Change brewing as Malaysia hops onto craft beer bandwagon

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Regulars at Sid's Pub in KL warm up for a heavy afternoon's sampling
Regulars at Sid's Pub in KL warm up for a heavy afternoon's sampling

Related tags Craft beer

Faced with increasing gains across Asia-Pacific, not least in Australia where traditional brewers are fast losing market share, craft beer importers are now eyeing Southeast Asia as a new growth market.

We often hear how Asia’s developing economies are bringing Western tastes to areas where there was previously little appetite for products like breakfast cereals, dairy products and tinned soups. 

Beer, a category which is already well established with most countries having their own brewery majors, is of course not a new product but tastes are changing on a similar path to what we are seeing in developed markets, in that the mass-produced segment is making way for increasingly popular ciders and craft beers.

In Australia, this is happening to the point where consumption of mainstream beers is at its lowest level in over 70 years, whereas craft brewers are cashing in on the rise of the Aussie hipster. Ciders too are becoming a big hit with the young market.

But as a resident of Kuala Lumpur with a constant thirst for anything containing hops and alcohol, I feel like I’ve been left out of this charge.

It is rare to be surprised by a KL pub’s beer selection: more often than not, a punter is faced with a simple choice of taps, with Tiger, Carlsberg, Heineken, Guinness and Strongbow cider the staple options. Occasionally, you will find Kilkenny, Asahi and Hoegaarden, but that’s more down to luck than design.

Landlord Geoff Siddle gets pouring

Just down the road, in Singapore, the options are much wider, with cask conditioned ales like Old Speckled Hen making an appearance, but the paucity of KL’s offerings is down to a monopolistic system imposed by Malaysian brewers.

Companies like Guinness Anchor Berhad (GAB) keep a tight rein on its customers’ draft offerings and are very strict on what a pub can sell on tap. Because there aren’t many players in the market, with GAB by far and away the biggest, there is very little variety outside specialist haunts, like the Brussels Beer Cafe chain, which focuses on Belgian draft and bottled beers.

However, to my delight, and that of my fellow Englishmen, a relatively new company has come onto the scene with the aim of tapping into the craft beer market with British ales. And by selling the beers in bottles, it hopes not to threaten the licensing terms of pubs with their main supplier. 

According to Kenneth Ong of Applehops, Malaysia has the potential to become a lucrative craft beer market once consumers cotton on to the delights (my description) of British beer.

A young company, Applehops already has 12 British brands available, ranging from big names like Adnams, Buxton, Bristol’s and Wells & Young’s to boutique independents Summer Wine, Siren and Wild Beer. The company is already established in Singapore, where it promoted a beer festival earlier this year, though Ong says Malaysia is yet to take off.

We are promoting a British beer revolution,” he insisted. “Singapore is responding very well, though we expect that the Malaysian market will be slightly bigger than Singapore’s.  In terms of population, Malaysia is bigger and the number of craft beer lovers here is still growing​. 

I believe that in the next five years the percentage of craft beer lovers will exceed Singapore. This is a good start to our business​.”

Ong was speaking after conducting a tasting session at Sid’s Pub in Damansara Heights, Kuala Lumpur, part of a well-known community pub chain owned and run by British expat Geoff Siddle, and also my local watering hole. 

Through tastings like this, Applehops hopes to develop an awareness among drinkers for British beers. The 10 or so brews he brought to Sid’s ranged from the dark and rich Young’s Double Chocolate (an old favourite of mine) to Fuller’s Black Cab Stout. 

These ales were certainly well received by a largely international group of Brits, French, Malays, Chinese and even an Australian who was—and remains—petrified by anything that does not contain the initials V and B.

The general feeling among those assembled was that there is certainly a market for these beers, especially as a complement to what is already available. Some said they would buy one or more as a “special treat​”, given that a long-neck bottle might cost three times the price of a pint of local Tiger.

This sentiment was backed up by Ong, who said early indications from Malaysia suggested that craft beer drinkers opt for the occasional bottle in addition to their regular pint, with their choice depending largely on what time they are ordering.

The Malaysia market is still very new, so people are looking at different types of beer to reflect the time of day. For example, they will drink a lighter beer in the early evening before moving into an IPA at 8pm, then maybe opt for a stout later on. We are trying to develop a craft beer culture and hopefully it will grow to become something popular​,” he said, adding that Malaysia’s natural market would attract a young demographic of between 23 and 40 years old.

Meanwhile, there might be some good news for beer connoisseurs forced to travel south to Singapore for a weekend “on the ale​”. There have been rumblings that Malaysia’s traditional monopolistic system might be changing for the better, with companies like GAB becoming more open to landlords introducing new tap beer brands from outside their franchise.

While there has been no official confirmation of this, sources suggest the breweries are being “forced by the market to do this​”—a move, if it happens, that could transform KL’s drinking scene.

A night of Bishop's Finger on tap, followed by a rich Double Chocolate nightcap? I would certainly be in favour of such a development.

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