Thailand’s First Hops Farmers Are About to Give the Local Craft Brewing Scene a Major Boost
It takes extraordinary measures to keep hops alive in Thailand’s hostile climate, but beer-loving brothers Teerapat and Nattachai Ungsriwong have managed to do just that.
All photos by the author.
Mud squelches under my feet as I balance precariously on slippery, slime-encrusted bricks that serve as makeshift stepping stones. Outside it's 95 degrees Fahrenheit, but inside the greenhouse the crushing humidity makes it feel twice as sweltering. There's a powerful, funky aroma to the place emanating from dozens of flowering vines rising from their pots like warped, budded magical beanstalks. Fog obscures my vision and I clutch onto my camera for dear life, bracing to go down hard. Just when I think I've made it safely across the enclosure, I hear an expletive in Thai and sprint the final steps to escape the automatic sprinkler system.
"Without this, the plants would just cook alive," says Teerapat "Art" Ungsriwong. His brother, Nattachai "Ob," nods in agreement. Indeed, while the spray raises the air's moisture content to Amazonian levels, the temperature starts to dip towards bearable. "We lost so many in our first year."
It takes extraordinary measures to keep Humulus lupulus, or hops, alive in Thailand's hostile climate. While tropical fruits grow in abundance here, to a European creeper used to long, sunshine-soaked summer days and cooler temperatures, the near-equatorial conditions are brutal. Although the former Kingdom of Siam guzzled an estimated 1.39 trillion Thai baht (roughly $39 billion US) of beer last year, few have attempted to grow hops here because it seemed, well, impossible. Until recently, no one was interested in such an inherently difficult feat, in part because beer in Thailand was synonymous with watery, mass-produced lagers. Since 1950, the country's liquor laws specify that only breweries churning out 10 million or more liters annually are allowed to bottle their product. While that ensures that powerful mega-brands such as Singha and Chang continue to do brisk business, it effectively crushes the little guys unable to fork over such a staggering initial investment. Those who violate the law can face fines or up to six months in jail.
The regulations are as tight as ever, but a growing local interest in craft beer has led to a robust underground and illegal homebrewing scene. Other microbrewers make their product legally outside of the borders, often in Cambodia or Vietnam, then sell it within the country as an import. Fullmoon Brewworks, which produces its popular Chalawan Pale Ale in Australia, and Chiang Mai Brewing Company, which brews a hop-heavy IPA and a milder wheat beer in Laos, are two of the more successful examples. But while these microbrews are enjoying a moment, none can claim to be as deeply rooted in Thailand as what Art and Ob have in the works.
After taking a homebrewing course with Wichit "Chit" Saiklao of the legendary Chit Beer, a brew pub out on Ko Kret island in the Chao Phraya River, the two launched Devanom Beer. By gypsy brewing in collaboration with Stone Head Thai Craft Beer, which operates a microbrewery near the country's eastern border, they've managed to create some highly credible batches, including one that took the title of Thailand's Best IPA in Bangkok's Beer Camp: Fight Club contest last June. Now, the sibling duo is tackling the impossible and growing hops on their eco-friendly farm in Nonthaburi up north of Bangkok.
"Hops are like many crops in that if you grow them in different climates, you'll produce different aromas and flavors. I thought, if I can grow hops in Thailand, maybe I can produce something distinct from what's grown elsewhere," Ob tells me. He plucks one of the pale buds from its stem, crushes it between his fingers, and hands it to me. I inhale a bright, citrusy fragrance. "It's the same as if you have wine. The grapes grown in New Zealand have a different taste than the grapes grown in Europe."
The more sophisticated—or snobby, depending on your point of view—the craft brewing scene grows, the more these comparisons to wine-making become inevitable. A decade or so ago, no one was talking about beer in terms of terroir, but times are changing and the idea of creating suds with a sense of place has more and more appeal. What's more, locally grown blossoms give the brothers the opportunity to produce Thailand's only fresh-hop beer. "Fresh hops have a different aroma than dried ones. It's more floral. It's still green and smells almost like a vegetable," Ob explains to me. "The technique is a little different, because we want to preserve the aroma of the hops. We don't boil it too much—just five minutes."
The duo have already tested it out, with encouraging results. "I just have a small brewing kettle, like a noodle kettle, really," says Ob with a laugh, adding that he and Art plan to open a small brewpub next year and sell only draft beer. "Last February, I brewed our wet hops into fresh hop beer. We had around 32 cans. I guess you could say I sold the first wet hop beer in Thailand. Next month, we'll do the second batch. The hops only need maybe two more weeks until they're ripe."
A whole lot of trial-and-error was required to even reach this stage. In the absence of proper instructions or any firsthand accounts of what to do in Thailand, the brothers simply had to keep buying small batches of seeds and hope for the best. Currently, they have 26 varieties and are in the process of procuring more. "Everybody kept telling me that hops cannot grow in Thailand," Ob recalls. "At first, I kept the plants in air conditioning 24 hours a day, since they're supposed to grow in cold weather. After a while, I took the next step and started growing outdoors. The plants were still flowering."
Although the buds are usable right away, it takes years for a hops plant to generate the kinds of yields necessary for commercial success. The brothers have watched more than a few vines wilt and wither, taking note each time which ones seem to cope with the environment the best. There's still a long way to go, but both remain optimistic about the project. For the past three months, they've also started brewing mead using raw honey from Chiang Mai. Since mead is far less tightly regulated, they hope to use it to sustain their beer business while the plants grow.
"When I started brewing, there weren't that many imported beers here. Only from England and Europe. I like American craft beer, hoppy beer," says Ob. "That's really changing, which is great."
"Now it feels like there's a new craft beer place opening every month," says Art. "It's a very collaborative scene and we're happy to be a part of it. We support each other."
Already, the brothers' small project has been generating buzz within the scene. "There are breweries in Vietnam and Cambodia that have been talking with us. This year, I think I'll send it to Thai brewers—illegal brewers—to try it first," says Ob. When I ask if all the obstacles are ever too much, he doesn't seem particularly fazed. "It's exciting. At the end of the day, I just love beer."