August 13, 2017 10:00 am JST

Craft beer serves heady brew to Myanmar

Government restrictions could limit market growth

OLIVER SLOW, Contributing writer

Burbrit logo aims at a young Myanmar clientele (photo Steve Tickner)

YANGON -- On a recent evening at Father's Office, a popular bar in downtown Yangon, the patrons who gathered there represented a microcosm of what could be called the "new Myanmar."

Some expatriates at the back were nursing pints of beer while watching a European football match on cable TV. Next to them, a group of Myanmar women sipped cocktails. At the front, a mixed group of men and women laughed as the wooden bricks from a life-sized version of the block-building game Jenga tumbled down around them.

Sitting behind the bar was Hnin Yee Htun Win, the co-founder. Born in Mawlamyine, a port city in southern Myanmar, she moved to Australia with her family while in her teens. She returned to her homeland in 2015 to open the bar with her aunt.

"I said to myself I'd give it two years to see if I could make it a success. If not, I'd move back to Australia," she said. Since the bar is growing in popularity, it seems likely that Hnin will be sticking around for a while longer.

"These have been a big help," Hnin noted, pointing to the three beer taps displaying the logo of Burbrit, Myanmar's first craft brewer, which launched operations in January.

Father's Office was the first bar in central Yangon to supply Burbrit's draft beer, which comes in four types - a pale ale, a blonde, an Irish red ale and an English bitter. "People seem to really like it. I guess for so long, people here didn't have choice, so now they're really embracing it," she said.

Indeed, it seems that curiosity and an appetite for novelty have boosted the craft beer brand in a market that, like much of the economy, has been dominated by companies linked to the former military junta.

Myanmar Brewery Ltd, a joint venture between military conglomerate Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and Japan's Kirin Holdings, is the commanding market leader. Its Myanmar Beer had a 64% market share in 2014, according to Euromonitor International, a market research consultancy. In 2015, Heineken and Carlsberg entered Myanmar, hoping to capitalize on a sector that Euromonitor predicts will almost double from $375 million in 2015 to $675 million in 2018.

But the entry of Burbrit is one small indication of significant changes ahead for the country's lucrative beer market. A handful of small craft brewers have operated unofficially in Myanmar in recent years, but Burbrit was the first to be granted a brewing license, known as a B-1, by the government in April 2016.

The move was seen as a triumph in a heavily controlled market. Nonetheless, many potential foreign investors are still playing a "wait-and-see game" in Myanmar. More than a year after Aung San Suu Kyi's democratically elected government came to power, domestic and international businesspeople have expressed frustration about the lack of clarity regarding the government's economic priorities and the slow progress in changing outdated policies. For example, one company interested in importing craft beer lost interest when it ran into a wall of government restrictions.

But the story of Burbrit's success in entering a sector long dominated by military-linked companies is a rare bright spot. The brewer started with an initial capacity of 3,000 liters per month and the amount has steadily increased. It is now producing about 9,000 liters per month, although the brewery has a capacity of about 15,000 liters.

Strong start

Burbrit's products are available in almost a dozen bars in central Yangon and is just beginning to appear in areas outside the former capital. It offers five types of beer and plans to add three more, including a cider, by the end of the year. In late July, it began an on-demand delivery service to Yangon residents, although it is too early to assess its success.

Burbrit's prices are slightly more expensive than its competitors. At Father's Office, for example, a 340-milliliter glass of Burbrit sells for 4,200 kyat ($3) while a 340ml Heineken fetches 3,000 kyat.

Burbrit was founded by Htin Lin and Maung Zaw, who grew up in Myanmar but moved in 1998 to Singapore, where they ended up working in the biotech and computer software fields, respectively. They discovered a mutual passion for craft beer, and joked about their dream to one day open their own craft brewery in Myanmar.

"To be honest, it seemed a little impossible at the time," said Htin Lin. Shortly after Heineken and Carlsberg were granted their licenses, then-president Thein Sein announced that no more licenses would be granted in the near future.

"It felt like such a shame to abandon all the hard work we had put in, so we decided to apply anyway," said Htin Lin.

Htin Lin said he wanted to prove to authorities that their project was in line with the government's economic policy. "It is a small and medium enterprise, it's going to provide jobs, it will support the tourism industry, and it's going to give Myanmar that modern image; that it is changing," he said.

After a process that took several years, including appealing an initial rejection, they were eventually granted the license. "We were completely shocked," said Htin Lin.

Htin Lin still does not know why the authorities accepted their proposal, but believes it was a combination of curiosity about the new product - "Even the authorities who summoned us were very curious about what craft beer is" - and the fact that officials recognized that the pair's diligent research showed genuine passion about the product.

Future plans

Burbrit plans to focus next year on ensuring it maintains high quality before eventually distributing the beer in other parts of the country, most likely starting in Mandalay, according to Htin Lin.

Luke Corbin, who is researching a PhD about beer culture in Myanmar, said he expects to see growth in Myanmar's craft beer market but that it will be limited as long as the government maintains heavy restrictions on issuing licenses. Competition however could heat up if some of the larger brewers in the country might enter the craft beer market, he noted.

"What we're seeing globally is that multinational brewing corporations are buying up craft breweries left, right and center, and this is feasible in Myanmar - though such offers are made very complex due to the extremely high dollar value of B1 licenses," he said. For now, though, the large brewers are more likely to focus on the commercial beer market rather than specialty craft beers, he added.

New competition in the craft beer market would be a welcome move for Htin Lin. "I think it would be a good thing, because more people would get to know about craft beer. If we want to introduce craft beer to people, there's no way we can do it alone. If we have more players in the market, it's going to be good for everyone."

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