You might conjure up images of the owners growing up on generations of family cooking in the heart of Southeast Asia upon slurping down a bowl of beef Vietnamese noodle soup or licking clean a plate of massaman braised lamb shank at Malai Kitchen. However, Braden Wages will tell you he really didn’t even know what pho was until he traveled to Vietnam after college. Braden and wife Yasmin fell in love with the food, culture, and tradition of this country, which serves as the foundation for their Thai and Vietnamese style of cooking.
Just last March, the duo behind Malai Kitchen debuted their first Asian-style beer and have a running total of seven beers to date. North Texas Beer Week made for the perfect opportunity to christen their new brew-roo. The restaurant’s first beer dinner, “Thai Me Up,” featured guest Chef Paul Singhapong and gave guests a unique brew experience with curated dishes.
I had the chance to sit down with owners and chefs, Braden and Yasmin Wages, after the dinner to discuss their beer journey, future plans, and new additions to their menu.
Q: So, how did this whole beer endeavor begin?
Yasmin: We went to Hanoi, Vietnam where we had this beer called Bia Hoi. Drinking the beer is all about the experience. Everyone comes out on the streets early on and drinks through the night together. The beer is a really good rice-barley blend that’s easy to drink, but really it was all about the experience we had and camaraderie that came out of it. When we came back we really wanted to find that same beer to serve, but you can’t find it anywhere here. We tried to find someone to make it for us, but it was too small a production for anyone to give it a second thought.
Braden: So, then I said, “We’ll figure it out.” At the time one of our bartenders was a home brewer and he got me started with the basic steps. We did the first batch or two together. Once we were in the ballpark with the general idea down, we could modify and tweak the recipe to what we wanted. Going to Vietnam is as much about having that beer as it is about having a great bowl of soup. It’s one thing I remember so vividly about my first visit ten years ago. I just couldn’t wait to go back and have it again. That’s what our restaurant is all about, sharing our travel experiences with the people.
Q: Did you have any past experience brewing beer?
B: No, it was all about “We want to do this, so how do we make it happen?” It’s the same thing with our coconut program. We wanted to make our own coconut milk, so it was just a means of figuring out how to get it done and perfect it once we started. It’s the whole “where there’s a will, there’s a way” approach. When we started we really only wanted to make that beer because there’s already so many great breweries out there. We knew this beer wasn’t out there, so we wanted to share it with everyone else. If someone were already making it we probably would never have started this.
Y: Joel is one of our managers here and he is a huge beer fanatic. One day, he came in and said, “Guys! I came up with the best name ever! Thai-P-A! We gotta do it.” We asked him what exactly it was and he had no idea, but we all knew the name was too good to let it go to waste. It’s all because he came up with this name that we have our IPA now.
B: I love IPA’s. Originally it took us a couple tries because it came out tasting like Pinesol. We were trying to dry hop it with lime leaves and lemongrass. We did it a bunch of different ways, but finally came up with the recipe we have today and I love it.
Q: Did you consult with anyone initially when you started?
B: No, honestly it was all founded by our former employee Simon who was a home brewer and made our taps, Joel who is the visionary of sorts, and me who thinks anything can be done once we figure it out. The three of us were committed to it. It just started with the one, then we came up with the IPA, then we figured we only had one other beer on tap, we came up with more, and then we wanted to do something different. We love that we are a Thai-Vietnamese restaurant with a permanent Thai beer and a permanent Vietnamese beer on tap. It’s so rewarding the feedback you get on it and how much people love it. They are noticeably different. People are either really excited about our different beers or like, “Why don’t you guys just have normal beers?”
Y: For the most part people are really excited about it and fascinated about where we do it. They ask us all the time where we brew our beer. Here! They look at us like we are crazy because most places have those big tanks.
Q: What’s the biggest difference between restaurant and brewery
B: Mostly batch size. We are a small place and make small batches that we tend to sell through quickly. We don’t make months worth of beer in a day. It’s crazy labor intensive. Even with our new, advanced size we are only doing 25-gallon batches, which is five times the amount we were doing. It’s the very bare minimum to get by as a restaurant. Typically, restaurants will do 100-1,000 gallon batches. Whereas, breweries will do 100 times that.
Y: I think the biggest part is that we are still food focused. No matter how creative we are with everything else, it always comes back to the food. It comes back to how is this going to work with the food? If it doesn’t work then we are not going to do it. The beer program just naturally works with what we were already doing. We’ve had bad batches, but we didn’t serve them because it wouldn’t benefit anyone. I think we never let the food aspect of what we do slide.
Q: Did you mold the beers to the menu or make new items that went more with the beers?
B: We don’t change the menu to the beers necessarily. Both are seasonally inspired. Our menu is mostly fixed because we want items that people fall in love with to be here when they come back. 20% of the menu rotates as we get inspired with and there are about two to three daily specials. Right now, we are doing the Malai Bock that is somewhere between light and heavy. We have a stout brewing in the kitchen as we speak that will be great for the Thanksgiving to Christmas time. We have lamb and duck specials that naturally end up pairing well together with the beer. We are not just beer and food. We have wine and cocktails as well. You can get a little bit of everything
Y: We don’t like to be bored.
Q: What’s the biggest difference between Asian-style and your typical Texan beer?
B: Honestly, there are an infinite number of beer styles out there now. When I went to school I studied beers. There was a list of twenty basic styles. Now, there’s probably thirty basics plus another fifty hybrid styles. It just keeps getting more and more webbed out. You could say our Vietnamese beer is similar to the American style of a Pilsner-ish, but it’s so different because it’s brewed warmer, it has more of a rice component, and it’s very aromatic. So, it ends up being it’s own thing, but if you like Pilsner you’ll probably like this. It’s the same with the IPA. IPA’s are very hoppy, floral, and citrusy. Ours is in that category, but then it has other tones of ginger spice.
Q: So, does it differ on the level of spice you use in your beers?
B: It depends. Our Vietnamese beer doesn’t have any spices, Thai beer has spice, Malai Bock doesn’t, the Porter does, and the Stout won’t. We play around with spices more than most breweries typically do because we have them readily available in the kitchen. A lot of beer lovers don’t go for spiced beers, including myself. Joel wants to really spice it out.
Y: We usually give Joel a wide range of liberty, but we have the final say if it stays or not. He kind of heads up our beer program at this point. He has great ideas and good directions with recipes.
B: I think the one thing that is really relevant is that Asia mostly consumes beer. When you go to Vietnam, all everyone drinks is beer. You do shots of rice whiskey and a lot of beer. It’s a natural pairing for the spices, herbs, and style of cooking. It’s really important that we have good beers and relevant beers.
Q: How long did it take for you to come out with the number of beers you now have?
B: We only got our license to brew beer in March. We have a total of seven styles of beer with five rotators: Golden Triangle Fusion Saison, Malai Bock, Belgian Wheat, Porter, and our Stout. The beers for the party we started brewing about 3 weeks ago.
Q: Do you have a favorite beer you’ve made?
B: Thai-P-A. Well, that and the Saison. I love that beer. It’s such a good beer, especially with food. It depends what I eating. If I am having Vietnamese with a lot of herbs, then the IPA can be a little overwhelming with it. I like my beer strong, so the Saison is a little higher alcohol. I don’t like dark beers usually, but our porter is shockingly good to me. It doesn’t take dark. The chocolate, chili, and coconut in it balance well.
Q: What’s been the biggest struggle?
B: Definitely keeping up. It’s a lot of work. One batch of beer gives us about thirty glasses, but the labor that goes into it is over a full days work. We sell at least that much beer every day.
Y: Our new brewing room will help with consistency. The other thing about brewing beer is there is a lot of science to it. Everything has to be very specific for things to come out the same every time.
B: From temperature to a drop of water can give us a slightly different batch. That is why there is always someone following the process completely through. We usually have ten to twelve small batches going at a time. It’s a lot of babies to keep track of. It’s like making bread. You don’t understand how a collection of ingredients can make something so different. The dough never looks like the final product.
Y: You can go through a lot of effort to make bread and it can come out terrible. I’ve done that a lot. It’s rewarding to finish all that effort and finally get to taste it. If it’s good then it feels awesome, but then if it’s bad it can be a little defeating.
Q: Will you ever tap your beer anywhere else?
Y: We have thought about it. Our license right now doesn’t let us sell it anywhere else, so that’ll be another hurdle.
B: We would like to. Maybe that’ll be 2015’s project?
Q: Do you have a favorite beer outside your own program?
B: So many. Probably, Chimay White. I love Belgian triples. Nobody does it better than Chimay. I love the Sorachi Ace, which is like our saison. Ours has a different malt component to it. Locally, I am really into El Chingon IPA by Four Corners Brewery.
Y: Obviously, I can’t drink right now, but I typically opt for something else. I am not a huge beer drinker. However, I do like Community’s Witbier.
Q: Did you have a favorite dish or pairing from your first beer dinner last week?
Y: The Bia Hoi is something I really love. I think it’s a fun beer, super light, and really easy to drink. When I had it with that crepe it exploded with flavors. Favorite dish was the oxtail Soup. It was totally different than what I expected. That and the crispy rice with cured pork for the amuse bouche course.
B: I think the pairings came out really well. I like these dinners because it helps us force people out of their comfort zones. We try to give people a different, new perspective. I really wanted to recreate the crispy rice salad for people, which I love. The Shandy Shooter gave a perfect balance of sweetness to balance the spice of that dish. Our Thai iced tea is usually the fire extinguisher for people if they can’t handle the heat of the dishes.
Q: So, do you have plans to make these beer dinners a more regular thing?
Y: We usually do two or three “Thai-Me-Up dinners” a year, but those were typically paired with wine or cocktails. This was our first beer dinner, so if we do more in the future they will probably be a mix of things.
B: We don’t like to do the same thing twice. We are always mixing it up. Our beer dinner fell into plans perfectly with North Texas Beer Week and the finishing of our new room. We may have many children here: our wine program, beer program, cocktail program, and of course our food. I already have a couple dishes rolling that I want to do next time.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
B: We are always dreaming up the next thing. Now, that we have the room we are perfecting the larger batches. Our next battle is the baby. As you know, she is pregnant.
Y: For me, I really like work and being here at the restaurant, so it’ll be interesting to see how we will be able to balance everything. Two months left! We just have to land the plane now. You could say last Wednesday was our kick-off party for the new brewing room. That’s been the biggest change for us.
B: Also, we just rolled out a new wine list. Our wine list skews a little more European because the old world style typically goes better with our food and the complex flavors. One thing I am really excited about is we have the Bourgogne Aligote, which is my favorite thing ever. I finally found it locally and I gobbled it all up.
Y: Not literally.
B: Eh, maybe a little bit. We do enjoy wine. That’s how I knew a lot about beer is I worked in wineries for a bit. Some of the steps are similar with the way it is cooked. It gave me more confidence when diving into the beer stuff.
Q: Is wine making your next step?
Y: Maybe in retirement. Our retirement plan will be to move to Napa and start our own vineyard.