A Beer and a Chat with Heart of Darkness CEO John Pemberton

My Mola first discovered Heart of Darkness beer at the Asia Beer Fest in Singapore and it has yet to do anything less than impress, regardless of style, flavor or location of consumption. The Heart of Darkness crew is made up of incredibly cool, salt of the earth types, and as their success continues to grow it is absolute pleasure to see good things happen to these good people. 

I recently had a chance to sit down with John Pemberton, CEO of Heart of Darkness Brewing and one hell of a nice guy. Read on for more about our discussion on craft beer, Vietnam, collaboration and the steady genius of Master Brewer Duane Mortan.

John Pemberton

John Pemberton, CEO, Heart of Darkness Craft Brewery

MM: Last year, 2017, you began distribution in Taiwan, Thailand, and Singapore. This year you've started in Hong Kong and where else?

JP: Japan, Cambodia, and now Hong Kong. So Singapore, Thailand, Tawaiin, Japan, Cambodia, Hong Kong and of course, here [Vietnam]. I'm missing one... but that will do for now.

MM: Australia?

PM: Not Yet.

MM: OK, so what's next?

JP: Australia! Shh (laughs).

MM: Really, or are you just joking?

JP: I'm working on it. But our whole plane, and it's no secret, it should be on our website, we want to be Asia's top craft beer brand, because no one is really doing that. We want to be all over Asia.

It's just what we do. I mean, we've all run businesses all over Asia most of our lives. I don't even remember a point when we had a conversation about it. It has just always been baked into the plan. We know the region intimately. Hong Kong's my second home and Vietnam is my home. Singapore's Stevo's second home. I mean he lived there for years and Thailand. He lived there for years as well.

MM: How many places sell your beer?

JP: Oh God.

MM: OK. How many in Vietnam, roughly?

JP: It changes daily. I think, off the top of my head right now, it's about 170.

MM: And these are places that carry your beer, right?

Heart of Darkness

Taking flight.

JP: Yes. We've only got this one bar. We're about to start that whole process now, where we start expanding bars and stuff. Yeah, it's time. I'm mentally ready for it now. I was a bit of a mental wreck after opening this place.

MM: Really?

JP: Yeah, this was the toughest thing I've ever done, but now I'm ready to do it again. I also did my own apartment and the brewery. Well, to be fair, Duane did most of the brewery.

MM: Duane [Morton] is your brewmaster?

JP: Yeah, he's our head brewer. He's an absolute God who walks among us. He's also a super nice guy. I can't say enough nice things about Duane. He's also a great sounding-board for me. We have a great symbiotic relationship. He takes care of the brewery and I 100% trust him.

MM: So, who comes up with your different types of beer? I read an interview with you where you said you focus on getting traditional styles of beer as perfect as possible, and then you go from there.

JP: Yeah, exactly. Some people think that because we're a Vietnamese brewer that we must be doing something Vietnamese, but no. We're a full-on American-style craft brewery. Our focus is on making really good beers in classic styles but making them with a twist. So we're making them our way with the Heart of Darkness twist.

Sometimes a beer will just talk to us. Like the Director's Porter.

MM: That's a delicious beer.

Director's Porter

So many great beers, so little time.

JP: It's like liquid chocolate, right? Liquid dark chocolate. But we did it as a coffee porter to begin with, but it had all these chocolate undertones and just screamed to me, "put cacao leaves in." This really accentuated that flavor from the malt, and it works beautifully.

The Passion fruit Gose (Saigon Passion), that was from Shiro [Yamada] from Far Yeast who wanted us to bring a Vietnamese ingredient over [to Tokyo]. We gave him a list of what was in season, and he chose passion fruit. Hopefully, he's coming back here in a few months with a Japanese ingredient.

MM: So is it Duane who comes up with all of your beers?

JP: Duane and I have a very similar vision on beer, which is how this whole thing got started. We can talk on the same level. I understand a lot of his issues and what he's doing, so he gets a lot of freedom. I have so much faith in him and trust in him that he's basically got free rein to do whatever he wants to do. I don't dictate anything he does.

I just ask that the core range must be consistent and it must be always available. Thankfully in two years not a single bad batch.

MM: You guys are pretty solid, I have to say. Usually when you do a tasting of say six beers, at least one is a stinker but not your beer. I would order a pint of any of these beers.

JP: Two hundred beers in two years and I've not sent one back to the brewer. Not once.

MM: Wow, that's insane. That's got to go in this post.

Hear of Darkness

Find your tap.

JP: I would like to know what the record is.

MM: You've got to be close. What is your average time for turning out a batch of beer?

JP: Two weeks, so we've basically been putting out 2 to 3 new beers per week on average. They've got it to such a rhythm now that they're literally writing the recipe in the car on their way to work in the morning then they kick it around a bit until they go, "Alright, we'll do that."

Duane's the ultimate process brewer. He can't not make something perfectly. It's not in his DNA and he's very sensible in how he sets up a recipe. We also had Pete [Mallon] who is just amazing. But Pete's just a wandering nomad, so we were lucky to have him for a year and a half but now he's moved on. Pete himself would say that he became a brewer at Heart of Darkness, which I find really touching. Pete did so many amazing things for us like Loose Rivet is Pete, Dream Alone is Pete.

We want our brewers to be pushing the envelope and then Duane will be like, "Alright, but we need to make this repeatable."

MM: A practical genius. You scored.

JP: Right, and all these beers now, like the Hot & Cold Chilli/Cucumber Pilsner, that's all Duane. He's never had the chance to express himself before. He's always been a shift brewer with set recipes that aren't about experimentation. Then he walks into our brewery and it's like, "Twenty taps mate, I want you to fill twenty taps." So he just thought I was insane.

MM: He's got a point.

JP: Yep, we started out at 16 taps and it took us about six weeks to get to 20 and we actually have a backlog now of beers to go on tap. There are probably 4 or 5 beers ready to go on tap. We have 12 core beers that are always available that we pledge to always have in stock.

MM: How big is your brewery?

JP: It's 1,000 square meters and we've got a 4,200-meter system, a ton of fermenters. Then we have a smaller system which is actually my old homebrew system.

MM: Really?

JP: Yeah I used to have a fair amount of money in my old life. It's a beautiful system that I actually had custom made and I've had it inspected. It's kept at full food hygiene levels, everything about it, sanitary wells and everything like that, so we still use that.

We also bought 60-liter proper pressure fermenters and 120-liter pressure fermenters so that we can do double batches on that or single batches. If there's a crazy new idea we'll throw it in the 60-liter. If it's a crazy new idea that we're super excited about then we'll throw it in the 120. If that goes well then that goes on to be poured at this bar.

MM: A tap room special.


Mild traffic - Saigon

JP: Yeah the whole concept was to bring the world of beers to Vietnam, to introduce the Vietnamese to craft.

MM: This seems like a good place to do that. It's a relatively young country. What's the average age here, 33?

JP: Our sweet spot is 25-35. This is the youngest country in Asia and one of the youngest in the world.

MM: Is there anything about the craft beer scene in Vietnam or Asia that makes it different or unique compared to the U.S. or U.K.?

Heart of Darkness

Flavors of Saigon

JP: When we started, some other breweries were dumbing things down for the Vietnamese. Like the Vietnamese aren't ready for craft beer. Dumb it down, dumb it down, dumb it down. But my reaction to that is, "Have you had the food? The food is amazing! And the food is so bright and vibrant. There are citrus flavors, there are bitter flavors, there are sweet flavors. It runs the whole spectrum, which you find in craft beer, right?

MM: Right.

JP: For me, it was just like let the Vietnamese decided what they like and don't like. I'm just going to make beer that I'm proud of and that's our basic philosophy. We make beer that first and foremost we're proud of. Beer that we're proud to put our brand on and proud to share with people, and then let them choose.

That's why there are 20 taps. Somewhere in those 20 taps, everyone will find something that works for them. We try to create the range very carefully so we run the spectrum from light, easy drinking up to big bad bold beer geek get-your-geek-on kind of stuff.

MM: So you don't brew down to people.

JP: No. We just want to be proud of who we are and proud of what we do. Obviously, through the process, we're learning to dial into what's working for the Vietnamese and what's not working. We're not dictating what's right.

MM: Which of your beers are you finding is most popular in Vietnam?

JP: Oh, it's Loose Rivet hands down. That thing is just a beast that transcends everything. It doesn't matter if you're male, you're female, you're a beer geek, you're not a beer geek, you Asian, you're western. It just doesn't matter, it just transcends it all. I've seen little Vietnamese girls chug pints of that, 7.5 ABV!

MM: Vietnamese girls can throw down.

JP: Absolutely. Full respect.

MM: What's your opinion when it comes to cans vs bottles?

JP: What do you want, the geeky answer or the practical answer?

Heart of Darkness

The Heart of Darkness beer rainbow.

MM: I'm guessing the practical answer is bottles because that's what people are used to, right.

JP: Here in Asia there is a perception of quality around that, so that's why we went with bottles. Duane, Steve-O and I had a long, long, long debate over that. The brewer in me and Duane was like, "cans are probably the right way to go." But then the marketeer in me and Steve-O wanted bottles because there is a perception of value, and prestige, a premium to that.

What it all boils down to is that in the highly geeky argument over what's better, really, technically it's a tiny little bit. As long as you culture properly and maintain good processes and systems and procedures, it's negligible. Are cans better? Yeah. Are they better to the point that you should override the marketing factor in wherever you are? No, they're not.

At the end of the day, the turn out of our bottles and our kegs is so fast anyway. It's an academic conversation. The issue is O₂ pickup because you tend to not be able to control the amount of oxygen you get in a bottle as well as with a can, so you can get oxygenation of the beer

MM: I know you've collaborated with Little Creatures on Creatures of Darkness IPA. How many collaborations have you done and with which breweries?

JP: Our first was with Tê Tê. We opened in December [2016] and did that in December. Then, Little Creatures, they were here in our bar and they loved our beer. One of the regional finance guys asked if we could do a collaboration. I love Creatures. For me Creatures Pale Ale is like...it's iconic, like Sierra Nevada iconic. In Australia, it's a beer that launched a revolution. I love their brand.

You can get snobby about corporate craft and blah blah blah, but at the end of the day, I sell happiness and if it makes people happy, why judge? Why be an idiot about it. If someone's enjoying that beer let them enjoy that beer.

MM: How many beers have you made with them so far?

JP: Three. We've done Creatures of Darkness IPA, Creatures of Darkness New England IPA and Creatures of Darkness Asian Wit. I'm happy to continue doing the series

MM: Who distributes these beers? You or them?

JP: A bit of both. Our distributor brings it in for them to sell in their tap room and we distribute it around the region. We send it to Hong Kong. We send it to Singapore.

MM: You've had an American collaboration too, right?

JP: Yeah not just any American collaboration, Two Roads and Evil Twin, two of the top 10 U.S. breweries.

Jeppe [Jarnit-Bjergso] from Evil Twin approached me around I think December last year, so we were only about a year old at the time. They said they wanted to come and brew in Vietnam and they wanted to do a Ca Phe Sua Da (Vietnamese iced milk coffee) stout*.

So I was like, "Yeah". I mean it's just really humbling to have people we admire coming to us, especially when we were just one year old. We've got a second batch about to come out, we've tweaked it just a little and it should have just launched it in America too. 

*Evil Takes Two Roads Into Darkness Stout

MM: What about Singapore? I don't really get back to America much these days.

JP: Some of this will definitely go to Singapore. We talked about it for about 6-months and kicked ideas back and forth. We did a ton of experimentation because this is not an easy beer to make. We wanted a stout that tastes like Vietnamese coffee but is a stout.

That's a very intense thing to try to pull off. But they even got a slight opaqueness in there, it looks like there's milk in there, and I don't understand how they pulled that off. There's a lovely sweet edge to it and it tastes like Vietnamese coffee. It's quite spectacular. I was floored when I tried it.

It flew out when we did it, and there was a lot of buzz and excitement about it. We did it here as a tri-brand collab and we did the artwork for it and I hope they use that in America too. In America, it's launching under Two Evil. Two Roads and Evil Twin like to travel the world together. They're good friends and they brew a lot together. So they have a sub-brand they call Two Evil.

We will be sort of a side story, which is fine, we'll help with the marketing and all of it. For us, it was just a great honor to brew with Jeppe and the guys from Two Roads. It was a fun few days having them down here and hanging out with them.

We have also done collabs with Far Yeast and Kagua. I met Shiro in Bangkok, we were a little bit hammered, and we were drinking Dream Alone Pilsner actually. Shiro got the idea to do a collaboration. I'm not a big fan of Belgian Yeast or Trappist yeast at all and that's pretty much what Shiro does, but he does it so beautifully that I actually really enjoy his beers.

MM: Where did you launch in Japan?

JP: Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuyama, and Yokohama. When we launched in Japan it was crazy. We did fourteen tap takeovers in 3-days, but we did it with Far Yeast as well.

We had always conceived it [Saigon Passion] as a Gose, and on the day Shiro asked if he could turn it into a sour, so I was like, "Sure mate, whatever you want to do." But we said when we go back to Vietnam you brew it here under Far Yeast and we'll do it under Kagua.

He distributes here and wanted him to get some more love because we're a more high profile brand and I wanted to raise Kagua up a bit. We asked if we could go back and brew it in Vietnam as a Gose with a German yeast, not a Trappist yeast, so it's a cleaner yeast that will let the passion fruit shine through a bit more. So it's actually a two-part collab.

We sent some of our part of the collab back to Japan with our shipment for the tap takeovers. Then we did joint tap takeovers with Far Yeast. We had the two collabs set in the middle, so you could do a side-by-side tasting of the beers. It was just a really fun, geeky thing to do. I just love Shiro and I love his team. It was fun to work with them and it was fun to launch with them.

MM: Okay one last question. Outside of the beer you brew, what is your favorite beer?

JP: Oh, wow. Um..La Cumbre Elevated IPA, because that's about as big and as bold and as balanced as it gets in my opinion. But the one that is deeply ingrained in my soul and probably really changed beer for me is Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA. That's the beer that made me realize there's so much more to life.

It changed the way I drink beer and it changed the way I look at beer. Everyone's got one, right? Craft has such an emotive connection. I drink it, and it's no longer what it was to me then because Duane has completely destroyed my palate and I now have the ability to choose taste and develop it myself. But Dogfish Head, man, the memories that flood back, and the good times and all the connections to it. That brings me the greatest happiness.

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