While countless Australians head to Thailand each year, rarely has it been the quality of the local beer that's enticed them. Yet, in a country being better known for Chang than craft, the groundswell for better beer is growing.
And now, a joint venture between Sydney based Tribe Breweries, which operates Stockade Brew Co and runs a major contract brewing facility, and Thai distributors Bangkok Beer & Beverages is looking to capitalise with the launch of a new craft beer brand designed for the local market.
Chao Siam is being headed up by Stefan Szpitalak, one of the founders of Tribe Breweries, who has moved to Thailand to head the new operation and has ties to the country that stretch back much further. While at school, Stefan’s family invited Thai children to stay with them during the semester and Stefan would often make return visits.
“[I spent] all my Christmas holidays from 14 to 24 there,” Stefan says. “And everyone treated me like a family member and it became a really important part of my life.”
Stefan’s love for the country runs deep, even spending time as a monk while living there. In Thailand, young men often spend months living as monks as a rite of passage and Stefan took the opportunity to accompany one of his Thai brothers.
“I asked if I could join him and I was fortunate enough that the head monk at a temple in Chiang Mai said yes, so I became a monk for a month,” Stefan says, explaining how much living like a monk can change your perspective.
“It was a big awakening that helped teach me not to take anything for granted. When you think life is tough, it’s not tough at all, it’s just life.”
The launch of Chao Siam follows some major developments for Tribe Breweries, which was established in March to supersede the contract brewing company BrewPack that Stefan and his brother Anton Szpitalak (pictured second from right in the photo at the top with members of the Stockade team) operated from 2012. The newly created Tribe Breweries will be opening a second brewery in Goulburn later in the year with private equity firm Advent Partners invested in the company.
Stockade Brewing is also set to launch a barrel room in Marrickville and Tribe recently added Wilde Gluten Free to its portfolio.
For Stefan, the launch of Chao Siam (which means Thai people) was driven by a feeling that, while access to good beer in Thailand was growing, not that much of it was made with locals in mind. It's not the company's first venture within the country, however, with Stockade creating beer in the past with Phuket brewery Full Moon Brewworks.
“Because I was coming to Thailand quite often, I found there was a gap in the market. I felt people were copying the US, one or two Australian breweries, some European breweries,” he says, adding how the country’s temperature and humidity can effect what people want to drink.
For now, the three core Chao Siam beers are a witbier, a pale ale and an IPA, with plans to introduce seasonals and barrel aged beers into the future.
“We just tailored some beers that we thought would suit the climate, the tastebuds and try to make it work as local as possible,” Stefan says.
Compared to some other countries in South East Asia, craft beer in Thailand has been relatively slow to take off, with a restrictive legislation effectively shutting out smaller breweries from packaging their beer within the country. While there are brewpubs, contract brewing largely takes place in other countries and most breweries import their own packaged beer from other parts of Asia.
The Chao Siam beers will be brewed in Australia by Tribe, with Stefan saying the capacity of their brewery meant they could guarantee getting consistent beer into Thailand regularly, an important factor in securing the partnership with Bangkok Beer & Beverage, which – despite its name – is better known for importing spirits and coffee into Thailand than beer.
“They are called Bangkok Beer & Beverage," he says, "but they just needed the appropriate partner to incorporate the name."