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Thursday June 10, 2010

Pour me a home brew

Our columnist finally finds an answer to one of the toughest questions he has ever been asked – is there a truly Malaysian beer?

THE Japanese have their Asahi and Sapporo, the Thais have Singha, Americans have Budweiser, mainland Chinese have Tsingtao, and the Filipinos have their San Miguel. And let’s not forget the countless Belgian, English, Irish, German, Danish, Dutch and other European beers out there.

But is there a truly Malaysian beer – one that is made in Malaysia by Malaysians, and is brewed to suit Malaysian tastes?

The Malaysian beer market thus far has consisted of a duopoly between two major brewing companies, both of which deal mostly in major foreign brands. However, three years ago Napex Marketing Sdn Bhd secured what was only the third beer brewing licence issued in Malaysia.

Proudly Malaysian: Jaz Beer is arguably the first locally made beer in the market.

As a result, Jaz Beer – arguably the only “Malaysian” beer in the market right now – was born.

According to Napex CEO Bryan Lee Chee Kong, a truly Malaysian beer has been a long time coming.

“Jaz Beer is probably the first beer in Malaysia that is actually brewed specially to cater to Malaysians. Most foreign investors have their own brands, so producing a local brand is not a priority for them,” he explained, adding that most travellers like trying out beers that are local to that country.

“Jaz Beer has been popular in many tourist areas such as Jalan Alor (in Kuala Lumpur) and Batu Feringghi (in Penang), where foreigners tend to prefer a local beer over a foreign brand they can get in their own countries,” he said.

Besides Malaysia, Jaz Beer has also made inroads into our southern neighbour and it will be showcasing its beer at the upcoming Beerfest Asia 2010 in Singapore next week. Held at the Marina Promenade, Beerfest Asia (www.beerfestasia.com) is an international event that will feature some of the best and rarest beers from countries such as Poland, Armenia, the United States and Australia.

Lee sees the event as a great opportunity to prove that Malaysian beer is not inferior to others. “Beerfest Asia will give us very good exposure. There, we can eliminate the perception that locally brewed beers are not up to par (with the rest of the world),” said Lee.

Jaz right

Yes, Jaz Beer is made in Malaysia and, unfortunately, like other “Made in Malaysia” products, people tend to assume that it is inferior to foreign brands.

‘The average Malaysian beer drinker seems to prefer a lighter, less bitter-tast ing beer. So we gave Jaz Beer a lower bitterness level,’ says Bryan Lee Chee Kong, CEO of Napex Marketing Sdn Bhd.

Jaz is far from inferior, however. The first swig of the beer had a slightly hoppier taste to it but subsequently mouthfuls revealed it to be lighter, crisper and a lot less bitter than most beers.

Compared to some of the usual brands out there, Jaz does manage to hold its own in a taste test, and certainly does not taste like the other beers – something that Napex set out to do in the first place, according to Lee.

“We had to try hard to find our own taste as we didn’t want to taste too similar to our competitors. We did a survey and realised that the average Malaysian beer drinker, especially in the Klang Valley, seems to prefer a lighter, less bitter-tasting beer. So we gave Jaz Beer a lower bitterness level.”

Jaz Beer is actually a German-style lager – Napex employs a German brewmaster to oversee its production, and also to tailor the beer to suit local palettes.

“Malaysian cuisine also tends to be spicier and oilier, so a lighter beer that is easy on the tongue and crisp tends to taste better,” he said, stressing that despite this, the beer still contains 5% alcohol base volume (ABV), and is not really a “light beer”.

Kopitiam culture

While the image of a group of middle-aged to older men sitting around a kopitiam table sharing a few large bottles of beer might seem rather stereotypical, these drinkers make up a large part of Jaz Beer’s market (though it prefers to refer to them as “refreshment centres”).

“Most of our customers are not in clubs and pubs within the city, but in the local coffee shops located in less urban areas. We have a very hardcore following in these places, where there are also many drinkers for whom price is an important factor in deciding what to drink,” said Lee, adding that Malaysians in general have a very interesting way of consuming beer – we tend to share it amongst friends.

“Many drinkers, especially in the refreshment outlets, would just order a couple of big bottles, and share it amongst themselves. It’s very different from the European countries where drinkers just order their own drinks in pints,” said Lee.

Jaz Beer is currently available in cans as well as the usual 600ml and 300ml bottles. It also has a range of little 150ml “junior” bottles, which have proved to be a hit with the ladies.

“The junior bottle started out as a marketing tool – so it was easier for people to sample the beer. After all, if you haven’t tried something before, chances are you would not start out with a big bottle. This way, people could have a little taste of the beer and, if they liked it, they could move on to the bigger bottles,” he said.

There are also two different versions of the normal-sized bottles – the “classic” bottle and a “club” bottle sold in night entertainment outlets (which is essentially the same beer, but it is packaged differently to look snazzier and trendier).

Being the newcomers into the industry, it would have been futile for Jaz Beer to compete head-on with the other more established brands, Lee said. Instead, the brewer has been trying to carve out a niche of its own through a combination of focused marketing strategies as well as innovative packaging designs, a strategy that seems to be working thus far.

But regardless of what bottle it comes in or how it tastes, one thing’s for sure – we will no longer be tongue-tied when someone asks us for the name of a Malaysian beer.

Michael Cheang is looking forward to the day when he can order a bottle of Malaysian-made beer in European pubs.

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