From craft cider through to producers ramping out the good stuff, thousands of bottles at a go, cider is finally making inroads into the Vietnamese market. Here’s the lowdown. Words by Owen Salisbury and Jesse Meadows
Cider (alcohoic volume: 7.5%) is still in its infancy in Vietnam, though it was available as a niche drink for expatriates at the now-defunct Sheridan’s Irish Pub as early as 2011. Expats are the market entry point for cider importers large and small, welcoming another familiar beverage, and the focus of the small local craft scene.
As Mark Hanrahan from Westons explains: “Cider is mainly drunk by expats. Vietnamese have no idea what the drink is, although they like the taste of most of the ciders they try. It’s just a mindset of getting them to buy it. Generally when we do samples, most Vietnamese like our range.”
That local consumers are beginning to explore this new beverage is positive for the industry. Add to this the country’s changing demographics, and now we’re seeing some of the world’s largest cider brewers anteing up against regional companies, and even local, craft ones. Kristian Harmston, the importer of the premium Swedish cider Rekorderlig, says: “Growth can double or triple over the next two years.”
Who’s Here Already
So what’s here? Magners has been available for two years in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, but it’s only now transitioning from expat bars in District 1 and District 2 to the wider market. Rekorderlig is also making inroads into the more Vietnamese-orientated bars, as are Westons and Bruntys, a British cider imported from Cambodia.
Even unlikely venues are catching onto the possible profitability of selling cider here. Four flavours of Strongbow cider — only one remotely traditional — can be found on Kitchi Kitchi’s menu, and Citimart began carrying multiple brands even before its acquisition by Aeon. Western and imported food stores carry cider, but markups are steep, though Westons, even after import taxes, is less expensive in Ho Chi Minh City than in Sydney or London.
Bottles are still the norm, but a few bars carry ciders on tap, like Game On, which has the Westons brand Stowford Press. As bar choices expand in general, clubs and beer gardens — more popular among young Vietnamese professionals than expats or travellers — are likely future moves for importers and distributors.
Those young professionals are one possible Vietnamese target. Lager — light, relatively sweet, especially that brewed in locally-owned breweries — is overwhelmingly the most popular type of beer in Vietnam, and it’s not much of a stretch to see that cider is a natural fit for this country.
And Whom They’ll Sell To
Curious young consumers with broad tastes and disposable income are one of the most lucrative market segments in any country. This is especially true here, where such a large proportion of the country is under 30. Combining these facts make it obvious why many cider companies are coming to Vietnam.
The major questions are how cider breaks into the market, when, and in what flavours. Will it be the traditional flavours — apple, berry and pear? Will it be recognizable if less popular ones, like elder flower or peach, become popular? What about something non-traditional, like pumpkin? Future revenues depend on it.
The new market has the potential to be a major source of revenue for cider brewers. Given that Vietnam brewed 2 billion litres of beer in 2010, it’s also easy to see that brewers are here because the drinkers are. That figure should be understood; cider may sell 20,000 litres in a good month, or a tiny 0.01% of the beer market.
Where It’s All Headed
With 90 million people, increasing wealth, and interest in foreign cultures, Vietnam will likely be a major cider market, but exactly how importers and brewers get the word out is the key question. Some local brands will doubtless rise to international heights on the strength of their answers.
Major labels with major advertising and distribution budgets will steer the new market’s development, especially over the next few years. Cider and beer overlap considerably in customer demographics, and major beer brands like Heineken will get in the game, fighting for their share.
“The beer players invest hundreds of millions of dollars. They won’t give up volume without a fight,” said Harmston. “The rest of the cider market players don’t have that muscle or resource, so we just gotta go along for the ride.”
On the flipside of the major beverage players, small-batch craft brews are becoming increasingly popular. Dominated by expats (for now), breweries like Pasteur and Fuzzy Logic in Saigon are driving the craft beer craze. As for cider, the market is still in its infancy, but growing steadily.
“Several people have approached me saying that I’ve started a craft beverage revolution here,” says Hannah Jefferys, the woman behind the apples at Saigon Cider. She started brewing in 2013, driven by a nostalgia for the apple orchards of her childhood in Somerset, UK, and a need to scratch a creative itch that her architecture job couldn’t reach.
In Vietnam, she saw a lack of the quality cider she was used to drinking back home, and began carting her brews around to festivals, markets, and parties, particularly at alternative venue Saigon Outcast. Since then, her brand has spread across the country, and is now distributed via venues in Saigon, Hoi An, Nha Trang, and Hanoi, under one condition: all venues must agree to reuse her glass bottles, a sustainable operating policy important to Hannah that she plans to continue even in the face of rapid expansion.
Currently, a 500ml bottle of Hannah’s cider ranges in price according to the distributor, costing VND240,000 at Hanoi’s Maison de Tet and less at Saigon Outcast in Ho Chi Minh City. Flavours include ginger, hot chilli, cinnamon and vanilla, and of course, the classic apple. Most of the brand’s ingredients are sourced domestically, except for, ironically enough, the apples.
“Anyone who tells you they use Vietnamese apples is lying,” Hannah laughs. Apples don’t grow in Vietnam, so most are imported from China or the EU, considerably driving up costs for small brewers.
Apples and Chocolate
The cost of apples is of no concern to Loc at Stonehill Farms. Since 2010, he has been experimenting with a different kind of ingredient — cocoa. The beverage is distilled from the inner cases surrounding the cocoa beans, sourced from his family’s permaculture farm in Dong Nai. It takes 10 to 15kg of beans to make one 250ml bottle; the beans are distilled for one year and each bottle is sold for VND180,000.
Loc began selling this unique concoction in December 2014, and by the time Tet rolled around, one-third of a year’s worth of stock had been consumed. It’s currently only available at Bia Craft in District 2, but the brand has plans for an international launch.
Hanoi’s Cyber Cider was born of romance; Taya Pollard was in love, and wanted to make something special for her dearest. She had previously tried her hand at brewing in her hometown of Almaty, in Kazakhstan, under the guidance of her stepfather, a master brewer of all things alcoholic.
“I spent many sleepless nights making juice from apples, and the rest of the night cleaning up apples from the kitchen. I hated it.” she says. But, relishing a good challenge, Taya has been hard at work since January this year, crafting a line of ciders, wines, and ginger ales in her kitchen, which she describes as a mad scientist’s lab.
For now, the brand operates under a flag of exclusivity — available in very small batches for home delivery, with bottles starting at around VND160,000, or occasionally popping up at events around town, like the recent Hanoi Beer Festival. Coming from a background in advertising, Taya says her strategy is based on ‘dark marketing’, an indirect approach based on subliminally influencing consumers. She provides a quality product to a select few, and relies mainly on word-of-mouth to do the rest. One day she hopes to open her own ‘Cyber Cider Cellar’, but has no plans to mass distribute the product, as she believes that small production preserves quality.
It’s this same quality that Hannah hopes will drive market demand for craft brews. Cider is a relatively new product for Vietnamese consumers, and many are still unfamiliar with it, and consequently, unwilling to shell out the extra dong to drink it.
"At first, they’ll complain it’s so expensive, but when they go back to a drink they’re used to, they will see why, and choose to pay more,” Hannah remarks. Combine a quality product with one of the fastest-growing middle classes in the world, and you’ve got a recipe for market success. It may just take some time to plant the seed.