The craft beer revolution will not be televised, but it damn sure will be qwerty-ed online. In my pursuit of its latest triumphs I’ve travelled to the land of smiles and endless cilantro seasoned dishes. Megacity Bangkok will make a lot of things come to mind but craft beer sure isn’t one of them. The scene, dominated by domestic staple Singha, Chang and Leo is a pretty much a homogeneous one, but lately players like Beervana and WishBeer.com are easing the pain for those suffering the hardships of craft beer withdrawal.
« There are alot of beer bars in Bangkok and Thais have a really strong beer drinking culture… »
With beers from Rogue, BrewDog, Andersson Valley and Deschutes among others, they’re slowly paving the way through venues like Niche Beerville and BREW. A major milestone in the city’s craft beer transformation is the opening of Mikkeller Bar Bangkok. It’s the fourth installment in the chain of bars by Danish Beer-Whizz-Kid Mikkel Borg Bergsjø.
It’s yet another hot day in ShutDown BKK as I get off at the Ekkamai Skytrain Station and make my way down the stairs to street level. The city’s trademark pink taxis are packed bumper to bumper. Hawkers are chopping and frying away in their wok pans. The humid air has a special quality of exhaust fumes and vaporized chili that sting my eyes and tickle my throat.
« … Sukumvit, a very long road that stretches from downtown BKK all the way to the Cambodian border. »
I’ve got an appointment with Jakob Rasmussen. In conjunction with a Canadian partner called Mike and Mikkel, Jakob co-owns the Bangkok outlet. Following the map on my Android tablet I’m pulled away from the bustling main street, onto a soi in a tranquil and green residential area.
Guided by the signature teal color of the Mikkeller Bars, I soon find myself standing on a lawn belonging to a stylish Functionalist house built somewhere in the 1960’s. I love the setting in and out and I know right away it’s the perfect continuation of style, in the bar chain’s progression into new markets. I stand on the grass imagining cold lovely artisanal ales being served in the warm and sun drenched capital. If only you could export some of this warm weather back to my glacial home.
When I meet him, Jakob Rasmussen looks like your typical Dane. He grew up in near Billund. Billund, the birthplace of mega-popular plastic building block Lego, has of course made him big Lego enthusiast. Like Fredrik Johansen of Mikkeller & Friends, he’s also a Star Wars fan. Here the resemblance of a typical Dane stops.
Backpacking and eventually love brought Jakob to the country back in 2004 and he’s now lived in Thailand for the past six years. Always fascinated by the world of beer, he originally worked for Carlsberg Thailand, giving him deep insight into the industry and also the local drinking demographic and its habits.
“There are a lot of beer bars in Bangkok and Thais have a really strong beer drinking culture, but what most bars compete with is the amount of beer signage or who has the most number of taps, even though they are serving 50 pale light lager tasting very much like the other”, Jakob describes the situation like. Wanting to serve the SouthEast Asian megalopolis with quality alternatives, he started his own import business, HopSession. Today he imports Danish beers from Nørrebro Bryghus and Bøgedal but also Mikkeller. Via the import trade he met with Mikkel. Together with Mikkel’s fondness for Thailand, the idea of a bar sparked to life in August last year.
« Most people can’t distinguish between a Mexican chili beer and Mikkeller American Dream … »
How does the craft beer scene look like in general in Thailand? Are people embracing the concept of tasty brews?
Let’s look at the market here first. While the craft beer in Europe has to compete with fine wine, which has been around for much longer and is a sophisticated product, beer and wine culture here is historically on a much more even keel. Weather wise beer really plays the upper hand here in the heat. I see a lot of potential.
Bangkok is a huge city, what kind of people do you want at attract?
There are probably about 18 million people living in this city, a population that matches the size of Scandinavia, all contained within a small geographical area. That’s offers a unique opportunity. Thai’s are very open to new influences and other food cultures. We hope to get people who are genuinely interested or curious about great tasting beer.
« It’s a scene dominated by domestic staple Singha, Chang and Leo … »
We want to showcase beer the way it’s supposed to be, we want to serve beer with respect, Jakob preaches. Quality is number one, we’re not competing with price. We’ll have no happy hours or discounted days. With most people not being able distinguish between two beers like a Mexican chili beer and Mikkeller American Dream, we want to educate the Thai beer drinking crowd what good craft beer really is. A part of that is having beer tastings with an educational scope as well offering beer tastings in our “Imperial Tasting Room”.
What’s an Imperial Tasting Room?
It’s a climate controlled private tasting room for stronger type of beers like Imperial Stouts and so forth. Being able to serve a Belgian Quadruple in its right environment is imperative to understanding that type of beer. Imagine drinking a syrupy Barleywine at 10% at 30 Celsius degrees in the shade.
Bangkok is a giant. Why did you choose Ekkamai as the location?
Ekkamai intersects with Sukumvit, a very long road that stretches from downtown BKK all the way to the Cambodian border. Nightclubs and bars are just a 10 minute walk away in Thonglor for here. A requirement from Mikkel was making this bar a destination and I think we have managed just that. It’s not a place you just drop by, you’ve probably made up your mind coming here, well before actually coming here. With the garden we’re able to offer plenty of outdoor seating, people love that.
Although I love my heavy duty Imperial Stouts, I don’t see myself gulping one down in that SouthEast Asian heat. What kind of beer styles do you think will dominate?
The lighter side of beer will definitely be the predominantly one sold. Pilsners, lagers and wheat beers will be the main toll.
Many would probably like to be able to buy the beer they’ve had at the bar. Do you have a bottle shop?
Yes, we’ll eventually have our own bottle and merchandise shop located in one of the rooms in the back.
Mikkeller Bar Viktoriagade in Copenhagen has Vesterbro Pils. Will the Bangkok bar have a Mikkeller beer of its own?
We’ll be able to offer our very own Sukhumvit Pils as well as Sukhum-Wit. Or should it be Sukhumvitwit?
The political turmoil has obviously been one of obstacle getting the bar to open. What other challanges have you experienced so far?
Yes, with parts of the city shutdown our beers were momentarily stuck in the port. Finding the right staff is also really hard. We want bartenders that reflect our customer base. Everyone should feel comfortable ordering at the bar. Although we try to run a different type of establishment than the usual loud and messy pub, many potential employees get discouraged knowing we run a bar.
Mikkeller Bar Bangkok opens officially today, January 29th. 30 taps of malty goodness is sitting in Jakob’s 2 Celsius degrees cold-storage. What are you waiting for?
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed from its original format.