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Sunday June 10, 2012

Ho, ho Hoegaarden!

The story of how a certain Belgian witbier and its flowerpot glass kick-started the foreign beer revolution in Malaysia.

THERE was a time when the number of beers readily available in Malaysia could be counted on two hands. Then a cloudy-looking, slightly sweet-tasting little Belgian beer (OK, not that little, actually) came along with its trademark solid, flowerpot glass, and changed the entire landscape of beer in Malaysia.

It can be argued that the current influx of foreign beers into the Malaysian market (or in the Klang Valley, at least) owes a great debt to Hoegaarden. Before the popularity of the Belgian beer really started to take off circa 2008, beer in Malaysia consisted mostly of commercial lagers and stouts, with nary a wheat beer or ale to be found. In a beer market that was crying out for something different and unique, Hoegaarden stepped in nicely to fill the gap.

Hoegaarden is a witbier (or “white beer”), a wheat beer that is spiced with coriander and orange peel. The reason for its signature light, cloudy appearance (as opposed to the crystal clear appearance of lagers) is – like most wheat beers – that it is unfiltered.

The beer is brewed in the Belgian village of Hoegaarden, which has been known for its witbier since the Middle Ages. It is estimated that during the 19th century, the village actually had about 13 breweries in operation. Unfortunately, the last of these local breweries closed down in 1955, and it wasn’t until a decade later that a milkman named Pierre Celis decided to revive the traditional witbier style that Hoegaarden was so famous for.

Have a pint: Kenneth Soh offers a glass of Hoegaarden, the beer that helped kickstart the imported beer craze. The beer is served in it ‘flowerpot’ glass.

Having grown Hoegaarden from a small local brew to a major Belgian beer brand, Celis eventually sold the brewery to a major brewing conglomerate called Interbrew (which is now called InBev, following a merger with another corporation called AmBev).

In Malaysia, the beer is imported by Luen Heng F&B Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of Carlsberg Malaysia. Though it is now one of the company’s biggest selling brands (they also import other major foreign beers such as Stella Artois, Leffe, Budweiser, Foster’s and Grimbergen), the beer hit the heights through a lot of struggle and perseverance.

According to Luen Heng’s current general manager Kenneth Soh, it all began in 1996 when he met a British pub owner in KL who recommended that he try to bring in Belgian lager Stella Artois. Soh then contacted the Singaporean Interbrew area office about bringing Stella Artois into Malaysia, and was told that it would be more feasible to take the company’s entire range of beers instead, which included a North American beer called Labatt, BelleVue, Leffe and of course, Hoegaarden.

“Hoegaarden was only a supporting brand at the time, because our focus was more on Stella and Labatt,” Soh recalled. “We were a bit over-ambitious at the time, and didn’t really know how to sell the beers. In the end, we decided to stop bringing in Bellevue and Labatt, and repositioned ourselves to focus on Hoegaarden.”

Soh thought Hoegaarden would do well at the time because it was a unique beer that was unlike any other in the Malaysian market.

“If Hoegaarden was a person, it would be a really friendly one! I thought the beer had a very friendly personality that would appeal to both male and female drinkers,” he said.

Unfortunately, when he started selling the beer, he encountered a great deal of scepticism and rejection.

“When I first let my friends try the beer, they were saying things like ‘Why is the beer so murky?’, ‘Why is it so expensive?’, ‘Why is the beer so sweet?’ and ‘The glass looks so awful, like a flowerpot!’ Most of them couldn’t even pronounce the name ... one of them actually called it ‘House Garden’!” Soh recalled with a laugh.

“Every single sale (of Hoegaarden) meant so much to us back then. Even after working hours, we were happy to go back to the office to get the stock and deliver it personally whenever we got an order!”

It seems almost unbelievable now, but back in 2003, there was only a single bar in the entire country selling Hoegaarden on tap – a now defunct bar called Carnegies on Jalan Sultan Ismail, KL.

“It was hard to get our taps into bars back then because most bars were either GAB or Carlsberg outlets (this was before Luen Heng became a subsidiary of Carlsberg Malaysia). Our only draught account was Carnegies, and we were very dependent on it to move our stocks,” said Soh.

Unfortunately, Carnegies eventually closed down in 2006. Faced with a storeroom full of Hoegaarden kegs, Soh was forced to think of other ways to sell his beer. They even resorted to a form of hit-and-run guerrilla marketing, buying a portable bar equipped with a full draught machine, and bringing it to random bars and pubs to try and sell the beers.

The turning point came in 2008 with the opening of Brussels Beer Café in Jaya One, Petaling Jaya.

The outlet was based on the concept of a Belgian beer bar, serving a good range of imported Belgian beers, and putting the emphasis on serving the beer properly, with the correct amount of head, and in the proper glassware. In short, instead of merely serving beer, Brussels Beer Café promoted the idea of drinking beer as an experience.

“Brussels Beer Café was the turning point. It was one of the only beer bars around with a good, long list of beers, and the most popular one was Hoegaarden. People wanted to come and drink the beer in the flowerpot glass. It was all part of the experience, and most other outlets at the time could not provide that,” said Soh.

Brussels Beer Café soon became the place to go for beer, and that cloudy little Belgian beer in a flowerpot was the beer one had to be seen drinking.

The popularity of Hoegaarden grew and grew, and today, you can find it in almost every other pub or bar. It also helped kick-start a revolution in beer drinking – no longer were Malaysian drinkers content with just commercial lagers, and the growing demand for more variety has resulted in an influx of imported lagers, ales and wheat beers

The popularity of Hoegaarden also helped convert many non-beer drinkers to beer, especially female drinkers and young working adults.

“Hoegaarden is a very easy beer to drink, and is also a great beer to start with, because of its unique flavour. If you started drinking beer with Hoegaarden, you might be able to accept a lot more different flavours in other beers, compared to the ones who have been drinking lager all this while.”

While Soh modestly claims that Hoegaarden was merely at the right place at the right time, it is safe to say that it played a vital role in changing the entire dynamics of the local beer market, with the role of branding becoming more and more vital today.

“In the past, whenever someone ordered beer in a club, they would never mention the beer by the brand name! They would just ask for ‘one jug of beer’, and it didn’t matter what beer it was. The awareness on beers was quite low, and most outlets didn’t bother with proper glassware,” said Soh, adding that beer drinkers are a lot more affluent these days.

“Today, consumers will ask for the beer by the name; and if we don’t serve them Hoegaarden in the proper glass, it would get rejected! They would also rather drink less and spend a little bit more to pay for their favourite beer.”

So, the next time you drink a glass of Hoegaarden, take a moment to salute this little witbier in a flowerpot for helping change the beer landscape in Malaysia.

Michael Cheang remembers a time when he had to drive 30 minutes to the middle of the city just for a pint of Hoegaarden, and loving every single drop of it.

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