I’m staring mindlessly at my phone as I wait at the Answer Brewpub’s front bar on a busy Tuesday (yes, Tuesday) night. If you’ve heard anything about the Answer before, you’ve probably heard about its nondescript strip mall location on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia, or you’ve heard about Mekong, a 23-year-old family-run Vietnamese Restaurant located next door that doubles as one of the best beer bars in the country. Perhaps you’ve also heard about the 120 impressive and constantly rotating beer taps shared between the two spaces that have “maybe one or two” overlapping lines. What (or whom) you may not have heard about is An Bui, the magnanimous ruler of this empire.
I feel the energy around me shift when Bui walks into the room. I sit and observe for a second as he scans the bar and makes some small talk with guests, his signature wide smile plastered across his face.
“Where is Stephanie?” I hear him playfully ask the bartenders. After I make my presence known, he offers me a beer, gives me two to try, and we head through the small 5-BBL brewery decked out with old-school hip-hop posters, “Star Wars” memorabilia and a disco ball reminiscent of the space’s past life as a nightclub. We walk up the stairs to an open room with a pool table and an unstocked bar. The pièce de résistance is a neon Zima sign hanging on the wall.
You don’t have to be a Pulitzer-winning journalist to make An Bui’s story interesting. He’s an exceptionally easy interview: Open and charmingly quotable, regularly letting his signature infectious laugh loose. What strikes me most is how much he seems to genuinely love his job.
Every part of it except being referred to as “the owner.”
“You know, it’s funny, I’m never comfortable when people call me ‘the owner.’ I have a position that people have given me back in the day when I was at Mekong called ‘CBO: Chief Beer Officer,’” he tells me, with a smile. “So, when I opened this place up, I still call myself CBO, but it’s ‘Chief Beer Operator.’”
Bui is undoubtedly America’s only CBO, and much more. He got his start as a bartender when his family opened Mekong in 1995. The Buis had recently immigrated from Vietnam, and the restaurant was an effort to keep the whole family working together. More than 20 years later, Mekong is a hot spot both for beer nerds fiending for an Abbaye St. Bon Chien and for families looking for a meal after a little league game. But this wasn’t always the case.
“Oh, struggling!” Bui exclaims when I ask what the early days of Mekong were like. “Strugg-ling. We almost shut down maybe three or four times.”
Mekong’s opening beverage program focused on pairing traditional Vietnamese cuisine with wine, but the Buis soon found that Richmond drinkers in 1995 weren’t particularly interested in the light, citrusy wines that would pair well with spicy noodles. Instead, the popular wines of the day were hefty styles like Merlot and Chardonnay—not exactly refreshing partners for a spring roll. Two years in, beer-loving Bui proposed pouring Belgian beer to his older siblings as an alternative to wine. Seeing little other recourse for the struggling business, they listened.
Although taking this chance turned out to be a wild victory for Bui, shaping an entire city’s beer scene and saving the family business, he stressed that the new direction wasn’t an immediate success. He had to work tirelessly and strategically to build the foundations of the beer-crazed community we see in Richmond today.
“It wasn’t over night. We opened in the mid-90s and this town was a beer desert. Trying to get people to drink Belgian beer was tough,” Bui admits. “But people are so open.”
He opened their minds one by one by hosting frequent beer events, Trappist tastings and homebrewer nights. Another tactic Bui tried was passing around bottles of rare Belgian beer from his personal stash for customers to taste while they were eating dinner. Once they were hooked on the good stuff, Bui hypothesized, people would seek craft beer out themselves.
He was right. Eventually, Mekong’s customers learned to love their Belgians—Orval and Chimay were some of the big sellers in those early days. Things really started to take shape when Capital Ale House opened in downtown Richmond in 2002, providing a craft beer contemporary for Mekong. Bui found that having an ally made it easier to bring great craft beer into the city and begin to build a community.
“Together we created a lot of beer geeks,” he remembers. “Back then, even though it was small, we were working together already. Now, all the breweries in town—we have close to 30 now—and we’re all working together.”
A few bottles of Rochefort 10 at Mekong turned into three tap lines and, eventually, a 56-tap craft beer destination. After the massive success of Mekong, Bui was ready for a new challenge. In 2014, he opened the Answer Brewpub right next door. He mentions the desire for fresh beer as a major catalyst for opening a brewpub: “What would happen if you just drink it off the tank when it’s done?” But the Answer has turned into much more in its short lifespan.
“We turned this place into Flavortown,” Bui says with a smile.
The Answer has excelled at turning out some of the best IPAs around with head brewer Brandon Tolbert at the helm, but Tolbert will soon be leaving to start Safety Team Brewing Co., his own brewery in town. He’ll be replaced by assistant brewer Sean O’Hern, who’s already getting his feet wet by brewing collaborations with Virginia breweries Benchtop Brewing, Red Dragon Brewery, and Precarious Beer Project. The Answer is also expanding...into its own parking lot. Bui is currently in the process of opening an outdoor patio for the summer.
A few weeks before we meet up, Bui was nominated as a James Beard Semifinalist for Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional. He is one of the few beer industry professionals nominated, among other juggernauts like Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø of Evil Twin Brewing and Jeffrey Stuffings of Jester King Brewery.
“It’s great to make a list, but that Top 5 is gonna be tough to get,” he says, noting that Dogfish Head’s Sam Caglione won the same category last year. He doubts that someone in the beer industry will win two years in a row, and he was right, with no beer professionals making this year’s short list. “But it’s great for this town.”
This is a recurring theme during our interview: The importance of a sense of community within the local beer scene. Bui should know, as he all but started it. Instead of seeking praise; however, Bui remains humble, content to be one of the many important cogs in the wheel of Richmond’s constantly growing beer community.
“I’m just here with everyone, part of the beer scene, trying to witness and see where it’s taking us.” Bui says. “A rising tide lifts all boats.”