Myanmar has opened its first craft beer brewery. Luke Corbin gives us a taste of what the future may hold for a growing industry.
A wave of craft beer has been steadily lapping at Southeast Asia for the last decade.
Starting with boutique imports in premium bars and spreading to local microbreweries and brewpubs, drinkers in most of the region’s cities can now choose to drink beer different to the homogenous lagers and stouts global and regional corporations thrust upon them by the gigalitre. But one country has so far lagged behind. Urban drinkers in Myanmar (also known as Burma) have been demanding better beer for years, to no avail – until today.
As of January 2017, the final frontier for craft beer in Southeast Asia has been crossed, and Myanmar has its very first microbrewery. The Burbrit brewery (named for Burma and Britain, in recognition of the British influence on the nation’s brewing history) is located in northeast Yangon, Myanmar’s economic capital and largest city. The brewery held its soft opening on 20 January, with some special events on the days following.
After the launch excitement fizzles out, I take my bicycle and ride up from downtown for a drink and a chat with the brewery’s founders.
The Burbrit brewery is located in the North Dagon industrial zone, a quaint and welcoming area. Before you start thinking the brewery’s neighbours are all steel plants belching smoke, think again – this is a different kind of industry; handmade chair factories, boat repair and other like businesses. Hidden past warehouses and groups of chinlone-players, sweating it out in a game of Myanmar’s traditional sport, is a large, spray-painted mural announcing you have arrived – and beyond it, a gleaming brewhouse, set alongside the slow-running Pazundaung creek.
I meet the two founders Htin and Zaw at an expansive riverfront drinking area attached to the brewery as the shining sun sets on the brown, silty water. The opposite bank is all tumbling green vegetation, with barely a building in sight.
“It’s a military zone,” explains Zaw, “no construction.” Because of this unique position, the Burbrit brewery feels like an oasis among the rapid skywards development now ubiquitous to suburban Yangon.
“This was not actually our first choice for location,” concedes Htin, surprising me. “We were knocked back initially. We had to do consultation with the local government and residents, and at the end of the day they decided they did not want a brewery in their neighbourhood. But we learned from our mistakes.
“For this next location we gave serious, in-depth presentations to everyone, we tried to educate them about just what a microbrewery is. There was a lot of misunderstanding at first, but once they got the picture they were happy to have us here.”
This is a common story for new microbreweries the world over, even in countries with long-established markets. The difficulties are only compounded when a microbrewery is the very first in its city — or country. As Htin and Zaw show me inside the brewhouse, past walls adorned in beer aphorisms, televisions displaying the Australian Open tennis tournament and drinkers pleasurably drinking and chatting away, Htin explains their shared vision. “Because we are the first, we need to foster the craft beer and brewing communities here in Myanmar,” he says. “We want to host brewing demonstrations and brew days and educate the market on premium beer. We already have many bars and pubs asking for our product.”
I ask how long it took for the business to be established.
“Four years,” replies Htin. “We had been drinking craft beer in Singapore and other places for many years before that, and I was beginning to give consideration to my retirement. I thought, what could be better than to go into brewing in my home country? But I did not expect it to take so long to accomplish. The location, the licenses, and the logistics of importing all our ingredients from Germany have been the main challenges.”
Myanmar has a long history of state involvement in the brewing industry. Currently, the industrial beer market is sewn up tight between foreign corporations, state and military-owned enterprises and a single wealthy family, known in the country as the “Grand Royal” family for their famous whisky brand. For this, and other reasons, brewing licenses are kept under strict control. When Htin and Zaw first applied for a license they were rejected, just as many other start-up breweries have been in the past.
However, their application received greater attention than normal, and a five-page letter from the Minister accompanied the rejection. This gave Htin and Zaw hope, and after considerable amendments and further research, they reapplied. This time, they were successful, receiving the first brewing license to go to a non-corporate, non-industrial brewery in Myanmar.
Whether this signals the beginning of a craft beer revolution in Myanmar remains to be seen. But in a nation undergoing political and economic flux, whose citizens are still struggling to understand what has now become possible, and what perhaps may never be possible, the granting by the state of this single, significant brewing license to a couple of genuine, passionate beer fans-turned-brewers is something worth drinking to.
Luke Corbin is a PhD candidate in the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.