The rise of craft beer in Malaysia

Are you ready for the craft beer revolution?

Craft beer may not be making the sort of waves in Malaysia that it is in the United States, but there IS a growing market and demand for craft beers here. Where we used to only get beers from the two major breweries – Guinness Anchor Berhad and Carlsberg Malaysia, there is now a much bigger selection of beers from all over the world available in craft beer outlets such as Taps Beer Bar, The Great Beer Bar, Ales & Lagers, and Messrs Barley, Malt & Hops.

But what is craft beer anyway? The term used to mean beer made by microbreweries brewing, or rather, crafting, beer in small quantities.

The United States’ Brewers Association (BA), the trade association representing small and independent American craft brewers, defines craft beer as beer made by brewers that are small (with an annual production of six million barrels of beer or less), independent (less than 25% of the brewery is owned or controlled by an alcoholic beverage industry member that is not itself a craft brewer), and traditional.

However, the industry has grown by such leaps and bounds these days that this definition seems outdated now. In data released by the BA last year, craft beer reached double-digit volume share in the US for the first time ever, accounting for 11% of the overall US beer market.

The number of Malaysians drinking craft beer has increased, thanks in part to events like The Better Beer Festival 2015, held at Taps Beer Bar. Photo: The Star/Art Chen
The number of Malaysians drinking craft beer has increased, thanks in part to events like The Better Beer Festival 2015, held at Taps Beer Bar. Photo: The Star/Art Chen

Many of the so called “craft beers” these days are now mass produced as well. In fact, some of the more successful craft breweries have even been bought over by mega-conglomerates, for example, the recent US$1bil sale of US craft brewer Ballast Point to Constellation Brands (STZ), which makes Corona Extra.

“It’s hard to define what ‘craft beers’ are these days. It used to mean handmade and small batch, but these days it is not even that anymore,” says Kennhyn Ang, founder of two craft beer outlets in Kuala Lumpur – The Great Beer Bar in Damansara Utama, Petaling Jaya, and Ales & Lagers at Solaris Dutamas, Kuala Lumpur.

What is certain, however, is that craft beer tends to be beers brewed with traditional methods in smaller breweries (as opposed to the massive mechanised factories utilised by major commercial brewers), and are generally “crafted” to produce a high-quality beer with an emphasis on flavour.

Unlike commercial beers, which usually tend to be mostly lagers or pilsners, craft brewers don’t limit themselves to just one style, brewing everything from ales, pale ales and India Pale Ales (IPA), to stouts, porters and sours.

Craft brewers also tend to experiment a lot, from often using different brewing methods, different species of hops or yeast, or even unique ingredients such as pumpkin and tea in the brew. Hence, many craft beers don’t taste like commercial beers at all – instead, you’ll find some that taste like peanut butter, doughnuts, and even bacon, despite not having those ingredients in them... Some even have crazily high alcohol volumes – Scotland’s Brewdog famously made a beer called Sink The Bismarck which contained a whopping 41% alcohol by volume (ABV), which is the same as a whisky!

From fan to bar owner

As the founder of beer blog, Ang was one of the early supporters of craft beer in Malaysia, so it is perhaps fate that led him from being a mere beer enthusiast to opening his own craft beer outlets. In 2012, he opened bottle shop Ales And Lagers, which stocks bottled and canned beers from all over the world, including the US, Australia, Britain, Europe and Japan. The little bottle shop gained a respectable following amongst beer enthusiasts in Malaysia, and gave Ang the confidence to open The Great Beer Bar last year.

Ang says beer, whether craft or commercial, should be about fun. Photo: The Star/Chan Tak Kong
Ang says beer, whether craft or commercial, should be about fun. Photo: The Star/Chan Tak Kong

According to him, while the craft beer market has certainly grown in the past five years, it is still a challenge to educate and create awareness about craft beer in a country with drinkers that are more acquainted with the more traditional, commercial brands.

One of the biggest hurdles in capturing this new market, is the price.

A 350ml glass of craft beer at The Great Beer Bar sells for an average of RM30, so it’s hard to begrudge potential customers who leave immediately after viewing the menu, and head to a nearby bar for its RM50 for three pints promotion!”

“It’s fun if you are able to let someone try something new, but it’s still not easy because of the price point,” said Ang. “Also, we are selling brands that most people have not seen before, so it’s still a challenge to convince people to try the beers.”

Still, for that seemingly high price, you are getting a beer that is flavourful and high in quality, which you can slowly enjoy. Just like a wine, in fact.

“People don’t generally go to wine bars to get drunk – they go there to taste different wines,” says Mili Lim, co-founder of Taps Beer Bar. “It’s the same here – you come to Taps to try different beers. That’s what craft beer should be about.

“We can’t compete with the big brewers in terms of price, that’s for sure. And we are not trying to. For a RM100, you can get a large volume of commercial beer, but here, you get three or four quality beers,” added Alvin Lim, Mili’s brother and fellow co-founder (the bar is co-founded by them and three of their cousins, Aaron Lim, Adrian Chong, and Brian Chong).

Tapping a new market

The 2011 opening of Taps Beer Bar on Jalan Nagasari in the heart of KL city was a watershed moment in the Malaysian beer scene – for the first time ever, we had a bar that truly specialised in craft beer. Situated just a stone’s throw away from the party hub of Changkat Bukit Bintang, the bar boasts an impressive 14 taps, serving a myriad of different craft beers, as well as a bottle list with almost a hundred beers in all sorts of styles.

A second outlet opened in Mont Kiara about two years ago, and every year around September, Taps holds the hugely popular “Better Beer Festival” at its KL outlet.

Mili Lim and Alvin Lim of Taps Beer Bar. Check out the menu of beers on the blackboards. Photo: The Star/Glenn Guan
Mili Lim and Alvin Lim of Taps Beer Bar. Check out the menu of beers on the blackboards. Photo: The Star/Glenn Guan

According to Mili, since the bar opened, they have seen their clientele grow from being mostly frequented by foreigners, to more local beer lovers currently. “When we first opened, we had a mostly tourist and expatriate crowd. The locals who came were those who had travelled overseas and were exposed to craft beer before. But now there are more locals. And that’s a positive for us, because it shows more Malaysians are drinking craft beer.”

If you’ve walked into any of the craft beer outlets lately and been confused by the sheer number of different beers, brands, and beer styles, don’t fret – you are not alone. “Confusion is the norm here!” said Mili. “That’s why we have to train the staff to explain the menu and the beer.”

“People also get excited when they see the high alcohol percentage of our beers!” Alvin added. “Most beginners can’t even take the light hoppy bitterness of the lighter styles, let alone the heavier ones.”

ALSO READ: You might want to warm up your craft beer

For beginners, Lim advises starting off with a lighter beer style. “Beginners should start out with the pilsners, lagers, and pale ales – beers that a bit fruitier and more citrusy. We can’t move them straight to double IPAs or imperial stouts, as they might not like it, and end up not coming back,” he said.

“We also explain to new craft beer drinkers that these are very different beers from the ones they are used to, and that they should not be looking to get smashed or drunk. The most important thing is to have an open mind, and not be afraid to try the beers.”

Upward trend

The newest craft beer outlet on the block is Messrs Barley, Malt & Hops in Taman U Thant, KL. Its owner, Kenneth Dielenberg, has been working in the service industry in pubs, bars and hotels since 1995, and certainly has enough experience to be able to spot an upcoming trend in the drinking scene.

“I think the Malaysian market is now ready for craft beer. We do have a strong beer drinking culture, and there are more people travelling more and coming back having tried craft beers. But we still need to do a lot of education for the others,” he said. Messrs Barley, Malt & Hops is also a bottle shop like Ales & Lagers, and even provides a limited delivery service for customers around the Ampang area.

Messrs Barley, Malt & Hops is the latest craft beer shop in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: The Star/Chan Tak Kong
Messrs Barley, Malt & Hops is the latest craft beer shop in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: The Star/Chan Tak Kong

Although there are arguably only five specialty craft beer outlets in the country (all in the Klang Valley, including Taps’ two branches), the availability of these beers has certainly improved. Between the five outlets, there are easily more than 200 different types of craft beer available, along with some small distributors bringing in smaller quantities of craft beer, and some cafes and major supermakets such as Ben’s Independent Grocer which have also started carrying craft beers as well. Online wine and spirits store WineTalk also recently branched out into craft beers as well.

Having more places serving craft beer is key to helping the market in Malaysia grow.

“It’s all about awareness about craft beer at this stage. Having more outlets with craft beer definitely helps the whole market,” said Mili, adding that there has also been a shift amongst customers from being brand conscious to being more focused on variety and styles.

“We see people being more familiar with variety and styles these days, but it is still a constant process to teach the local community that craft beer doesn’t have to be about one or two brands.”

For Ang, the key to creating more awareness about craft beer is to promote the fun aspect. “In the end, beer, whether a craft or commercial, should be about fun. But in craft beer, there’s the added innovation the brewers put into their beers. There’s no denying how much fun it can be going to a place like Taps and seeing 14 different beers on tap, and deciding what to try first!”

NEXT PAGE: Know your beer styles

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