A few years back, a Victorian beer lover we'd met at several beer events headed to Kuala Lumpur to join family members in building the country's first ever craft beer venue. The idea was to bring the delights of the beers that had got Adrian Chong into craft beer to a new audience, with a strong focus initially on supporting the Aussie breweries that had first hooked him.
After an initial struggle, Taps Beer Bar began to gain momentum, expanding its offer to become increasingly international and becoming a stopping point for globetrotting brewers – the likes of Nogne O's Kjetil Jikiun and Mikkel – as they made their way through Asia. Today, Adrian and his colleagues distribute a couple of Aussie brands within Malaysia and are looking to get beer into Thailand and Singapore as well.
What's more, late last year they opened a second Taps in the Mount Kiara area of KL, which we figured was as good a reason to catch up with Adrian to see how the craft beer scene is developing in Malaysia – and how the Aussies sending beer there are faring.
How are things going with Taps?
AC: It's going pretty well, especially considering the nightmare we had in the first year. It was one of those things where we were really new to the food industry and where none of us really had any idea what we were getting ourselves into. Then there were the people who were a bit reluctant to try something new especially one that comes at a price point significantly higher than say a Tiger or Carlsberg.
For a long time there was an attitude of "It's just beer, right. What's the difference?" that was hard to shake. And it got a quite scary when the bar was empty on both a Friday and a Saturday. That was some pretty edge of your seat stuff back then.
We had to make some tough decisions to make about the direction we wanted to head in when things weren't going so well but we're now (sort of) reaping the rewards for sticking to our guns and staying true to what we wanted to do.
Fast forward a couple of years and we've now got our second Taps Beer Bar which opened in September, which went much smoother. We are already on the lookout for a potential third location but that is optimistically a couple of years away yet.
Are you seeing a similar change in KL to what you experienced years ago in Oz?
AC: Yes and no. I see the trends that existed in Melbourne when the whole 'craft beer' thing was taking off here, like people who were chasing the big hoppy and high ABV type beers (of which I am only somewhat ashamed to admit I did as well). My guess is that people tend to swing to extremes, from tasteless watery piss to something that is overwhelmingly flavourful and alcoholic.
The 'no' bit is there hasn't been a sudden proliferation of bars doing what we are doing. We are still the only dedicated craft beer venue in Malaysia and, with Mikkeller in Bangkok, I think one of only two in the whole of South East Asia. I think in Singapore there are bars that sell craft beer but it's scattered among big brewery taps. In Malaysia we are trying to get other bars to take the risk and put some good beer on tap, but I think people here are reluctant to endanger the contracts they have the big breweries (from what I understand the 'kick backs' are pretty big).
We've got a mate that's got a little dedicated craft beer bottleshop and he's doing well too, but on a whole the scene isn't progressing at the rate that Australia (and I think Melbourne in particular) did.
How have you worked to get people into your beers?
AC: I think the turning point in our first year was our 'Better Beer Festival'. What we did was we decided to sell beers for RM 20 a glass (like $7-ish AUD) and that was for everything from a light-ish beer like Steam Ale to a Nogne-O Imperial Stout. I think that put us and craft beer in general in the consciousness of the public. So that was one way we managed to get people into the idea of paying money for great beer.
The other thing is that we focus hard on the educational aspect of beer as a whole and try to impart as much knowledge as we can about the various styles. I think engaging people made a lot of difference because some of these beers have great stories and great people behind them.
Like Australia, the craft beer scene is a pretty tight knit community so there is a nice social aspect to how things are developing in Malaysia. I never thought three years ago that I'd be able to spend a whole night with a bunch of Malaysians talking about just beer.
AC: The problems and challenges that exist for craft beer in Malaysia are not too different from what Australia used to face and is still facing. Selling a premium product is always difficult, but I think selling beer at a premium made that much harder and, given the weakness of the Malaysian Ringgit, beers can go for RM30 a glass which is a lot considering a Carlsberg or something similar would be priced at RM 8 or so. Like in Australia, there is/was that mindset that beer is just meant to be cheap. And then there is brand loyalty too. One thing that does help is that stuff like Hoegaarden is at a similar price point to our beers, so people who were drinking that stuff made the transition.
And then there are issues like getting people to ditch brands they've been loyal to for a big chunk of their lives. I've got a friend that I used to go high school with and he's like a dyed in the wool Carlsberg guy, hates coming to the bar because we don't sell that dross. When I was back in September he came and after some moaning we stuck him with some 2 Brothers Kung Fu Rice Lager and he had four bottles (more than he's ever consumed in the three years prior). He still reckons Carlsberg is better but I reckon it's a step in the right direction. I guess that is the benefit of the whole craft beer scene: that there is no doubt we will be able to find something for everyone.
Also, Malaysia doesn't have a grass-roots brewing scene that Australia has and there are no local craft breweries. There is an underground home-brewing scene but I don't think it's a huge community because home-brewing is illegal in Malaysia.
From a distribution perspective, I think it's tough trying to get people to install the right infrastructure to dispense craft beer. Many don't have cold rooms and their storage practices are pretty average. We put a lot of money into cold rooms and infrastructure when we first opened because, as corny as it sounds, we were all about the beer. It's turned out to be a big investment so far.
As I've previously mentioned, bars and stuff are really reluctant to put anything on their taps that is not from their contracted big brewery. The 'rewards' for them are so big that I reckon it's not even worth their while. That said, there are an increasing number of restaurants and bars who are taking a bunch of packaged product. We aren't doing Northdown type numbers yet but the potential is definitely there.
You've had a lot of other international beers too and visits from internationals - any standout highlights?
AC: We've had a few visits – Kjetil from Nogne O, Mikkel from Mikkeller and Kuichi-san from Kuichi Brewery (Hitachino Nest) – are the ones that have popped by. We are looking at getting the guys from Buxton in to do something in February next year. We'd like to get more guys in but we aren't exactly a beer destination yet!
Kjetil is married to a Malaysian so he's in East Malaysia fairly often and pops by when he can get himself to KL. He, like so many of the brewers in Australia, was a great source of information when we first started. We literally had no idea about cold rooms and glycol and dispense systems. All these guys made it that much easier to understand and then implement the right processes from the get go.
As for standouts I don't think there was one and I think each of them offered a unique experience for the people that were there.
Tell us about the expansion of the venues and distro side of things?
AC: The original Taps is located in the heart of KL, just down the road from one of the busiest nightlife streets in KL city. While we were getting a steady flow of clientele, what we were hearing a lot of from family and friends was that it was just a bit too too difficult get to. Traffic in the area on the weekends is also a nightmare so it began catering to a more city-centric, after-work crowd and tourists.
So, after a couple of years we decided that maybe, if there was an opportunity, we'd look at opening one closer to the suburbs. As it happened we were told that a new shopping mall in a well to do area called Mt Kiara was being redeveloped and they were looking for tenants. It just seemed like a good fit so we went for it. We opened in about September but it's not 100 percent done yet as there is a mezzanine and outdoor dining area that hasn't been created. Once everything is done we think it'll probably seat more than our first bar.
Distribution has been growing slowly but steadily. Our distribution arm – MyBeer (M) Sdn Bhd – was only formed in late 2012 and since then we've gotten into quite a few more restaurants and bars. In Malaysia, selling bottled beer doesn't require a liquor license which makes it easier for us to get into restaurants who don't want to go through the hassle of applying for one.
A lot of restaurants that we supply to are people from a younger generation who are more open to trying new things and new flavours which I think has been a big driver in takeup from these restaurants.
At present we distribute to approximately 20 outlets, which isn't a massive amount but the numbers are starting to pick up. Have any other venues opened in your wake?
Is there a craft brewing industry to speak of locally yet?
AC: Sadly, there haven't been a bunch of bars that have opened in our wake. A lot of people have made inquiries about how they could go about doing something similar but I think the cost of infrastructure puts them off. It's also not a high margin product so from a business perspective it's slightly less attractive than your every day bar. I personally think you've got to really love beer and be a bit crazy to want to do what we are doing.
There are a couple of bottle stores that have opened in our wake though and we try to support them in any way we can.
There also isn't a local craft brewing scene to speak of, simply because there is a freeze on all alcohol production licenses in Malaysia.
Thanks, Adrian. An inspiring tale of sticking to one's guns and believing that quality will win out in the end! We'll be hearing more from Adrian on a local, Aussie level soon too, but in the meantime if you're looking for Taps when in KL, you can find all you need to know via their Facebook page.