When wandering down a hot, dusty street in Penang, it's a fair assumption that the best beer to drink would be the one placed in your hand. But, as Kerry McBride found during her time in Malaysia, once you scratch the surface, there is plenty of treasure to be found beyond the realms of Heineken and Tiger.
It’s easy to get lost in Penang’s heritage area of Georgetown as you wander from one winding street to another, checking out the street art and attempting to sidestep into little spots of dappled shade as the sun beats down upon your back.
Yet, despite Malaysia’s heavily Muslim population, it’s pretty damn easy to find a drink too. The influence of tourism has played its part, with Penang hosting an ever increasing number of tourist focused bars and restaurants, all with their own rather odd approach to what they believe the traveller might want. An Irish reggae themed bar called O’Marley’s here, a WWII Japan themed bar called 1945 there, for example.
It was on one of these streets that my travel companions and I wandered into a place called Inch Food Bar, and discovered none other than Boatrocker’s Alpha Queen sitting proudly in the fridge – much to the surprise of not just me but one of said travelling companions who sells Boatrocker in Australia for a living. With no Guinness or Carlsberg in sight, this was the start of uncovering a different side of a country that was, admittedly, yet to win any awards for variety.
Sitting down to a light lunch, the aforementioned ale and a couple of Hitachino beers for good measure, the craftier side of Penang opened up before us. On learning that Inch was in fact the Penang branch of the much-touted Kuala Lumpur beer bar Taps, things started to slot into place.
Taps Beer Bar was started in late 2011 by a pair of Malaysian brothers living in Melbourne who had grown to love the variety of beer available in Australia’s craftiest city. Adrian Chong, now owner of Hopheads at Point Cook, and his brother wanted to bring quality beer back to their home city of Kuala Lumpur after exploring the breadth of flavour available to them during their time in Melbourne.
But, in explaining the idea to their cousin Alvin Lim, who now runs the bars day to day, it was not an immediate sell.
“Adrian said to me that he had an idea, and that we should sell craft beer,” Alvin says. “My first question was, ‘What is craft beer?’ It was five years ago; I’d never even heard of craft beer.
“He explained it to us, sent some bottles over for us to try, and we decided to give it a go.”
After a tasting session that featured the likes of Mornington Brown and Kooinda’s Full Nelson Black IPA, they worked for most of the next year setting up distribution channels from Melbourne and finding a suitable location.
While getting the new business off the ground took some hard work and years of graft to build a solid clientele, they now own two branches in Kuala Lumpur, Inch Food Bar in Penang, and distribute to venues in Johor, in the south of Malaysia. In many ways, Malaysia’s entire craft beer scene can be tracked back to the one family – a founding history few countries could claim. Beer venues had come before, but failed to survive the whims of the market.
Alvin and his sister Mili now hold the fort at Taps, and on the day we sat down for a chat, they were just days away from the program launch of their annual Better Beer Festival, which is held each October. Now in its fifth year, the two-day beer fest is a clear example of what the family has brought to Kuala Lumpur: an appreciation for the craft of craft beer.
Their two bars in Mont Kiara and in the heart of the bar scene in Changkat Bukit Bintang both stock formidable fridges of beer from Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, the USA and elsewhere, and the tap lists boast anything from Mikkeller to Sierra Nevada to Two Birds.
Five years on from that first conversation, Alvin and his team regularly welcome international brewers for tap takeovers, act as a key distribution point for other venues looking to stock international craft beer, and draw in locals and travellers alike who are keen to move beyond the Tiger, Heineken and Carlsberg that permeate taps across the rest of the country.
Other beer venues have given the craft beer thing a go too, but like a game of dominoes they each fell down, one after the other. Taps has remained steadfast. It took more than two years to build a crew of regulars – which now sits at a 50:50 ratio of expats to locals – but assisting people in their beer journeys became the core of the business.
“It’s great fun leading people, especially locals, through their beer discovery phase,” Alvin says. “We can see it happening across the bar – they try something like a pilsner on their first visit, then on the next they start saying they need something more. They need it hoppier, they need bigger flavours.
“It’s like eating chilli. At the start you can’t handle much spicy stuff, but if you keep going then before you know it you’ll be hunting down the hottest chicken wings in town.”
This process is exemplified by Kennhyn Ang, known as Kenny. He started off nicking beers out of the office fridge to take home on weekends, but got sick of drinking the same macro lagers again and again. Kenny began blogging his beer adventures as he went on a hunt for more flavoursome brews, including taking trips to Singapore to see what they could offer up.
He got hooked on IPAs at a beer festival on one of these trips, and set about finding as many as he could in Kuala Lumpur. It proved difficult, until one day Kenny was meant to be doing an interview he wasn’t too interested in, a mate called him and said he needed to get to Changkat to a new bar called Taps because they had IPA on tap.
“I was about 40 minutes away from there," he says. "I asked the PR person I was talking to if it could wait until another day, put down the phone, drove as fast as I could, and 40 minutes later I’m at Taps drinking a Kooinda Black IPA.
“From then on, I was there all the time. That’s where things really started to kick off.”
After it became clear beer was his real passion, he took the leap and opened his bottleshop Ales & Lagers in 2012; his venue The Great Beer Bar followed a couple of years later, enabling him to take his love of craft beer to its logical conclusion. Now, he is the one taking others through their first adventures into IPA.
Clearly, while the craft beer community in Kuala Lumpur remains small, headway is being made.
“We don’t consume as much as Australia or elsewhere, but here we like to drink in bars and restaurants, rather than at home,” Kenny says. “Malaysians prefer to eat first, drink later. You eat your food before you drink, then settle in to beers with your friends.”
Hot weather, religious restrictions, and the community nature of the cuisine where you are often eating in large food courts, means craft beer often sits separately from the food.
“If you’re eating out at the food stalls, that’s not the place to sit down and drink a craft beer. And if it’s hot and you’re grabbing some from the 7/11, then that’s not either. When you need a beer, you just need a beer,” says Kenny.
Convincing locals of the value of craft beer has proved difficult, as taxes, importation costs and the base prices of beers mean the difference compared to a standard lager is significant. But the payoff can be huge, Kenny says, as once they discover the variety to be found, there’s no going back.
“For a lot of people, beer will always just be beer. Why should they have to pay so much for it?
“We can explain about the better ingredients, bigger flavours, how much more effort is put in, but the consumer will always want to know how much they can get for their 20 ringgit.
“At the same time, the locals who are exploring it might share a bottle between two or three people, which is a nicer way to find their way in.”
Then, as is the way for devoted craft beer drinkers anywhere in the world, once Malaysians find their beer of choice, it’s hard to go back.
“There’s no way you could start drinking Heineken or Tiger again,” Kenny says. “Where’s the flavour?
"Beer is more fun this way, and so is KL.”
About the author: Kerry McBride is a reformed journalist who has taken the well-trodden path from Wellington to Melbourne. Her love for bad puns is matched only by her love of hoppy beers and Hallertau Funkonnay.