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Our columnist visits Malaysia’s first ever international beer festival, and comes away slightly disappointed, but hopeful for its future.

ARE Malaysians ready for a proper beer festival? Well, if last month’s BrewFest 2012 is any indication, the answer is yes, and no.

Held at Publika, Solaris Dutamas, Kuala Lumpur, from May 17 to 19, BrewFest was billed as Malaysia’s first-ever international beer festival, boasting a list of more than 50 beers from all over the world, including Germany, Belgium, England, China, Scotland, Australia, Japan and the United States, and mostly consisting of brands that most Malaysians would have never heard of. The event was organised by Loile BDMP, and sponsored by Warsteiner, Publika, Salty Customs and Envisage Events

First things first. Let’s not compare BrewFest to Singapore’s Beerfest Asia. That particular event’s seventh edition a couple of weeks ago attracted more than 30,000 beer lovers to its grounds to enjoy over 300 different types of beers, and the organisers are already looking for a larger venue for next year’s editio

Compared to its Singaporean counterpart, Malaysia’s BrewFest 2012 may seem a tad tame. However, considering the beer market and the relatively low awareness regarding beer here, organising a beer festival in Malaysia on that scale was an ambitious effort to say the least. While the event organisers managed to do a decent job setting it up in the first place, there was still a lot of room for improvement, unsurprisingly.

But let’s start with what they got right first, shall we? Nestled in the middle of Publika, the venue turned out to be nice and cozy, with plenty of shade – the perfect place to sit down for a mug of beer. You can’t fault the entertainment either, with performances by stand-up comedian Douglas Lim, local band The Union as well as lots of beer-related games and activities.

Most importantly, the range of beers was pretty good, even if the number of exhibitors seemed pretty sparse (the bulk of the variety came from just three of the eight exhibitors – Taps Beer Bar, Eastern Craft Trading, and Beer Importers & Distributors (BID) from Singapore).

Of all the exhibitors, the one by Taps Beer Bar (www.tapsbeerbar.my) was my personal favourite. Taps is a specialty beer bar located at One Residency, Jalan Nagasari (near Changkat Bukit Bintang) that currently boasts more than a hundred different types of beers on its menu.

If you were at BrewFest to learn about beers and try different sorts, Taps’ booth was the place to be. The outlet paraded an impressive range of more than 30 bottled beers, with styles ranging from pilsners, India Pale Ales (IPA) and amber ales, to porters and stouts.

The highlights at their booth included some excellent brews from Danish craft brewers Mickeller (The Dim Sum Beer and Beer Geek Breakfast were particularly interesting), Scottish craft brewers Brew Dog, Atlas, Harviestoun, Thornbridge, Orkney (which caught the eye with a beer called Skull Splitter), and Inveralmond, as well as Australian brewers 3 Ravens, Mornington, Bridge Road Brewers, Kooinda and Red Duck.

If you are a lover of the hoppier IPA beer style, you would have been spoilt for choice here. Starting with the more accessible Brew Dog Punk IPA and Hardcore IPA, you could then move on to hoppier and more hard-hitting IPAs like the Kooinda Black IPA or the Thornbridge Jaipur IPA.

Another highlight of the event was Singapore-based beer importers Eastern Craft Trading (www.easterncraft.com), which came armed with some excellent beers from Japanese craft brewers Hitachino Nest. These included the White Ale, Red Rice Ale, Pale Ale, Japanese Classic Ale, Ginger Ale, and my personal favourite, the Espresso Stout, which was a satisfyingly full-bodied stout with deep, rich chocolate, coffee notes.

They also had the excellent Yona Yona, a clean American-style Pale Ale by Yo-Ho Brewing. Yona Yona (which means “every night” in Japanese) was developed by master brewer Toshiyuki Ishii, who studied and worked at American craft brewers Stone Brewing. It is a wonderfully well-balanced pale ale that had just the right amount of hops and body with some hints of sweetness, and a refreshing crispness that will satisfy both casual beer drinkers and connoisseurs alike.

Unfortunately, these Japanese brews are still not available in Malaysia, though I hope that some enterprising distributor or outlet would at least try to bring them in.

99BB2200A2FA4B91A3F4A9F9870834D4Will crack jokes for beer :Brewfest also featured performances bystand-upcomedian Douglas Lim.

Also hailing from Singapore, BID brought along a mostly Belgian line-up that included beers such as Duvel, Maredsous, Chimay, Kwak and Tripel Karmeliet, as well as Timmerman’s, a range of Belgian lambic fruit beers.

Another pleasant surprise tucked away in one corner of the fest was little-known French beer Boris (Le Flacon D’Alsace). A pilsner-type beer, it had a nice breakfast oats aroma that led to a slightly richer, pleasantly homely flavour, which was surprising for a lager.

Those who prefer more commercial brands were not left out, thanks to the presence of Warsteiner, Konig Ludwig, Singha, Japanese lager Suntory Premium Malt and Tsingtao from China.

I was really rooting for this festival. I’ve been to Beerfest Asia in Singapore several times now, and each time I end up wishing that Malaysia had a similar event. So when BrewFest was announced, I hoped that it would be the start of something great.

Unfortunately, while the set-up and rundown of the event were decent enough, it just didn’t seem to generate as good a turnout as expected. Though they could have done a lot more in terms of marketing and promoting the event, this may not have been solely the organiser’s fault.

It pains me to say that Malaysian drinkers may not be ready for a beer festival that puts the emphasis on quality over quantity. Price has always been a huge factor for most Malaysian drinkers, and having to pay RM68 just to get into an event in which they still had to pay for beers would probably seem a little incomprehensible to most people.

One also wonders why there was no sign of the big breweries in the line-up. Sure, these companies may not need an event like this to sell their beers, and the lack of a big brand hogging the limelight meant that there was a lot more room for the rest of the smaller beers to shine. But I couldn’t help thinking that having an established beer brand would probably have helped the event immensely, and would have probably helped draw a bigger crowd.

Besides the entrance fee, a lot of the feedback I received about the event (from both exhibitors and punters) ranged from logistical complications to the lack of credit card facilities (how do you expect people to conveniently pay for beers that cost RM20 to RM50 each without a credit card?). Fortunately, many of these problems could be avoided in the future with just a little bit more planning and preparation.

Ultimately, BrewFest was a valiant effort to get something more meaningful going in Malaysia. It may not have been perfect and the crowd may not have been as great as anticipated, but it was heartening to see someone actually making an effort to start something like this, and that there were people out there who wanted to try new beers. Hopefully, the organisers will learn their lessons from this first attempt, and make the next one (if there is a next one) even better. Because if they do, I’ll be the first one in line to get in.

Michael Cheang really hopes that BrewFest will come back stronger, better (and cheaper) next year.

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