The World’s Most Unexpected Beer Festival Is in Bhutan

August 08, 2019

By Craig Sauers, August 08, 2019

The plane banks to the right, corrects its heading, and quickly banks to the left. Through the window to my left I see an evergreen forest peeking through the mist. Across the aisle I see the same scenery through the glass: cloud-lathered mountains spiked with pines so close you can almost touch them, trees seeming to caress the cheek of the Airbus A391 that I’m on board en route from Bangkok to Paro. 

It’s 6:30 AM. If it weren’t so early in the morning, I would be terrified. Instead, having just awoken from an abbreviated sleep on a turbulent red-eye flight, I’m imagining the look on the faces of the rescue team as they uncover 12 bodies, 30 kegs of beer, and a not insignificant amount of shrapnel from the pallets of cans that were stored in the cargo hold.

I’m on my way to Bhutan’s second-largest city, Paro, a mountain town 7,332 feet above sea level and the site of the Himalayan kingdom’s first craft beer festival—the appropriately named Bhutanese Beer Festival. Yes: Craft beer. Bhutan. Not just local beer, but lambics, stouts, ciders, IPAs, and more from Mikkeller, Lervig, Zeffer, Hong Kong-based Young Master, and Taiwanese brewery Taihu. Not surprisingly, in the weeks before the festival, I fielded questions like: Where is Bhutan? What is Bhutan? There’s a beer festival in Bhutan… wait, where is Bhutan?

Little was known about the country before it opened to tourists in 1974. A whopping 287 visited that year. That figure has risen to about 250,000 per year, but even now tourist arrivals are restricted, and every visitor from outside South Asia must meet a minimum spend of $250 a day.

Because of its isolation, Bhutan has become known globally for only a handful of trivia night-worthy facts. You might have heard about Gross National Happiness, a development philosophy centered on civic well-being. Or you’ve read about the stunning nature: by law, 60 percent of the land must be conserved, and mountaineering is banned to respect the spiritual meaning the locals attach to the surrounding peaks. Or, like me, you’ve seen the videos of the gut-wrenching arrivals at the international airport in Paro, which is often ranked among the most dangerous in the world. Pilots must negotiate high winds and low visibility as they weave between 18,000-foot mountains. And by “low visibility,” I mean they can’t see the runway until moments before landing.

A view from the balcony of Namgay Artisanal Brewery (NAB) of Rinpung Dzong monastery in Paro. Photo by the author.

And yet, despite all this—despite the country not allowing television or the Internet until 1999, or there being no traditional beer brewing culture whatsoever, let alone a reason for one to exist—craft beer is on the cusp of having a moment in Bhutan.

Thank Dorji Gyeltshen, founder of Bhutan’s most progressive craft brewery, Namgay Artisanal Brewery (NAB)

“The whole concept for a craft brewery came up because we wanted to tie it into the tourism industry. Nothing like that had been done—a local beer trying to represent the country,” he tells me over glasses of his Bhutanese Dark Ale, a smooth, medium-bodied beer with a smoky aroma derived from the burnt local barley husks he adds to the grain bill. 

Demure and diminutive, Gyeltshen does not seem the type to return home from hospitality school in Switzerland and open a craft brewery. Not to mention collaborate with Mikkeller and organize an international beer festival within two years of getting that brewery off the ground. But once I talk to him, I quickly identify his entrepreneurial spirit and pride in his homeland.

“We wanted locals to say, ‘Hey, wow, we have craft beer here.’ And then we hoped more people might be interested in exploring [craft beer] and taking it further,” he says. “In the end, it’s all about getting a brewing community going.” 

That desire to develop a homegrown craft beer movement hasn’t borne fruit yet—Gyeltshen estimates that craft beer has a less than 5 percent market share in Bhutan, and there are only five breweries in the country to begin with—but one is beginning to take shape.

Revelers at the festival. Photo courtesy of NAB.

During a whirlwind trip through the capital of Thimphu, I notice NAB’s flagship Red Rice Lager on shelves at minimarts, on menus at restaurants, even on altars at temples and shrines, where they’re offered to the various incarnations of the Buddha. Occasionally, I find a bottle or two of Red Panda, a straw-colored hefeweizen whose label is decorated with clip art circa 1997 of its namesake animal. Gyeltshen tells me it was the country’s first craft beer, made by a Swiss man who was invited to Bhutan to develop a cheese-making industry in the 1960s but so missed his beloved beer that he began to brew his own. I also spot handsomely designed 16-ounce cans from up-and-coming Ser Bhum, creators of two very drinkable beers: Dragon Stout and Bhutan Glory Amber Ale.

 “A lot of young Bhutanese grew up outside of the country or studied abroad and have been exposed to a beer culture beyond ours,” says Gyeltshen. “Now that those people are coming back, drinking our beer, and seeing that we have a craft beer scene? They’re excited about it.” 

 That’s the reason for organizing the Bhutanese Beer Festival now, according to Gyeltshen’s right-hand man, Deo Narayan, NAB’s jack-of-all-trades whose actual titles escapes me. (During the week I’m in Bhutan, he seems to work as a bar manager, a liaison with the ministry of tourism, a private guide, a fixer, and a graphic designer, all of which suit him.) “We want to find out what people here like that isn’t available [to them],” he says, and use that data to move forward.

At around noon on a cool and cloudy Saturday in July, I’m drinking high-altitude beers on the newly built patio at NAB with the half dozen brewery representatives who have made the trip to Paro. The festival is supposed to kick off at 1 PM, but suddenly Gyeltshen steps outside and declares, “Maybe we’ll start at 3 [PM]. Bhutanese people have this thing about drinking during the day.” 

Sure enough, right around 3 PM, people start to trickle in, and before long the patio is filled with a hundred people, including what I presume is every expat residing in Bhutan. By nightfall, the place is packed, with most people drinking inside the brewpub, where cover bands are playing on stage. 

Festival participants including Dorji Gyeltshen, second from left. Photo courtesy of NAB.

I strike up a conversation with Lane Lehman, an expat from Detroit who works as the chef de cuisine at the Amankora Thimphu. He explains the concept of “Bhutanese time” to me, which puts “mañana,” “Thai time,” and pretty much every other unhurried approach to time-keeping to shame. He also relishes the range of beers on offer, which, he points out, are impossible to get in Bhutan. 

On the first day of the festival, the lineup would impress even seasoned beer drinkers. There’s a habanero-infused lager from Young Master, a smoked plum lichtenhainer from Taihu, a 10.4 percent stout from Lervig—there are sour, hoppy, and big beers, but few approachable ones.

While chatting with the Lervig rep, both of us drinking Mikkeller’s Spontandoubleraspberry, an oak-aged lambic with a ton of raspberry on the nose and palate, I notice that the only people going for the rare cuts are the foreigners in the crowd. Propelled by the kind of courage that comes after about five drinks, we pour one of every beer brought from abroad into plastic cups and bring them to a table of locals who are drinking Bhutanese beer. We want to see what they think.

“No sour beers, man. They’re shit,” shouts one loud and large individual who has proclaimed himself the life of the party. Others are more open-minded. One woman explains to me, in not so many words, that the hoppy beers overwhelm her palate. A man tells me he prefers the mellow, malty flavor of the Red Rice Lager to a hop-infused cider. Fair enough. Everyone seems to be having a good time, and you can’t force paradigm shifts anyway.

The next day, NAB gets its data when attendees kill two kegs, both from Taihu: a honey lemon braggot and a strawberry cider. Conveniently enough, during the festival, Gyeltshen had teamed up with Taihu’s Winnie Hsu and Matt Walsh—Modern Times’ first head brewer—to make a beer featuring Bhutanese red rice and over 100 pounds of local peaches. It’s a collaboration, but it speaks to a broader plan Gyeltshen keeps top of mind.

“The goal is to make a 100-percent Bhutanese beer. It sounds ambitious, but I believe it’s doable,” he admits as the festival winds down and we discuss his plans to make next year’s event bigger and better. More local bands, artists, and producers on the docket, he says, and more exciting beers for the people that came from Kathmandu, Kolkata, and Bangkok to see what’s brewing in Paro.

“I’m in a market that is really cutthroat and has a lot of bigger fish with better beers. For me, it’s about trying to be as local and supportive as possible and give back to the community with the beers we make,” he says. “It’s not that I want to be a big beer-maker. I want to have a self-sustainable business in my country. That’s the mission.” 

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