Thai billionaire craft beer brewer tap out on International Beer Day

Thai beermaker Toon’s hoppy Sandport brew will be out of stock on Friday’s International Beer Day — a far cry from the parties of previous years — as the kingdom’s small brewers struggle under the strain of tough booze laws and the pandemic crunch.

Thailand has the highest alcohol consumption rate in Southeast Asia, according to the World Health Organization, with locals typically reaching for the ubiquitous Chang, Singha and Leo beers.

But Thai alcohol regulations demanding minimum production levels skew the market towards beverage conglomerates, making it harder for smaller outfits to enter the market.

The vibrant community of craft beer brewers have adapted by making their ales abroad, but are now hit hard by border closures caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Toon — real name Supapong Pruenglampoo — has travelled to South Korea, Cambodia, Vietnam and even the US to produce his Sandport brew.

“I can no longer go to other countries to brew my beer and send it back to Thailand,” he tells AFP, adding many of his clients’ bars have closed too.

The kingdom’s economy has seized up in the pandemic and the cash cow tourism industry has come to a shuddering halt.

A month-long ban in April on alcohol sales to discourage social gatherings also hit profits.

But however bad the coronavirus impact, Toon says Thailand’s heavily restrictive alcohol laws are the main obstacle for small brewers like him.

– Selfie fines –
Production volumes aside, a web of rules governs everything from starting capital funds to a high ‘sin tax’ for retailers and strict advertising laws.

Thailand’s 2008 Alcoholic Beverage Control Act forbids the display of booze logos or any advertising that could “directly or indirectly appeal to people to drink”.

Small producers have long had to rely on word of mouth, event parties or private groups to hawk their brews.

The broad scope of the law means anyone posting a selfie with a beer could see themselves fined up to 500,000 baht ($16,000).

Facebook beer reviewer and enthusiast Nattorn Wongphum calls the law “ridiculous” and fears regular drinkers could be targeted.

One MP from the opposition Move Forward party has taken up the craft beer lovers’ fight and plans to propose amendments in parliament to make it easier for small producers to gain a foothold.

The law is not intended to defend billionaire brewery interests, but to “protect our youth” from online advertising, insisted Nipon Chinanonwait, director of the Ministry of Health’s Alcohol Control Committee.

For Toon — who has so far suffered an estimated 1.5 million baht ($48,000) loss in revenues this year — there is little to celebrate this International Beer Day.

“It’s a fight for a living. People cannot live like this.” Agence France-Presse

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