A Life-Changing Craft Beer & Thai Curry Pairing With The Brewing Project's Founder Brian Bartusch
Thailand today boasts a vibrant craft beer scene and passionate homebrewing community, both of which owe their existence to the team of enthusiasts rallied by Brian Bartusch and Aaron Grieser. The fast friends founded Beervana Thailand back in 2012 to import renowned craft beers from around the world into Thailand, and quickly became one of the largest distributors of craft beers in Thailand to quench the market's thirst for a different, more flavourful brew.
The team went on to create The Brewing Project Thailand - a home brewer and collaboration-focused craft beer brand that has been shaking up the Thai and regional craft beer scenes. Fans of The Brewing Project would recognise its matte white labels with artfully sketched illustrations; they often reflect a meaningful or compelling backstories of the featured homebrewer or brewery.
We recently had a chance to speak to Brian Bartusch to learn about the most life-changing craft beer he's ever tasted, his thoughts about Thailand and Southeast Asia's craft beer scenes and his experience navigating Thailand's unique regulations that ban all forms of alcohol advertising.
Brian would also share his favorite traditional Thai dishes to pair with craft beer, as well as a couple of hidden gem itinerary recommendations to get the most out of your next visit to Thailand!
Let's get started!
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"We were amazed by the beautiful golden nectar and how it had somehow managed to find its way to us in Hokkaido… 24 years after being brewed in Belgium."
– Brian, recounting one of his personal "Beervana" moments
[88 Bamboo]: Let’s begin with the brilliant name “Beervana”. You have eloquently described it as a transcendental state of mind brought on by an incredible craft beer, that makes you forget everything else in the world.
Could you take us back to one of the first times you experienced a Beervana?
[Brian]: I have so many great memories in which an amazing beer has played a transcendent role. It's hard to think of the first time, but someone recently asked what was the oldest beer I had ever tried that was definitely one of those transcendent Beervana moments. Many years ago I was visiting a fantastic beer bar in Sapporo called Kalahana. The owners have become my good friends over the years and they surprised me with a Belgian Golden Ale that was 24 years old! They had found this thick ceramic bottle with a swing-top seal in a local thrift store. The thrift store kept it for the bottle rather than the beer inside, but had never opened it. Much to our surprise the rubber seal was still intact and the bottle popped with good carbonation. The beer was sweet with some caramel notes but it was not infected or laden with off flavors and was still very drinkable. We were amazed by the beautiful golden nectar and how it had somehow managed to find its way to us in Hokkaido… 24 years after being brewed in Belgium.
"We knew exactly that those barriers to entry [in Thailand] that you mention would give us an advantage if we could navigate through them."
– Brian, explaining how the same challenges that may have put off others was perceived as an opportunity.
[88B]: Beervana was born in 2012 when you and your co-founder Aaron Grieser got together to import great craft beers into Thailand. And while Beervana is so successful today, I believe starting a craft beer import business in Thailand would have been a really big challenge – from the need for Cold Chain transport to navigating Thailand’s tricky alcohol regulations.
What is it about Thailand that compelled you to venture into craft beers here, even in the face of these challenges?
[Brian]: It was a crazy mixture of raw passion for craft beer and the right partners who truly believed in the idea. We knew the market was here after seeing the success of other imported Belgian and German brands and we knew exactly that those barriers to entry that you mention would give us an advantage if we could navigate through them. We saw that brewery-to-consumer cold-chain delivery would be the only way the highest quality brewers like Deschutes would work with us. So we embraced that challenge by turning it into a key quality point, and building out fridges and kegerators that also differentiate us.
"Sometimes we blur or pixelate the images of labels for digital media. We’ve also had to cover the front of packaging with stickers due to labels being deemed too sensitive."
– Brian, on the measures taken to comply with Thailand's strict alcohol regulations.
[88B]: You guys made quite the splash with your immensely popular beers from The Brewing Project. I've gathered that this venture took root in 2017 when you collaborated with homebrewers discovered through brewing competitions, then connected them with acclaimed craft breweries in the US and Australia to brew their beers.
What sparked this unique collaboration concept? What drove the decision to rely on homebrewers’ recipes rather than simply crafting these beers in-house?
[Brian]: Aaron and I were both homebrewers back in the USA and several of our local team are as well so we’ve always had a deep love of the hobby and the community. We’ve been a part of the homebrew scene in Thailand since the beginning and never want to forget our roots! So we saw a fun opportunity to develop recipes with local homebrewers and work with our export brewing partners to turn those recipes into award-winning beers.
"We have a saying that the artwork sells the first beer, and the liquid inside sells the second and hopefully more. I’m really impressed with our design team in that they have managed to capture so much in a label which is still very appealing to the eye."
[88B]: Your beers from The Brewing Project come in very stunning, award-winning labels that are not only artful but also often inspired by meaningful, poignant stories.
For instance, your Whale Pale Ale illustrates the solitude of the World’s Loneliest Whale nicknamed ‘52-hertz’ by conservationists (because it spent its life in solitude singing at a frequency that other whales could not understand). Your Yaksa Session IPA collaboration brew with Yaksa Brewing, features a person emerging from beneath a Thai temple guardian’s mask with battle scars all over his body. The art reflects the struggles faced by Yaksa Brewing.
Could you give us a glimpse of your team’s creative process in designing these standout labels – many of which are award-winning designs?
[Brian]: Label artwork and branding can be such a fun part of the business and it’s been so cool getting to work with local artists. The process is quite personal and our design team goes very deep in detail as well as background, as with The Lonely Whale story. They’re incredibly creative and overflowing with so many good ideas that the process is mostly just refinement. They spend time with the brewers to define the concept and learn as much as they can about the backstory of each brewer and recipe. They come back with some complex concepts full of intricate details which we refine and work down to something that makes sense for the limited space of a beer label.
[88B]: you have any personal favorite labels or stories that really resonated with you?
[Brian]: The first beer from TBP was Whale Pale Ale and the label is definitely one of my favorites. When I learned about all the details hidden within the artwork it really blew me away. There are obvious elements of traditional Thai art as well as a nod to classic western art from Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’. There are brewing ingredients; hops, malt and yeast, subtly concealed in the artwork along with references to the Thai elephants and the Thai script for the #1 as it was our first TBP brew.
When it comes to beer labels, we have a saying that the artwork sells the first beer, and the liquid inside sells the second and hopefully more. I’m really impressed with our design team in that they have managed to capture so much in a label which is still very appealing to the eye.
[88B]: We all know about Southeast Asia’s rich and vibrant street food scene. And having spent so much time here, you’ve surely experienced the culinary scene from various parts of the region!
Given your familiarity, could you recommend some of your favorite dishes to pair with some of these fantastic beers from The Brewing Project?
[Brian]: TBP Crispy Boy Helles Lager pairs well with sun-dried beef or pork and spicy dip because the sun dried pork and beef here are often fatty pieces of meat. The dry crisp lager will help cut through it.
TBP Wila Weizen pairs nicely with a creamy coconut curry, like green curry or yellow curry because the slightly sweet banana notes of the beer really compliment the creamy curry and also cool off the spiciness.
TBP Whale Pale Ale pairs well with steamed sea bass with limes (pla kapong neung manao), because the bright citrus notes from the hops can really shine when paired with a lime or lemon laden dish and the dry clean finish will cut through the steamed fatty sea bass nicely, leaving you wanting more of both.
TBP x Triple Pearl, Sammuk Belgian Tripel pairs well with baked ginger shrimp with glass noodles (kung ob woonsen), because there is a touch of sweetness in the dish from when the noodles are scorched by the bottom of the pot that I always relate to a rich dark cacao flavor. That subtle sweetness will compliment the full and sweet richness of Sammuk.
[88B]: Given Thailand’s alcohol regulations, it has called for some creativity from new players and craft beer businesses to navigate this minefield and thrive.
Could you share with us any solutions devised by you and your legal team when faced with certain restrictions encountered during your journey?
[Brian]: Alcohol is a sensitive topic in Thailand as it’s illegal to advertise in any way that can be deemed to encourage drinking so we’ve had to navigate these restrictions. Sometimes we blur or pixelate the images of labels for digital media. We’ve also had to cover the front of packaging with stickers due to labels being deemed too sensitive. The Founder’s Breakfast Stout label had to be covered as they didn’t approve of a baby eating cereal from a bowl which might have had stout in it…
[88B]: Beyond Thailand where you have helped build a strong beer culture, you guys have also influenced the regional craft beer scenes of Vietnam and Indonesia, and you’ve undoubtedly had a front row seat to the craft beer boom in Southeast Asia!
By and large, how would you say the craft beer scene in Southeast Asia is similar or different from the scene in the States?
[Brian]: Of course we’re at different paths on the growth trajectory but we are also very influenced by what is happening in the States. Craft beer really started to pop up over here around 12 years ago so we were able to skip over all those years of Amber Ale and dive right into Double IPA’s and Hazys. The scene here is still so young, likely less than 1% of total beer sold is craft. We don’t have real exposure yet so you still meet people all the time who have never heard of craft beer.
[88B]: Could you also share with us any interesting Southeast Asian beer-drinking customs or regional taste preferences that stand out to you?
[Brian]: One interesting lesson we learned is that people here don’t really drink at home that much. Growlers and takeaway sales are quite low compared to the States. It’s just a different drinking culture. People here drink for ABV% as well, high alcohol beers do well in general.
[88B]: Looking ahead, could you give us a hint on what's next for The Brewing Project and Beervana? Are there any exciting new releases or collaborations in the works for 2024 and beyond that you want to share with your fans in the region?
[Brian]: We’ve got lots of fun beers in the current pipeline and few really exciting collaborations as well! We’re working with new breweries in South East Asia and also going back to brew with our friends in Japan. And I’m also really excited about going further afield to brew in Australia and New Zealand and later next year back in the States as well. Another goal is to get our TBP beers exported, we’ve had a lot of interest in other countries around Asia as well as in the UK and USA.
[88B]: Finally, drawing on your background in hospitality and your evident zest for adventure, could you let us in on a few of your must-visit-spots and must-try-experiences in Thailand? We’d really love to hear your travel recommendations for sights, activities, and of course food and drink!
[Brian]: I’ll start with a quick shameless plug to Soi Nana, not the infamous Nana off of Sukhumvit, but the old Chinese neighborhood off of Charoen krung.
This is a plug because I hold shares in a couple places down there but I really love the neighborhood and highly recommend it as a unique spot. There are so many cool bars and food options in a small area, you can bar hop in a way that you won’t find anywhere else in the city. Plus it’s just a short walk and you’re in Chinatown with endless food options.
Another spot is Chit Beer in Pak Kred up on the river. You can take a boat ride up for a nice cruise that ends with a unique home brew bar on a small island which also has great local food.
Up in Chiangmai you‘ve got Namton’s House Bar which is run by an awesome couple. They’re really into beer and creating homemade smoked meats, and brewing as well.
After all the bars and restaurants I’d recommend some snorkeling or diving on Koh Tao which has become my favorite island. It's a small tropical paradise with many great reefs and it’s easy to get around, this is where I want to be when I’m not working!
[88B]: Thank you once again Brian for doing this interview with us! We're delighted to have our readers across the region learn more about your craft beer adventures, and what's to come from The Brewing Project!
Follow Beervana: Official Website
Incidentally, The Brewing Project is having a special Oktoberfest promotion going on at partner bars and taprooms across Thailand. If you find yourself in any part of Thailand between now and 31st October 2023, check out this Google Maps List for a handy list of partner bars.