Rice wine. It sounds simple, but it’s more than just another alcoholic beverage. It’s a bridge to Hmong history.
“Drinking is very prevalent in Hmong culture when it comes to celebrations,” See Xiong, a Minneapolis-based Hmong journalist and marketing specialist, says. “It’s prominent in Hmong wedding traditions. It’s a way of welcoming guests and showing respect. Back in Laos, my ancestors lived in villages on mountaintops and lived and ate off their land. You’d have to trek for hours and take long bus rides just to get into town, so the most accessible way to have alcohol was to make it with the rice they grew. To this day my mom still makes rice wine in her kitchen.”
The Vietnam War would eventually find the people of Laos sacrificing themselves to help America fight a war it would eventually lose. During the war, the Hmong people helped the United States and were granted emigration to the U.S. to escape the devastation and begin new lives.
In America, many Hmong people settled in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California. And while it would take decades for the community to put down roots in the craft beer industry, St. Paul’s Vine Park Brewing became the first majority-Hmong owned brewery in the country. The new owners began brewing their own craft beer for their community.
“Traditional Hmong culture [during the times ancestors lived in their homeland] we celebrated only once a year during the New Year celebration, which is also known as harvesting celebration,” Vine Park co-owner Tou Thao says. “The celebration could last seven days and seven nights depending on the region.”
In those days, rice wine was consumed. According to Thao, that rice was harvested at a specific time and pan-roasted to get the best taste and aroma.
“The taste and aroma become a symbol of Hmong New Year.”
But Hmong drinking norms today are centered around beer instead of rice wine.
“I think because of the accessibility of consumerism, there’s been a transition from drinking rice wine to beer,” Xiong says. “Instead of growing the rice and waiting for the rice to ferment, you can now run to the store and pick up a couple cases of beer. If you’ve ever noticed a couple of Hmong gentlemen going into a liquor store and coming out with 10 cases of Bud Light, it’s very likely they’re heading to a Hmong wedding. Why the light lager beer? If you’ve ever been to a Hmong event, you’ll know that it’s a lot of drinking with a lot of rules and regulations. For example, at a Hmong wedding, the groom will have to drink for every single ancestor of the bride that can be named. Whenever a host hands you a drink, it’s a sign of respect to completely finish your drink. And if someone toasts to you and drinks, you have to follow suit, otherwise you come off as being disrespectful.”
Something like Vine Park’s 651 Tyga Bite, an American light lager brewed with rice, perfectly fits into the light beer category for the Hmong community.
For now, Thao says there are not any other beer styles Vine Park will make to attract Hmong beer drinkers, with Tyga Bite being so popular. However, there are plans to open a taproom at Vine Park, and after that, a kitchen.
“We want to be a brewery that accommodates with a full Asian food menu,” he says.
Xiong says what Vine Park is doing is only going to bolster the diversity in craft beer.
“Like food, I think that drink is one of the best ways to explore different backgrounds and cultures. It’s also one of the easiest ways to get to know someone. If diversity in the craft brew industry can emulate that of what food does, it can only make us all come closer together.”