Like many Asian markets, craft beer in Thailand has had to struggle to find its potential among beer aficionados. The persistent problem has been large brewers jealously protecting their turf via various laws and regulations.
Thailand, for example, prohibits the sale of domestic beer beyond that produced by brewpubs and restaurants for their customers – unless a brewer produces at least 100,000 liters per year and has a capital base of 10 million baht (US$331,000). Consequently, aside from a few large beer restaurants that brew on-site, most craft beer is imported.
Then there is Wichit Saiklao, commonly known as “Chit,” and his weekend pub, Chit Beer, on Koh Kret, a small island in the middle of Bangkok’s Chao Phraya river. To understand some of the humor in Chit’s marketing, we need to recognize that the “ch” in Thai is pronounced almost as an “sh.” So, substitute “ch” with “sh” and you will approximate the pronunciation and get in on the joke.
During the last six years, there have been several articles written on Chit and his renegade activities at his island pub where he openly sells domestically produced craft beer at very reasonable prices. While the pub can be quite busy, its two-day a week schedule and limited size pose no real threat to the major beer producers or even to large imported craft beer pubs elsewhere in Bangkok. He has been fined eight times by central authorities for openly operating illegally, while some of his customers are actually local undercover police happy to sample his wares. If you sell your own craft beer, it is no problem. But if you sell someone’s other beer that is not licensed for mass production (and distribution) – in other words, craft beer, you are in violation of the law.
Chit is a revolutionary who works within the system that defines Thailand. Five days a week he teaches electrical engineering as a Colonel at the elite Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy (CRMA), the alma mater of most Thai military officers and several prime ministers.
He also owns two IT companies providing GPS trucking services and eBay-like logistics connectivity between trucking companies and factories. With a PhD in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech, Chit is hardly your typical Thai beer entrepreneur.
At first glance, Chit may appear as just a fanatical craft beer evangelist. On Saturdays, he runs the Chit Beer Brewing Academy that has taught hundreds of Thais and local foreigners to brew beer at home. At the same time, he also runs a craft beer co-op, Mitr Bar, where his past students brew and sell their beer near Bangkok’s Victory Monument. Gaining bureaucratic permission for the co-op was a major feat and took years of persistence.
It’s an impressive list of accomplishments but it’s reasonable to ask why he spends so much of his free time in the brewing universe. Is Chit really that crazy about craft beer?
The answer is no. Chit is a remarkably sane man with a vision that only starts with beer.
Raised in a southern Thai farming family, Chit was able to study engineering in Virginia and Georgia for 11 years thanks to the Thai Royal Army. Beyond engineering, Chit became a voracious reader. No book made a greater impact on the young engineer than Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. The book literally changed his life.
Contrary to many observations, not all change in Asia is top-down. There have been moments where change has come from the bottom, such as the South Korean democracy revolution, the Filipino People Power movement, etc. But those are rare events. So, Chit is a cautious inside player.
As an Army Colonel, he may have some political advantages, but he is under much closer supervision than most Thais. He is open with his vision to empower the common Thai, but he is not challenging authority. Rather, he is helping people retain their personal consumer – and ultimately political – power by becoming more self-reliant by producing rather than buying.
Chit points out that when one opts to purchase something rather than make it, one is transferring both wealth and power to others. Chit’s hope is that in the future more and more Thais will be less passive. He hopes people will become more economically independent.
“If you can brew beer,” Chit promises, “you can change the country!”