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How One Company Is Bringing Better Beer to Southeast Asia

January 03, 2019

By Natalie B. Compton, January 03, 2019

Southeast Asia and beer go together wildly well. If you conjure up an image of a blindingly hot day in Chiang Mai, your mind will probably wander to an ice cold bottle of Singha beer next. But the idea of craft beer is not a tale as old as time in the Kingdom of Thailand. “Until pretty recently beer drinkers had very little choice in Thailand,” explains Dan Waites, author of Cultureshock! Bangkok. “Singha, Chang, Leo, Heineken and sometimes Tiger were all you could get—it was all bland beers and bad hangovers. If you wanted anything else, you could occasionally find Beer Lao, which weirdly served as a kind of luxury, or you could fork out 250 baht for a pint of Guinness in a stodgy Irish pub.” Cue the business acumen and beer passion of Aaron Grieser.

On a typical sweltering night in Bangkok a few years ago, I stopped by the opening of a craft beer bar to talk to Grieser, the founder and Chief Beer Enthusiast of Beervana, a B2B company  that imports craft beer into Thailand co-launched by Grieser and Brian Bartusch. I had to wait a while to catch Grieser—he had his hands full with a tap situation. I drank something hoppy while the Oregon native ducked back into a refrigerated cellar. “It’s so fucking cold!” he announced when he emerged minutes later. With the leak fixed, he returned seamlessly to floating around the party to chat with beer geeks and business partners.

Grieser has to deal with details like keg issues because the Beervana mission goes well beyond getting beer from the West to the Far East. There’s a painstaking attention to detail in every step of that process, and after. Beervana started the first cold chain distribution network in Southeast Asia, promising to keep beer at 5 degrees Celsius from the brewery to the customer’s glass, a process made possible thanks to the refrigerated trucks, refrigerated shipping containers and refrigerated warehouses the company designed. If a restaurant or bar doesn’t have a fridge to store the beer when it gets to Thailand, Beervana supplies one for free.

“On the quality control side, I think we have the best quality controls of any distributor in Southeast Asia. I’ll say that hands down,” Grieser said. “We’ve even had distributors like Deschutes come to us and say, ‘Guys, chill.’”  

At the party, Grieser was getting ready to move from Bangkok to Jakarta to launch Beervana in Indonesia. He had no idea how long it would take before business was up and running.

“In Thailand we went from funding to selling our first beer in four months,” Grieser told me over the phone from Jakarta earlier this year. “In Indonesia it took over a year and a half. Just the licensing side was just incredible. The local obstacles of doing business, especially in the alcohol trade, are difficult. Being a foreigner, especially American, I wanted to do it the clean way. No bribing, no shortcuts like that so that took a lot longer because we had to sit in line.”

The move to Jakarta worked out personally and professionally for Grieser.

“My wife’s Indonesian. We met 15 years ago in college in Boston and have been kind of following each other around. I started Beervana in Bangkok and she got her dream job offer in Jakarta, so she basically ditched me for Jakarta as soon as I started the company. I was doing this commuting back and forth between Bangkok and Jakarta and over the years saw how big of an alcohol market there is down here, but also how insulated it is.”

Aaron Grieser. All photos by the author.

Grieser noticed the lack of competition in Indonesia. There are only 14 alcohol importers and less than 60 labels of beer in the country.

“I started looking at it, going let’s get into this, let’s try it, and quickly realized why there’s no competition down here. It’s an extremely locals-for-locals market, insulated, difficult as an outsider to kind of get in,” Grieser said.

On the flip side, Grieser says that Beervana has seen an amazing response after winning the battle to get into the market a year ago.

“That’s what’s been so cool about Indonesia is just the organic interest in craft beer. There’s next to zero market about it,” Grieser said. “While it’s a $90 billion industry around the rest of the world and a $22 billion industry in the US—it’s raging all over the place and Jakarta’s is just kind of going, ‘Huh, what’s this?’”

One of Beervana’s bigger selling points is its training programs, something particular helpful in markets like Indonesia where craft beer is a newer concept.

“When it comes down to it, what helps sell a beer is, of course, visibility and signage, menus. That kind of shit matters, but what really matters is the server. If servers are really into it, then they’ll definitely push our beer first,” Grieser said. “We developed a three-level training and certification course under Beervana.”

Beervana has a policy that servers handling the company’s brews must complete a server level  training course. For those interested in learning more, there’s a master class level and beer-making level available. “Every account has to be refreshed on level one every quarter. That’s a lot of training,” Grieser said. “We’ve trained over 2,000 people in Thailand in the last five years.”

Now that Beervana has successfully set up shop in Thailand and Indonesia, the company is looking to scale the business model across the region.

“If you look at most craft beer distributors in Southeast Asia, they’re still very one-guy-in-a-truck kind of operations, really small-scale. And so over the last six months we’ve really crystallized our regional strategy for the next five years, and we’re pivoting now to essentially try to grow to cover every major market in Southeast Asia. It’s huge,” Grieser said.

“We’re recruiting right now, we’re restructuring corporate-wise and raising a bunch of money to execute that plan. The idea is to be the number-one craft beer distributor in Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Singapore by the end of 2020.”

One of the more exciting moves will be Vietnam, Southeast Asia’s biggest beer market.

"There are a lot of great upstart craft breweries starting right now and so the craft beer culture is already kicked off there,” Grieser said. “It has the highest consumption per capita of any beer market in Southeast Asia. It’s the same size, in dollars, as Thailand, six billion a year, but it’s almost twice the volume. It means that beer is basically super cheap over there. It’s going to be interesting.”

Vietnam will pose more regulatory challenges for Beervana than Thailand did, but it’ll be easier to tackle than Indonesia. “I’m glad we’re kind of swimming downstream now. We know how bad it could possibly be,” Grieser said.

I asked Grieser if he thinks it’s going to be fine.

“No, it’s never going to be fine,” he said, laughing. “If you think it’s going to be fine, you’re going to be screwed. I always have to go into it with this attitude of waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Every market has its opportunities and challenges.”

The company has never had a normal year since Grieser and Bartusch kicked things off in 2013. From bizarre tax laws to political coups, there’s always something that could cripple the company.

“We just roll with it. From the outside it looks like a roller coaster, but on the inside if you know how it works hopefully you can adapt,” Grieser said. “There really is some stability on the inside. I just feel like you develop alligator skin—you’re like whatever. It’s easy to become cynical.”

Fortunately, that alligator skin hasn’t prevented Grieser from connecting to the local brewing communities of the Beervana markets. Thailand has a fierce local (and illegal) home-brew scene. I asked Grieser how Beervana gets along with the Thai brewing community.

“First and foremost, we love those guys. They are the future of beer in Thailand, for sure. I feel honored to be working with those guys,” Grieser said. “I respect it, that there’s a Thai-for-Thai vibe with some of the local homebrewers, and you know what, that’s fine. I’m totally cool with that. If people want to do something that’s authentically Thai, I’m totally cool with that.”

Grieser compared his relationship to the Thai scene with the early days of the American craft beer movement. During the 1970s, Americans stationed abroad in the military came home and applied  their new European beer knowledge to homebrews.

“It was a bunch of small-scale guys who were brewing in their basements and garages who started creating Sierra Nevada and other big beers like that. Those guys were all brewing at home first. They’re the antecedents of the current craft beer boom,” Grieser said.

Beervana has brought over beers totally new to Thailand, introducing more people to the world of intense IPAs and funky saisons. The intention isn’t to dominate the beer market, but to be a part of the ecosystem. “Our whole philosophy is that we want to be at the vanguard of the most vibrant craft beer scene we could have in Thailand,” Grieser said.

Grieser feels that their was a missed opportunity to help usher in the craft beer boom in Thailand because homebrewing is illegal. In the early days of the company story, the founders discussed importing ingredients and homebrewing equipment, but with the legal issues, the idea wasn’t scaleable.  

That’s not the case for Indonesia.

“In Indonesia [homebrewing is] totally legal, so right now we’re in the process of setting up a new company to import and distribute ingredients, equipment, all that kind of stuff, so we can really get in on the ground level of the craft beer scene here and start to nurture homebrewers so we can be much more intimately connected to the movement,” Grieser said.

By offering Indonesians more education and tools to do their own thing, the future of beer in the country could look a whole lot more complex than its current Bintang-dominated state.

“The local maker movement is so cool here now. Indonesia has been—and I will put this on record—Indonesia has been hostage to the big business community for forever. The port is the worst thing about Indonesia because it’s so difficult to get things through the port,” Grieser said. “The Indonesian scene is just going to be vibrant when it blows up.”

At the end of the day, there’s no telling what’s in the future, a reality that Grieser works with regularly. “You never know what’s going to happen. You’re always on the edge of your seat and always prepared for something crazy to happen, and it’s pretty cool when it doesn’t.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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