Breaking down Malaysia’s Beer Barriers
Yesterday we had the honor of hanging out with Kennhyn Ang, who heads up the premier Malaysia beer blog BeerBeer. He also introduced us to Chong Wai Lun, owner of Bottles and Bottles (Web site under construction). Over a few choice bottles at Bottles and Bottles, we had a pithy conversation that never veered from beer. These guys know their stuff, and can be considered regional experts considering their familiarity with Malaysia’s laws, how to get around those laws, and how to work within those laws.
Just as BeerBeer is Malaysia’s top blog for all things beery, Bottles and Bottles is becoming Malaysia’s number one beer resource. The knowledge and the caring behind the store’s beer bottle inventory is what makes Bottles and Bottles special. The bulk of its shelves are stocked with wines from around the world but when we talked to Wai Lun, he blurted out, “If it were up to me, this would all be beer. I love beer more than I love wine.”
Proving his point, Wai Lun casually mentioned that he’d met the owner of the Heller-Trum (Schlenkerla) brewery when in Bamberg. “Mattias a very nice guy,” he said, making Josh and I very jealous.
Wai Lun showed us copies of his favorite beer books, ogling the pictures as we leafed through them and pointing out his favorites as well as the ones he wanted to get a hold of. “Have you had this?” he pointed to a bottle of Cantillon. I practically salivated all over his hardwood floors before he quickly admitted to not having a palate for lambic. “But I love Rodenbach Grand Cru,” he said. What beer does he and Kennyn want to try the most? Westvleteren. Both of them brought it up almost instantly when we met them. Both pronounced it perfectly, I might add. “Have you tried Westvleteren? Which ones? I want to so badly…”
Never mind what they have lacked in terms of access to beer; Kennyhn and Wai Lun know more than you can ever hope to about the beer market in Malaysia. We shut up as Kennhyn and Wai Lun conversed about how the Jaz beer brewery was streamlined for market entry (“The President gave it to his brother”); and how the “microbrew”
Stärker is brewed on the Jaz beer premises. Kennyhn even knew that the new brewer of
Stärker was “not attractive enough” to be placed on the brochures, which is why the brochure still features the old brewer.
Why, if these guys are so linked in, don’t they try and bring in more beer to Malaysia to stimulate market demand? The answer is as complex as Malaysia itself. Malaysian consumers need marketing gimmicks, claimed Kennhyn. (That’s fine, they need them everywhere). Malaysian consumers don’t like a lot of the beers that would be considered full-bodied or intense in flavors, especially those that are boldly hoppy, sweet, or sour. (I would argue this point, given that the Malaysian food palate is stretchier than any I can think of; this is the land of durian after all).
Ah–here’s a reason. Distributors aren’t getting on board. It’s only worth it to them to buy beer in large quantities, by the container. Wai Lun has been told that anything less than a container will not be financially feasible. And how much beer is in a container? About 200 cases. “There is no way we can turn over that much beer and have it stay fresh,” notes Wai Lun. Unwilling to compromise on quality, this is a guy who respects his beer. Cheers.
Price is also a major issue in Malaysia because the country has a 15% liquor tax. Beer in Malaysia ends up costing the consumer three times the price of what it would cost “anywhere but Norway,” notes Wai Lun.
As if he was expecting the question, Kennhyn said, “And it’s not because it’s a Muslim country. Most Malaysians love to drink. We drink like there’s no tomorrow.”
With a lot to ponder, we sip our brews, presented in branded goblets. We salute two guys who are propelling the beer scene against the current and who stand a strong chance of getting the hundredth Malaysian monkey to demand better beer, even if the Orangutans have to get on board with the beer program. We’re somewhat optimistic.