LONG AN, Vietnam – Walking among several industrial-sized barrels dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, Luiz Martinez could easily be mistaken for one of the thousands of backpacker holidaymakers who pass through Ho Chi Minh City, not a biochemist and craft beer expert.
Martinez, 32 from Spain, is one member of an eclectic mix of Westerners, made up of his brother, Ruben, Maltese Tobias Braffi and American Michael Rowland, who partnered up four years ago and have seen their brew, Tę Tę, grow from an almost clandestine home operation into a benchmark of the expanding Vietnamese craft beer market.
“We began with a very small set-up from our laundry room. We bought some barrels to set up our home operation and we began brewing a modest amount of about 20-25 liters,” Luis tells EFE. “Ever since, through hard work, little by little we began penetrating the market.”
Tę Tę now produces more than 10,000 liters every month, offering three different beers in establishments across Vietnam and another four at the Tap House, a Tapas bar the group opened this year in Ho Chi Minh City.
Despite the rapid rise which has placed Tę Tę among the top five craft beers in Vietnam, they have kept alive the essence and spirit of their early years when they themselves used to deliver the barrels to bars.
At one of the breweries outsourced by Tę Tę on the outskirts of the city, Luis Martinez, a long-time beer enthusiast with a master’s degree in biochemistry who five years ago made the city formerly known as Saigon his home, is meticulous in overseeing the entire brewing process to ensure that the final product is of optimal quality.
The idea of turning his passion into his livelihood was something Luis had toyed with for years, and after working for a few months at a perfume company in Vietnam, where his brother and the other two founders of Tę Tę were already living, he and Ruben decided to venture into the business in 2015.
“One of the things that we missed the most (from home) was the quality craft beer, which did not exist in Vietnam five or six years ago. I realized that it was a country with many opportunities,” Luis said.
He took charge of production, while the other three brought their marketing experience from their years working in advertising to create an attractive brand to get a foothold in a burgeoning market.
With a more established footing, and now backed by more than 30 employees, the two brothers recall the struggles of the company’s early days when they lived off their savings because all proceeds were going to cover business expenses.
“We went without pay for more than a year, everything that we earned used to be reinvested and we would even put in more. We all used to do it. We had only one employee who used to clean the bottles and he is still with us,” the brothers said.
After struggling to stay afloat, their breakthrough came in 2017, when they collaborated with Platinum, a local brewery that helped them with distribution and allowed them to expand their range of products.
But despite their recent success, Luiz keeps a level head and always remembers the brand’s humble origins, its mission and the sacrifices they have made.
“The secret of our company has always been to have our feet on the ground,” said Luis, who explains that the group was always aware that they would have to supply the company’s financial backing and keep it running day to day.
Unlike other brands that came on the scene later with the backing of large investors, the brothers are proud of the fact that Tę Tę has grown organically without external investment.
“We continue to keep a cool head to carry on day by day using all our energy and all our efforts, but with our feet on the ground, growing in a controlled manner,” he said.
One of the secrets of their success has been the connection with the Vietnamese public, largely due to the image of Tę Tę, which is Vietnamese for pangolin, a species native to Vietnam that is critically endangered because of poaching.
The beer’s popularity is also thanks to its light body, which is suited to the tropical local climate and accessible to locals, many of whom are open to new experiences but are not necessarily experts.
Despite their foreign origins, the brothers have always wanted their product to have a Vietnamese identity and to be tailored for a domestic audience and market.
With a presence in the country’s major cities, the Martinez brothers are seeking funding to boost their brand’s growth and expand to other Southeast Asian countries.
When he looks back, Luiz confesses that he might not have embarked on the project had he known the sort of sacrifice it would require, but speaks proudly of its path, whose end he cannot predict.
“It’s an adventure which we will never forget, which continues and will continue, because this cannot be stopped.”