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Words by Pavan Shamdasani
Photography by Tony Villatoro
In the south of Vietnam, two cider brands are changing the craft landscape.
Craft beer might be on the minds and palates of drinkers across Vietnam – but tedium can be a natural part of any trend, not easily quashed with a pale ale or stout.
Enter cider, a drink quickly establishing itself as a solid alternative to craft beer in Vietnam.
On either side of the bar-top, the appeal is obvious: for the brewer, cider is easier to produce than beer, a fairly straightforward process where apples are fermented before accentuated with flavourings.
For the drinker, it’s gluten-free, low on sugar and of course, incredibly refreshing. Especially for those in warmer climates such as the south of Vietnam.
In Ho Chi Minh City, the south’s most metropolitan city, two brewers are making great strides to change the Vietnamese craft cider game.
Each putting their own distinctive spins on the decidedly unique drink.
On one side, you have Saigon Cider.
Arguably the first major craft cider brand in the country, producing sweeter varieties inspired by its founder’s upbringing in the UK.
And on the other, Bazan, bottling tart European styles, in-line with its team’s Germanic background.
Each bring not their specific histories to their drinks, but more importantly, the many diverse flavours of their newly adopted Vietnamese home.
Enter Saigon Cider
For Saigon Cider founder Hannah Jefferys, cider had always been part of her life.
Growing up in Somerset, UK, one of the world’s largest cider-making hubs, a cold tipple on a hot summer’s day (of which Vietnam has many) was something she greatly missed after moving to the country in 2010.
But sourcing quality ciders wasn’t always easy – so the only natural recourse was to make her own. “Saigon Cider really started as a passion project [in 2013], with me making cider for myself and friends in my kitchen,” she says.
“Before long though, I started getting enquiries from around the country and my mission became clear: Vietnam needed its own cider and I was the woman for the job.”
Jefferys quickly left her comfortable architecture job and dedicated herself to being a full-time entrepreneur, piggybacking on another brewery’s extra space for Saigon Cider’s fledgling brand.
At first, the process was purely to recreate the British ciders of her past. However, as Vietnam’s plethora of produce become apparent to her, the drinks evolved.
“We started out with a traditional apple cider, but soon experimented with fusing the flavours of Vietnam with English cider-making,” she says.
“Now we use spices grown in the Mekong in our core range – chilli, ginger – but we’ve also made small-batch seasonal ciders from local fruits, including cashew apples and pink guava, to give our products a southern twist. There’s just so much to experiment with.”
Saigon Cider’s three key styles are apple, ginger and chili, with experimentation and the use of local flavours essential to the brand. But more essential to its founder is a dedication to sustainability.
“We’re committed to producing an organic, ecologically sustainable, zero-waste product – as well as to the absolute premium quality,” she says.
“Contextual relevance is a key trend, and it’s a cornerstone of our brand, from choosing the apple varieties that will make the most refreshing cider in the tropical heat, to using spices that are unmistakably Vietnamese.”
And after six solid years of keen focus, Saigon Cider’s hard work has paid off.
The brand’s many cider bottles are stocked at over 130 locations across Vietnam. Even better, there is further interest in countries as diverse as France, Australia, Hong Kong, and Malaysia.
More recently, the brand took home Silver Medal in the Hard Cider category at last August’s Asian Beer Championships in Singapore – but the irony an award at a beer ceremony isn’t lost on her.
“Cider is not a beer in any sense. It is more closely related to wine as a fermented juice, but it’s a different beverage in its own right and has been for centuries,” she says.
“Real cider is from fermented juice. The fact that it’s undiluted and comes predominantly from fruits rather than water and grain is sexier to me.”
That sexiness is akin to exhilaration to Jefferys, and there’s no letting up when it comes to future experiments.
”I’ve always been passionate about food and drink, the amazing things that can happen when you combine flavours from different regions and cultures,” she says.
“And Vietnam has provided some incredible inspiration.”
Enter Bazan Brewing
Carl Norson was bored of Berlin.
After a decade spent in the city, the German entrepreneur needed a change, booking a one-way ticket to exotic Asia. He immediately fell in love with the energy of Ho Chi Minh City.
“I fell in with this creative community of experimental expats who were making all sorts of things – tofu, bread, tempeh – and one was doing apple cider,” he says.
That sparked something, and Norson soon converted his apartment’s spare bedroom into a makeshift brewery.
The first few cider experiments with packet apple juice and store-bought bread yeast were failures.
But over the next two years, things began to evolve, first testing extracted beer yeasts and using freshly-pressed apple juice, then yeast strains from Belgium and experimenting with fruits, plants, herbs and spices.
“I’d only ever had German ciders, never the [sweeter] English ones, so that was all I really knew,” he says. “Eventually one of them worked and I brought a bottle to a brewers’ meet up at [popular craft beer bar] Khoai. People really liked it.”
Bazan was born, appropriately named after the dense red soil of the southern Vietnamese highlands, where many of the brand’s ingredients are sourced.
It’s where their apples come from, of course, but also the range of fruits and plants that aided their experimentative edge, trialing everything from watermelon and lychee to durian (“oh God, the smell!”).
“Having lived here for a while, I was familiar with all of the ingredients I could use and experiment with,” he says.
“And that’s one of the great things about Vietnam, you can experiment with a variety of different things. It makes the scene incredibly exciting. In Germany, by law, you can’t even call it a beer if you add fruit to it.”
Eventually, his team stumbled onto a winning pair, two countrywide-embracing flavours that now define Bazan’s brand: passionfruit and hibiscus.
“The two flavour profiles are surprisingly distinctive for Vietnamese drinkers,” says Norson.
“Passionfruit is preferred up in Hanoi where they like sour flavours. Down here in Saigon, hibiscus is more popular since they’re into sweeter drinks.”
The brand could easily ride the coattails of the popular pair, with dozens of places across the country now stocking Bazan bottles and kegs, and orders backed up to the point of delays. However, his team is keen on experimentation and scalability.
Next up for Bazan, expanding into a full-scale brewery, as well as near-eureka moments with a few flavor experiments.
But those are hush-hush for now, the Vietnamese craft alcohol industry hitting competitive, almost cutthroat levels as it becomes a major money-maker.
Despite that, the excitement never abates.
“The great thing about cider is it’s generally gluten-free, and you can make low-sugar ones for people with diabetes, so it’s actually a lot more open to most than beer,” he says.
“It’s exciting when you meet someone who says they only drink beer, and they try a local craft cider. It’s different from what they think and absolutely love it.”
Pavan Shamdasani is a freelance travel & lifestyle writer based between Hong Kong and Saigon. He loves an ice-cold Japanese lager more than anything, but also has an affinity for Belgian-style beers.