 20 years, and we needed something to do together," he says. "Last time we made a football team and joined a league, but we lost every match."
"Everybody likes brewing and drinking our own beer a lot more."
When I caught up with Toon over the phone he'd just returned from trips to Vietnam and Cambodia, where he and his Sandport partners scouted breweries where they could potentially contract-brew.
That is, give their recipes to a brewery, pay them to handle the beer production and packaging, then have the finished products shipped back to Thailand, legally, as taxable imports.
Hook says that he's considered contract-brewing for Pheebok Beer as well.
"Nobody wants to be illegal, so we're trying to find another way," says Toon.
Based on online homebrewing forums activity, Toon estimates that while there were only a handful of underground Thai microbrewers when Sandport debuted in 2014, today there are upwards of 200.
As the number of brewers has increased, so too have the suppliers. Initially limited to one or two varieties of hops, yeast and malts, Toon says Sandport now brews with ingredients sourced from the U.S., UK, Germany and Belgium.
Hops Hub, a new online homebrew shop based in Bangkok, sells Australian hops and yeast.
"At first it was only in Bangkok, but now there are brewers all over the country," says Toon. "I think the laws will change, but it depends on how we spread the culture because many Thai people don't know anything about beer beyond the lagers that're everywhere."
Boon Rawd Brewery, which produces Singha and Leo beers, and ThaiBev, makers of Chang, together control anywhere from 90% to 95% of Thailand's domestic beer market.

A legal future is possible

Homebrews like Pheebok (pictured) may find a legal home to make and market their beers in 2016.
Pheebok Beer, Sandport Beer, and the hundreds of other clandestine microbreweries operating across Thailand may not have to wait for homebrewing legalization, or turn to contract-brewing abroad, to legally distribute their brews to a wider audience.
In September P'Chit announced plans to crowdfund The Brewhouse of Friendship, which he envisions as a communal brewpub where qualified homebrewers, once they've met certain training and contribution criteria, can brew and market their beers.
In Thailand, brewing for commercial purposes within a licensed brewpub or restaurant is legal, though off-site distribution isn't permitted.
"This is the next chapter of going from illegal activities to providing the infrastructure for a brewing community and a place where we can all brew legally," he said.
"What will make this brewpub unique and special is that it'll include the Brewing Academy and have an 'open' concept: open to learn, open to brew, and open to sell inside."
And, of course, open for all to drink.
P'Chit hopes to open The Brewhouse of Friendship in early 2016.
Homebrewing classes at Chit Beer's Brewing Academy are available every Saturday by advance reservation only; 7,500 baht ($210) per group; two groups maximum per day. Visit chitbeer.com for more information.
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