YANGON: Friday nights in the late 90s were a ritual for Htin Lin and his friends - finish work or study and then start drinking beer.
At Brewerkz, a well-known drinking institution, they had discovered something different: Craft beer with complexity and character, unlike the simple lagers they were used to.
“I was blown away,” Htin Lin said of that time some 20 years ago. “We were all single and we were on liquid diets on Fridays. Brewerkz was the place. You’d order a beer, you’d talk about work, the industry, sports and then politics and then girls and then retirement.”
The group of young people from Myanmar spent years in Singapore doing this. They started to joke and dream about having their own microbrewery “somewhere exotic”, like Bali or Phuket.
“No one was really serious about it,” Htin said. But the idea somehow never escaped them.
The friends moved on from their life in Singapore, returned to Myanmar and started families. As the country started to emerge from the relative darkness of longtime military rule, opportunity knocked.
“Myanmar was exotic, as a country opening up and people were saying it’s the last frontier in terms of economic development in Southeast Asia. There was a lot of hype at that time,” Htin said.
His friends started to lobby him, pressure him to take a punt on a microbrewery in Myanmar, something that had never existed before. Still, Htin Lin was reluctant to take steps to turn a lighthearted idea into a real business.
Eventually though, he became hooked on the idea. Years of “research” into craft beer as a consumer fuelled his passion. In 2014, he decided to apply for an official brewing licence with the Myanmar government.
“Instead of a formal application I included a lot of supporting documents with all the photos of breweries I’d visited in the world and all the craft beer I drank and how craft beer was different to industrial beer,” he said.
One and a half years later he finally heard back. The application was denied and the dream seemed doomed.
THE POINT OF NO RETURN
In early 2016 with a new democratic government sweeping to power, Htin Lin filed his appeal. Within weeks, he had a green light to start brewing.
“It was like 'wow', it’s great. And then my next feeling was, shit,” he said. “Now I had the licence, I no longer had the excuse not to do it. Then it hit me, this is the point of no return. I have to continue. I was happy.”
Starting a brewing operation was one thing, but convincing Myanmar customers to start buying and drinking their unusual, foreign concept beers was entirely another. It did not start well.
“It was my biggest nightmare at the time. Now we have the license but what if nobody drinks our beer? The first few weeks we didn’t have anyone.”
Beer drinking in Myanmar remains a relatively recent phenomenon. Mandalay Beer, a fraught business operation, was the only option for drinkers until 1995 when Asia Pacific Breweries entered the market and started producing Myanmar Beer and Tiger Beer in a joint venture with the military government.
Even today, beer consumption compared to other Southeast Asian countries is low. Data from 2015 shows per capita beer consumption at only 11.3 litres, compared to 27 in Thailand and 40 litres in Cambodia.
But with founding partner Maung Zaw as the operation’s chief brewer, slowly Burbrit Brewery started to take shape and win over a brand new market. After opening the brewery in January, 2017, now their operation and its associated Taproom in downtown Yangon - which started a year later - is a successful and growing business.
The Taproom has a familiar vibe to the Singaporean establishment that inspired it, with open spaces, wooden furniture and a relaxed drinking hall atmosphere.
Burbrit currently has more than a dozen beer varieties available, including four packaged in cans for retail sale in local supermarkets and hotels. The labels include locally-themed names like ‘Rangoon Blonde’, a German-style lager, Burma Pale Ale, a fuller-bodied IPA and Nagani, a now award winning bright red beer brewed with dragon fruit and mint.
Like their craft beer counterparts in Thailand, the company is increasing its focus on unique, local ingredients. Maung Zaw says the brewing process has become more consistent and drinkers - mostly affluent and urban - are starting to appreciate the flavours.
Price has been an issue for locals, he says, but Burbrit’s prices - one pint, for example costs about US$4 - are inexpensive compared to other craft beer offerings around the region.
The founders want to scale up their business and eventually be exported to other countries like Thailand and Singapore, where their story began. For now, they are intent on cracking more of the Myanmar market, which is still immature and developing.
“We are still more than a few years ahead of our time in terms of craft beer interest,” Htin Lin said. But they are optimistic that craft beer in Myanmar is here to stay.
“When I was 20 or 21, there was no beer culture, or beer stations. I didn’t even dream about doing this,” Maung Zaw said. “Things are changing.”