Alvin Lim – along with a cohort of assorted family members – has been running Taps Beer Bar since 2011, and almost immediately a year after, his love for “better beers” (as he would put it) translated into organising a festival dedicated to exactly just that; The Better Beer Festival. But the man isn’t content with just educating the general public about craft brews, the business has also expanded into beer distribution with MyBeer, wherein the family-run company has slowly indoctrinated other businesses with their conviction for better beers. While Alvin himself would be the first to admit that craft beers haven’t exactly grew out of its niche market, Better Beer and the increase number of craft brew bars are surely positive signs. Ahead of the fifth Better Beer, JUICE speaks with the man on the possibility of a local micro-brewery, the added ‘sophistication’ to beer-drinking with craft brews, and more.
Images courtesy of Commas Industry
There’s a larger interest in craft beer since Taps first opened in late 2011 – and Better Beer’s first year in 2012 – would you say it’s grown out of its niche market into something more viable now?
I wouldn’t say that it has grown out of its niche market yet. The craft beer market is still very, very small as compared to the macro-breweries in Malaysia. This is one of the initiatives that we do to hopefully help the growth of the market. That is why we’ve invited some of the local craft beer outlets (Paus and MyGoldBar) and suppliers to take part in The Better Beer Festival ‘16.
While craft beers could still be found prior to Taps, there wasn’t a dedicated craft brew bar back then – or was there? Correct us if we’re wrong. In your opinion, why was it an untried market before, and what spurred you guys to take a stab at it?
There were a couple of bars – [namely] Craft Brew and Bruxale. [So,] it was tried, but they were ahead of their time. Even when we started, we were struggling (we still are a little nowadays) – but we believe that this isn’t a trend. We decided to give it a go just because we wanted to have a bar as a family business and better beers! But look what we’ve gotten ourselves into… (laughs)
“We try to spread the craft beer love as much as we can, but you know how humans are set in their own ways and aren’t ready for change.”
A year into the first Taps, you guys expanded the business into beer distribution with MyBeer – going beyond educating the public about craft beer and well into ensuring craft beers are more prominent beyond just Taps. How do you approach your clientele? Would these restaurants, bars, bottle stores know about craft beer beforehand?
I remembered at the beginning when I approached about 75 outlets in the Klang Valley in a single month just to try and sell them beers, only four restaurants picked it up! The rest enjoyed the free samples, of course! (Laughs) But with people travelling so much more these days, everyone is starting to experience craft beers all over the world and with that, those who own their own F&B outlets will approach us. Mostly cafés and restaurants just because most bars are under contract with the big boys and aren’t able to sell other brands. We try to spread the craft beer love as much as we can, but you know how humans are set in their own ways and aren’t ready for change.
How do you go about curating the selection of brewers for Better Beer?
Our portfolio is quite big and we have a wide selection of breweries to feature. We would also invite the brewers or their brand ambassadors to come and take part and add value to their own brands and to The Better Beer Festival.
Tiffin is part of this year’s festival. There aren’t a lot of beer food-pairings here in KL, how do you guys go about doing it?
Lucky thing these are better beers! Beers are a lot more robust and easier to go with food! So it’s quite easy for us to pair the food with our wide variety of beers!
Since Taps, there’s been other bars specialising in craft beer opening up, but we’ve yet to see any micro-breweries here (legal ones, at least). Is a Malaysian craft beer something achievable?
All the bars that are opening is a very positive thing! We need more daring people to open up craft beer bars! We are so far behind all our Southeast Asian neighbours. [But] as far as we know, it’s nearly impossible to open up a micro-brewery.
Do you see you guys eventually attempting to be brewers as well in the offing though?
No plans of that because brewing is an entirely different ball game. Nothing close to what we are doing at the moment.
“Hazelnut Brown Ales, stouts aged in whiskey barrels, beers brewed by Trappist monks, Chilli Porters brewed with Sriracha – doesn’t that sound exciting?!”
Beer is probably the most accessible alcoholic beverage – you can just have a drink without having to be knowledgeable about its ins and outs or having a refined palate (i.e. wine, whiskey). Craft beer can seem a bit sophisticated – the whole artisanal aspect of it – do you think that makes it less approachable or is that part of its appeal?
Yes, I do get customers saying why does it have to be so complicated, but it’s always nice to see them returning and asking for more. Look at it this way; you could have a glass of blended whiskey, but why the sudden change to single malts? Or you could have a plain packet of Nasi Lemak, why add the Sambal Sotong? Yeah, adding the sotong is simple, that’s because you know what it is. So, if you know your beers, then when you walk into a craft beer bar, it would be a very easy choice to make. Does that make sense? It’s a very exciting journey. Coconut Porters, Lemongrass Ales, Coffee Stouts, Sour Beers, Yuzu Ales, Hazelnut Brown Ales, stouts aged in whiskey barrels, beers brewed by Trappist monks, Chilli Porters brewed with Sriracha – doesn’t that sound exciting?!
Speaking of which, how has the audience for Better Beer been like? Do you have more beer geeks than casual drinkers?
We do get beer geeks who want to try every single beer that they’ve not tried before, but we also get a lot of casual drinkers who come and have no clue what’s going. And this is the best time to try as many styles as you can because it’s all at better prices for better beers! From these festivals, we do get new and returning customers who want to try so much more that they keep coming back to our bar, which is always nice to see!
During the media preview, one of the featured breweries who shan’t be named shared with us an anecdote about how back in their home country, they helped smash a neon sign of a very mainstream beer brand at a friend’s bar. There seems to be some kind of animosity between craft brewers and the big boys – is this the right assumption to make?
Oh, he did? There are these ‘big’ rivalries overseas – the American micro-breweries versus the macro-breweries as seen during their Super Bowl ads. Also, Brewdog from Scotland can be seen doing posters and also videos poking fun at the big boys. But not here in Malaysia, we haven’t seen anything like that yet.
Lastly, for casual drinkers such as ourselves, tell us what makes for a good beer and what makes for an awful beer.
Taste as with everything is a very individual and subjective thing. So, knowing your favourite style would help in getting a good beer. For instance, you like pale ales but when you are at the bar and you order a wheat beer… that beer isn’t going to be good for you. But drinking beers that are infected or have not been cared for properly will make it awful.
Happening at White Box and the Square, Publika, The Better Beer Festival ’16 will go down tomorrow (Friday 7 October ’16) at 4pm, and Saturday (8 October ’16) at 12pm. More info here.