Based on official CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) tasting notes and relying on the taste buds and vast experience of our esteemed judging panel, Oi is getting to the bottom of Vietnam’s local beers.
MEET THE PANEL
Adam Zakharoff Director of Operation for Boomarang Bistro Saigon, Adam has been in Vietnam for nearly three years. He has worked in bars all his adult life, having opened bars in his native Australia, the UK and in Asia.
Andy Jones As Brand Manager for Pepperoni’s in Saigon, Andy spends a lot of his time in the Spotted Cow in District 1. His favorite beer is Saigon Red and he is sure he can spot it a mile away.
Nguyen Thanh Nguyen Regional Sales Manager of HCMC for San Miguel Vietnam, Nguyen has an understanding of what a good beer brand needs, taste being of utmost importance. With five years experience in the industry he is direct and truthful.
Our panel of experts tasted nine Vietnamese beers, rating each from zero to 10 with 10 being the best, in controlled blind tasting. Commenting on color, smell, taste and drinkability, they offered their thoughts and the results proved very interesting. Is Saigon the best or will 333 shockingly prevail? Onto the beers…
A pale lager hailing from Binh Duong Province, SAB Miller set up the brewery in late 2007. Like most of the beers being judged today it’s yellow in color with Alcohol by Volume (ABV) of five percent. While appearance and smell left the panel as a whole nonplussed, its taste and drinkability met mixed reactions, with Adam being far more forgiving than our other two judges.
Adam Zakharoff: “It’s got a chemically finish but mild yeast flavour. Not bad.” – 7.5
Andy Jones: “It tastes like Ghandi’s flip flop.” – 6
Nguyen Thanh Nguyen: “Tastes good.” – 6.5
An average start to get the judging process going and the judges into their stride.
Saigon Export (Red)
The favorite amongst expats and locals, Saigon Export should rate highly. Its appearance is light, deceivingly so, as it packs a strong punch at 4.9 percent ABV. Its lack of aroma mystified the judges but they were impressed by it retaining more head than the first beer.
AZ: “It’s definitely got a corn flavor. Is this made using corn?”Adam was unimpressed mainly by its harsh finish, slashing the drinkability factor for him. – 6
AJ: “It tastes like Doritos! It really does, you get the corny flavor. Why doesn’t it have a smell?” – 5.5
NTN: “It’s all right, acceptable. I think it’s 333.” – 6
Brewed in Tien Giang Province and with a history that dates to 1875 according to its label, this Pilsner style beer is generally cheaper than most of the brands at this tasting. It has 4.5 percent ABV and impressed the judges on its appearance and smell. Out of the three beers tasted so far it was agreed that this was the closest look and smell of a ‘proper beer’.
AZ: “Definitely the best one yet. It tastes good and drinkability factor is great.” – 8.9
AJ: “Really nice and smooth, quite quaffable.” – 8.4
NTN: “Very easy to drink, qualified taste.” – 7
Beer three has set the standard by its distinctive characteristics. High scores on all areas by all judges.
As the name suggests, this originates in Hanoi and is a light beer with 4.2 percent ABV. It should be enjoyed with a large 2cm head and has a slightly bitter quality, in theory making it taste more akin to real ale than some of the other lagers.
AZ: “The third one was better but I can drink more of this one than the first two.” – 7.5
AJ: “Saigon Red, guaranteed. I am ashamed if that’s not Saigon Red, I know that taste anywhere!” Andy is sure of his favorite beer; little does he know he has chosen possibly its biggest rival. – 8.6
NTN: “Tastes like Saigon Red.” Nguyen is unimpressed with this beer and also makes the prediction that it’s Saigon Red, with less enthusiasm than Andy. – 4.5
Originating as 33 in 1893 in France it changed its name to 333 in 1975 after moving production to Ho Chi Minh City. Known as a rice lager beer, and its use of Australian malt and hops this beer sounds appealing, yet most drinkers pass it off as poor quality. It’s strong at 5.3 percent ABV.
AZ: “I think this is 333. I would drink it on holiday, but then everything tastes better on holiday. If I was on 333 island I’d probably love it.” – 6.5
AJ: “100 percent ba ba ba”! Andy is quite fair to the beer he originally stated would be the worst scoring. – 6.2
NTN: “It’s 333.” – 4
Unsurprisingly maybe, 333 gets the lowest score so far.
This 4.9 percent ABV lager is becoming increasingly popular in the upmarket bars and restaurants around the city. Made from 100 percent malt and “fermented with tradition,” this beer definitely aims at the more distinguished palate.
AZ: “A little bit harsh on the palate, tastes quite alcoholic.” Adam gave this beer a good drinkability score and was pleased with its darker color and “clean” smell. – 7.4
AJ: “I’d have a guess that it’s BGI, it’s quite strong. It’d be good for a tramp.” – 7.7
NTN: “It’s a little hard to drink; I don’t think I could drink more than one.” – 4.1
So, possibly not deserving of the higher price it commands compared to other local brands, Saigon Special was deemed enticing with its look and smell but falling short of delivery on taste.
Biere La Rue
Made by the same brewery as BGI in Danang, this pale lager was the ‘tiger beer’ in Vietnam before the Singaporean Tiger beer became more prominent. A well-regarded beer with a light pale color and crisp scent.
AZ: “A little tastier than the last one but still decidedly average… Ah, that aftertaste is terrible!” – 6
AJ: “Really light, yet golden as if it were fired on the breath of angels. I reckon this is BGI.” The eloquent recommendation may have to do with BGI (his guess) being a staple of his establishment, Andy rates this beer high on taste and drinkability. – 7.9
NTN: “Hard to drink.” – 3
Saigon Lager (Green)
The final beer from the Sabeco company, Saigon Green is the lighter, slightly weaker version of its Red brother at 4.3 percent ABV. Brewed since 1992 with modern brewing techniques the Sabeco claims “won’t make you dizzy.” Our panel are dubious as to that claim but what do they make of the taste?
AZ: “Different palate, I can’t drink it. It bizarrely tastes like corn again.” – 6.7
AJ: “It tastes like Doritos, again!” – 5.8 The similarities with its stronger brother aren’t missed by our two judges.
NTN: “It’s easy, light and acceptable, nothing more. It’s alright.” – 6
A subsidiary of the global brand Carlsberg, but originating from the Hue Brewery Ltd, this Pilsner style lager has a light and refreshing style. At 4.7 percent ABV it is about mid-range in strength and is growing in popularity amongst expats, but hard to get a hold of outside of restaurants like Bread and Butter (40/24 Bui Vien, D1) and Khoi Thom (29 Ngo Thoi Nhiem, D3).
AZ: “Very drinkable and not too hoppy. Very clean and crisp.” Adam’s second favorite beer then after BGI, he liked the ease on the palate and its thirst quenching quality. – 7.9
AJ: Nice and smooth, really light and refreshing. It’s definitely an afternoon beer. It’s not going to seduce you like a proper evening beer.” – 7.5
NTN: “Refreshing beer, a little bit fruity.” – 6.5
All the judges are agreed on the final beer, a nice refreshing lager, clean and crisp, a fitting end to an intriguing contest
Images by Quinn Ryan Mattingly