Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Bia Hơi - Vietnam's Favorite Street Beer. So, how's it made?

Bia Hơi is Vietnam's favorite, drink on the street, beer. For many Vietnamese, it's a substitute for clean water. For foreigners, people watching and trying to fathom the chaos that is city traffic is an essential part of the Vietnamese travel experience. And its cheap! Super Cheap!


Now, Bia Hoi is often referred to as "Fresh Beer" but actually it translates as "Draught Beer." Some claim instead that 'Fresh Beer' may be a reference to the location where "Bia Tươi" is drunk, and that "Bia Tươi" is "Fresh Beer." Be that as it may, "Bia Hơi" when combined with some other words translates as "Steam Beer," which kinda opens the door to an interesting sideline discussion.

Be that as it may, it is conjectured that Bia Hơi contains no preservatives and that is why it goers off in a couple of days. This is not the case. Bia Hơi is an non-pasturised beer and as such it is meant to be consumed within a short time of it being opened.

The reason for this is that it is normally dispensed by gravity feed: that is, a tap goes on the bottom of the keg, the top is opened to the air, and the beer is allowed to drain out of the keg.

This exposes the beer to oxygen which goes to work fairly quickly on oxidizing the beer. It the beer was dispensed with the use of CO2 instead of air, the shelf life could be extended from several days to almost a month. This is also the reason behind why Bia Hơi tasted better in the morning than in the afternoon, because has had longer exposure to the air and has started to oxydize, thus changing the beer's flavour profile. As a result most street vendors that distribute Bia Hơi need to ensure that the keg is 'usually' finished the same day it is opened. 

What goes into Bia Hơi?
At it's most basic, water, malt, hops, and yeast. In Asian countries, dry finishing beers with lower body are preferred, as such Rice is used as the main adjunct. This adds no colour to the beer and also helps to reduce the cost of manufacture of the beer. Malt is absolutely necessary in order to provide the essential enzymes required for converting the starches in the grain into sugars that can be consumed by the yeast.

Another core feature of Bia Hơi is that is is lightly hopped has light to moderate alcohol content and is not particularly "malty." Having said that, when served around 8-10 deg. C the malt flavours tend to make their presence apparent. Served cold 3-5 deg. C much of that flavour disapears.

It's also been said that Bia Hơi tends to have a greenish tinge and metallic copper taste and that this comes from the fact that is made in copper vats and is not largered or aged for any significant length of time

This point may be in dispute, as some claim that it is kegged the same day that it's made. If that were the case there would be no effective fermentation process - something essential to the manufacture of beer and a step that takes several days to a couple of weeks. However filtration and kegging under CO2, post-fermentation is highly plausible.

So, how to make a Bia Hơi like beer?
:- Good, soft water
:- The palest pilsner malt you can get your hands on
:- Whole Grain Rice, Flaked Rice, Rice Noodles or Rice Malt Extract/Syrup
:- Tettnanger, Fuggles or Pride of Ringwood Hops: i.e. a neutral bittering hop with mild spiciness and mild aroma
:- A neutral flavoured, Czech Pilsner style, Larger Yeast

Process
Depending on the desired dry finish for the beer, adjust the rice to malt ratio between 15-25% i.e. start out with 15% rice to 85% malt. A good rule of thumb would be to use rice in a similar way in which wheat malt is used in Wheat Beers.

Crack the grains separately. Cook the rice for 30 min to 1 hour in water: 1 part rice to 4-6 parts water, Rice is known to absorb up to 3 times it's weight in water.  

Add malt to strike water and bring up to Protein Rest temp. Add cooked rice and water and bring temp up to next desired rest temp. Mix well. If using extract/syrup thin it in hot water and add to the brew kettle - rice extract should need to be mashed unless you want to play around with the sugars. Oh yeah, mix well.

Proceed as normal for the rest of the mash procedure. Bear in mind that the 'gelatinous' nature of the rice may increase the risk of a stuck sparge. So adding some additional rice hulls may be in order, but too much may increased the risk of tannin contamination in your Lautering.

At the boil proceed as normal. If you boil for an hour, add hops at the start of boil. If you boil for an hour and a half, wait 30 min then add the hops. There should be no need for an aroma hop addition, but feel free to play with that as you see fit. A small amount in the last 5-10 should be more than ample, but remember hop aroma is not an integral part of this style.

Cool the wort  and pitch your lager yeast. Ferment at lager temperatures. Bia Saigon seem to aim at a Primary Fermentation @ 12-15 deg. C, Secondary Fermentation @ 8-10 deg. C and Settling/Clarification @ 0-2 deg. C - bear in mind that they also ferment under preasure, filter and force carbonate.

As a home brew I'd suggest Primary Fermentation at 12-15 deg. C then keg, mini keg (...this would probably be the best option for table service and a 'real' Bia Hơi experience using  gravity feed dispensing) or bottle for secondary fermentation - prime as required; at 8-10 deg. C then Crash Chill at 0-2 deg. C for 2-4 days before consuming.

Time from Grain to Glass should be around 10 days. 


Bia Hơi does not retain a head overly long, and is not highly effervescent. Bubbles tend to be large and the beer degasses fairly quickly.

Note:
Experiment with rice to malt ratio impacts on colour and dryness of finish
Experiment with Saccharification Rests - impacts on maltiness or body of beer
Experiment with Hopping Schedule - impacts on flavour and aroma: bear in mind you need sufficient bitterness to balance the malt profile of the beer
Experiment with Lager yeast - impacts on the malt, and other flavour profiles of the beer including susceptibility to diacetyl production.
Experiment with partygyling a regular brew and adding some additional rice malt extract
Experiment with recycling your hops from a first brew

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