Typically, drinking alcohol in Thailand is a light-hearted occasion filled with laughter, food, and friendly gestures. More recently, this pattern has shifted and growth has stalled due to national mourning for Thai monarch King Rama IX. However, value growth is expected to once again due to rising inbound tourism flows, increasing affluence among the local middle class and the recovery of demand.
Unsurprisingly, Thai beer pairs very well with spicy dishes and tropical humidity. Yet, with the local beer brands dominating the market, Thailand seems to be a challenging market for international newcomer brands to tap into.
As part of our ongoing Illume Guide featured blog posts, we interviewed our Thai Guide – Krittin, to help us understand more about drinking culture in Thailand and what international brands can learn from this special market.
Hi Krittin! Tell us a bit about yourself – where are you from, what do you do and what are you passionate about?
Hi Cherry! I’m from Bangkok, with a background in Political Science. Currently, I work as an Assistant Researcher for a Southeast Asia correspondent of a Swiss news agency. I also own a small clothing business. Aside from that, I am a singer-songwriter. I have released a few songs with a Japanese band called “Raft”. I love cats, cigarettes and drinking alcohol. So I would love to discuss the way we drink in Thailand with you.
Tell me about what you like to drink.
I enjoy different drinks, but I mostly drink beer. I used to work in a bar where I played music, so here I got to enjoy lots of beers with my friends. As I’m getting older, I’m starting to explore wine and whisky.
I don’t really have a favourite drink; what I choose to drink usually depends on my mood and I love exploring new things. I’m really enjoying Guinness Draught at the moment. It has a smooth taste and aroma, with a hint of bitterness, which is perfect for me. However, it’s not popular for normal Thai people at all. It’s also hard to find. I usually go to a bar near Khaosan Road to buy it.
How would you describe the culture around drinking in Thailand?
I don’t think there’s much difference between men and women, however, women face more social stigma for drinking. People can only buy or be served alcohol between the hours of 11 am– 2 pm and 5 pm – midnight. During special periods like Buddhist holidays (e.g. Makha Bucha Day and Visakha Bucha Day), local people and tourists cannot buy any alcohol at all. Thailand is quite a religious country and Buddhism is the biggest religion. According to Buddhist values, drinking alcohol is wrong but in reality, many people don’t care about it too much.
Alcohol brings people together and those who are not as into the drinking scene will still drink with friends when socialising. People usually drink after work when they go to bars or have meals.
How does local culture impact the way people relate to drinking?
People of all ages care about their outward image – how others see them. When people get older and become more financially secure, they prefer to buy expensive drinks to show off their social status. For example, at a networking event, someone might buy a bottle of very expensive whisky to share with others.
What and how people drink varies in different regions. In big cities like Bangkok, beer, whisky and vodka are people’s go-to drinks. Drinking beer with ice is a normal thing to do. Normally, whisky and vodka are mixed with soda. People usually drink in bars, restaurants and night clubs. Rice whisky is very popular all over Thailand and some people make their own whisky with rice illegally. Wine usually goes with food, but it’s not as popular here compared to Western countries. In rural areas, people go out less and usually drink at home with friends. White spirits and Thai rum are very common.
During international New Year and Thai New Year, people like to party and drink a lot of beer. Whereas at formal weddings, hosts usually provide wine and whisky for their guests.
Tell us about alcohol advertising laws in your country.
Alcohol advertising in Thailand is a complicated matter. According to the law, alcoholic beverages may not be advertised in a manner, which directly or indirectly claims benefits or promotes its consumption, and may not show the product or its packaging. The government has also been running campaigns telling people about the harm of alcohol. However, many Thai alcohol brands make non-alcohol adverts to make their presence known. For example, Chang makes huge billboards on highways showing nothing but its logo, Singha advertises on its soda and water products. These advertisements increase their brand awareness when it comes to alcohol without breaking any laws.
Have you noticed any new trends around drinking alcohol in Thailand?
Craft beer has become more popular for the past five years. There are more craft beers selling in big cities, which has also started to change drinking habits – from drinking loads of cheap beer at once to drinking fewer bottles of craft beer per night. However, according to Thai law, only two types of beer brewery are allowed; brewpubs must produce at least 100,000 litres per year to be sold only within their establishment, and major breweries must produce at least 10 million litres per year to be able to sell their products across the country.
This means small Thai brewers cannot meet the regulations to produce and sell their products locally. Some breweries moved their production abroad and sent their products back home to sell as imported craft beer. Major companies also make their own versions of craft beer as well and these are dominating the market right now because their production costs are lower and they don’t pay import tax.
What are your thoughts about local and international alcohol brands in Thailand?
For Thai people, the most important thing for alcohol is price; flavour comes second. Local brands dominate the market as their price is half of those international brands. Most popular Thai brands are Singha, Chang and Leo, you can find them everywhere – street stalls, super market, alcohol shop, bars and nightclubs. They mainly do Lager beer, which is the cheapest kind. Seeing as Thailand’s climate is hot, Thai people like to drink alcohol with ice, and local beer is usually heavier than international ones. It’s also common for people to buy a big bottle of beer (1L) to share with friends. As for international brands, Johnnie Walker has been here for a long time and is a popular drink. Asahi beer is also famous; people see it as a more premium lager.
In Thailand, the majority of people only drink local beers. They might not even know the existence of some of the international brands. International brands are popular among foreign tourists, expats and Thai people who can afford more and/or want to be seen as higher class. Bars are divided into Thai style ‘Bar & Restaurant’ and foreign style bars like Irish pub or Japanese izakaya (for example Beer and Cider House). The Thai style ones mainly sell local Thai brands and the foreign style bars sell both local and imported brands like Guinness, Bavaria, Kirin etc. Not many Thai people would go to foreign bars but everyone goes to Thai style bars.
Finally, can you give some advice to international alcohol brands who want to market to Thailand?
Thailand can be a challenging market for international brands. Because not only do Thai people prefer cheaper local brands, but local brands are also related to authorities who protect their business.
Instead of marketing to the mass public, I would suggest they focus on the niche markets – expats, foreigners, and cooperates with foreign style bars. If they really want to sell their products to Thai people, make sure its drinkable with ice is a must!