Bangkok’s illicit craft brewers face arrest under draconian laws | Thailand

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Naamcial’s craft beers often have distinctly Thai flavors as he experiments with the country’s local produce, boiling jackfruit and mango pulp to blend into different creations. Yet its handicrafts are banned in the kingdom.

Speaking to the Guardian under a pseudonym, Naamcial says he would like to operate a legal brewery, but Thailand’s liquor production laws make this ambition nearly impossible for newcomers. Current laws limit brewing licenses to makers who have a capital of 10 million baht (£230,000), while breweries must produce at least 100,000 liters a year and only serve their beer on their premises. The legislation effectively prevents new small breweries from opening and tilts the market firmly in favor of two powerful companies – Thai Beverage, which produces Chang beer, and Boon Rawd Brewery, which produces Singha and Leo.

Attempting to loosen the grip of these companies on the Thai beer market, opposition Move Forward MP Taopiphop Limjittrakorn has proposed a new excise duty bill, which is currently being considered by Thailand’s cabinet. and which he hopes will make the market accessible to small producers.

The law would stimulate the economy, he said. Moreover, if passed, the law would mark a symbolic change. “It will allow ordinary people to do the same business as the rich.”

In 2017, before entering politics, Taopiphop was arrested for brewing craft beer at home. He was fined 5,000 baht for illegal brewing without a license and an additional 500 baht for possession of brewer’s yeast.

For some, craft beer is associated with anti-establishment politics. “It’s very similar to the French Revolution, which started in a cafe in Paris, where people were drinking coffee,” says Taopiphop. “The fuel of the revolution is no longer coffee, it’s craft beer.” Taopiphop adds that after the 2014 coup in Thailand, many pro-democracy activists chose to gather at craft beer bars in Bangkok.

At Bangkok’s Dok Kaew House Bar, a craft beer bar housed in a century-old house — which the owners say is also inhabited by five ghosts — locals perch at the bar sipping lager and cider. Co-owner Nuttapol Sominoi is hoping for a change. “It’s a monopoly, a closed market, where there’s no competition,” he says.

Next to it, a table lists the different draft beers, mostly international. In a fridge full of cans and glass bottles, there are a few Thai options. One, however, bears a label indicating that it was made in Vietnam. Some Thai companies resort to brewing their beers in neighboring countries and importing them into Thailand to circumvent the law, although this is costly.

Bangkok’s bars and tourism sector have suffered greatly during the pandemic and continue to operate under restrictions. Photograph: Jack Taylor/AFP/Getty Images

Thailand’s ban on alcohol advertising makes business even more difficult for newcomers. Even sharing a photo of your beer on social media can result in a 50,000 baht fine if the logo is visible.

“It affects us a lot,” says Supawan Kaewprakob, co-founder of Ther, an all-female brewing project. “We cannot advertise or communicate with our customers about the product at all. We can’t even describe the ingredients or post pictures. It’s illegal, which makes no sense. This clearly prevents small businesses from growing.

The laws stifle creativity and the economy, Nuttapol adds, and result in less choice for consumers. This is particularly infuriating, given that Thailand offers such benefits to craft brewers. “In western countries they have to use extracts, but we have the fresh ingredients,” he says.

If the craft beer scene was allowed to grow, it would boost agriculture relying on local produce and attract tourists to Thai resorts, Nuttapol said.

Bars, along with the tourism sector, have struggled tremendously during the pandemic and face continued restrictions on their business. The Dok Kaew House Bar has not received any compensation during the pandemic, according to its owners. They are surprised that they have managed to stay open.

Supporters of Thailand’s alcohol laws and restrictions on its sales during Covid say such measures are necessary to protect public health.

However, Taopiphop argues that alcohol has been unfairly scapegoated in Thai society, especially during the pandemic. The policy is also influenced by a Buddhist belief that alcohol is a sin, he adds.

If his bill passes, he hopes it could pave the way for the removal of laws that stifle entrepreneurship in other sectors.

For now, much of Thailand’s craft beer network operates underground. Naamcial says he tries to limit his presence on social media to avoid drawing the attention of authorities. He finds most of his clients by word of mouth through trusted contacts. It is normally the neighbors who notify the police, he adds, but his family have not yet filed a complaint.

He hopes the law will change, but says he will continue to brew his beer regardless. He loves the craft of brewing and the uniqueness of the end result. “[With] my process and my tools, it’s the only way to make my beer,” he says.

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