James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Drinking Bootleg Beer in Bangkok

Drinking Bootleg Beer in Bangkok

Thai Craft Beer in Thailand

A breeze blew over the brown water. Waves licked the beams beneath my feet. I had a cold pale ale in one hand and a notebook in the other. Sunglasses shaded my eyes. From where I was sitting, I could see vines growing wildly on a flood wall and a temple roof turning ochre in the late-afternoon sun. The distance between the other side of the river and me was no farther than 50 feet, and I was just a boat ride away from the one-room apartment I called home, but I felt so far removed from Bangkok I may as well have been in Boston.

My glass was empty. The man I was drinking with gave me another, an amber ale he was tinkering with in his free time. His name was Chit, and Chit Beer was his baby: a shack-turned-brewing academy and Thai-craft-beer bar on a speck of land called Koh Kret. He was lean and outspoken, with the relentless energy of a man well-seasoned in the art of throwing backyard barbecues. We talked about Bitcoins, the marathons we had run in New York, and how, while at Georgia Tech, he got hooked on home-brewing. I told him I couldn’t remember the last time I’d tasted a beer as flavorful as his in Thailand. He called me a VIP.

When Chit laughed, he looked like the Cheshire Cat. His eyes would shrink to the size of thimbles, the whites all removed, a barely visible web of wrinkles belying his youth. He laughed often.

We volleyed pleasantries and covered the basics. Then, casually, he revealed that he was a colonel in the army. What, how, but isn’t this whole set-up illegal? “It’s only illegal if the excise police catch me,” he said, and winked. Under Thai law, he couldn’t brew and sell his own beer unless he could produce 100,000 liters of it a year. Penalties ranged from small fines to jail time. That wasn’t stopping Chit. It wasn’t stopping the more than 200 other home-brewers in Thailand, either, I was told. Chit opened his bar only on weekends, when the police were off the clock and wouldn’t come knocking. When they showed up anyway, he paid the tea money. So did his home-brewer friends. And so did their home-brewer friends.

Craft beer was almost contraband in Thailand until five years ago, when seemingly overnight it became de rigueur to sip Rogue and Deschutes at Bangkok’s sexiest bars and clubs. The high society all drank imports from the U.S. and Europe. But, since 2012, when Chit opened his bar and began to teach the basics of brewing, the population of beer geeks and home-brewers has burgeoned. Suddenly, the flavors and philosophies of foreign craft beer cultures feel closer to Thailand than ever, and a legal domestic craft beer industry seems realistic.

“I dream of big change, but we’ll never see change unless we fight for it,” Chit told me, as he raced away to check on a batch of beer bubbling in his kitchen. For once, he wasn’t laughing.

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