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New brewery adds Asian flavor to Northern California's beer scene

Sacramento Bee logoSacramento Bee 10/24/2018 James Patrick

Pull up a chair. Consider pouring yourself a beverage. Restaurateur Michael Le has a story to tell you.

It starts with Le's personal odyssey and ends with Asian Brothers Brewing in northern California's Asian restaurants, markets and neighborhoods. But it's worth listening to Le's story; the details are the interesting part.

With dreams of producing beer with his friends, Le developed recipes for five beers and set up a contract with Santa Maria Brewing in Paso Robles to handle brewing and bottling for Asian Brothers. While some brewing still happens on a tiny system at Le's Berkeley restaurant, there's no way to meet demand 10 gallons at a time. A delivery of about 2,800 gallons of beer is expected at Anh Hong, Le's restaurant off Sacramento's Florin Road, sometime this week. All 2,800 gallons will be sold at the restaurant in a matter of weeks, Le said.

"We're beyond a brewpub now," Le said. "A brewpub brews a couple of kegs a week and sells it on tap. We're at a point where the community is coming in and they want to bring it home."

Do they ever. Le pulls out his phone during an interview and shows pictures of people loading 50 cases of beer into the back of a pickup truck. At about $70 a case, it's an impressive sale.

People of Asian descent account for about 14 percent of California's population. Le and his investment group - which includes people of Hmong, Lao, Mien, Cambodian and Vietnamese descent - see an opportunity to become the house beer for California's Asian community.

The craft beer world is riddled with stories of friends who drink a few beers late one night and decide to start a brewery. What we have not seen is California's sizable Asian community stand up and make a beer marketed at themselves.

When he talks about Asian beer that's available in America, Le's face shrivels up. Clearly, he's not a fan of serving it in his restaurants.

"There's only Tsingtao, Sapporo ... it's all the same. It's a lager. They taste the same," Le said. "The frustration, with Thai food, you need something a little heavier ... and you can't find it in Asian beer. So we ended up with American craft beer. And American craft beer is good."

Which brings us to that half-hour long origin story.

How did Asian Brothers Brewing get started? Le first offers up the story of his personal odyssey, from Vietnam to the Netherlands to Brussels to San Francisco and, finally, Sacramento and his restaurant on the south side of town.

Late one night at Anh Hong, Le was talking with his friend Leng Yang. Le was born in Vietnam, Yang is of Hmong descent and grew up in California.

This is where the story sounds familiar.

It was late.

They were drinking beer.

They decided to make their own beer. With a twist.

"My people (the Hmong community) don't have a flag or a country or anything. We don't have anything to our name," Yang said. "So then Mike says "We'll make a Hmong beer."

"That was a joke," Le interjects.

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It was a joke because there has never been a Hmong beer. Le quickly became serious. An American-brewed Asian beer would be popular, he was sure of it. But what, exactly, is a Hmong beer?

It took a while for Le to find the answer to that question. He had a vision for a Hmong beer: Naturally, it should taste like marijuana.

The Hmong community has been heavily invested in growing marijuana, Le said, and some strains smell delicious. So Hmong beer should taste like that.

It took seven months brewing test batches, but Le eventually developed the recipe to Nyiaj Kub Pale Ale. In the process, he also came up with recipes for an IPA and a pilsner.

Then Le took it to his friend Yang and asked him to try it, without knowing what it was. He liked it; and Asian Brothers Brewing had its flagship beer. He doesn't have a home country, a flag or a national anthem, but Yang says the beer does give him a sense of cultural pride.

"To a certain point, it is something to hang my hat on," Yang said. "It's the start of something. To have anything is better than nothing. And to have it on something that I enjoy is special. I'm proud of it."

There's plenty to be proud of.

A curious reporter wondered what American-brewed Asian beer tastes like. The answer: A lot like pretty good American beer.

Pilsner The Bull - which also features the line "Hmong beer" prominently at the bottom of the label - is crisp and easy to drink. The lager, 54, is pale yellow but has a rich caramel taste. And the tropical IPA, 75, has a mixture of fruit flavors and very little bitterness.

You can see why people would be willing to shell out $70 for a case of something to call their own. In all, Asian Brothers is telling another version of a classic American story.

"All I want to do is brew beer, go out there, make a connection with people, and make money at the same time," Le said. "That's everybody's goal."

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