We may like to think that in Malaysia we have somewhat of a beer drinking culture, but Heineken Malaysia marketing director Jiri Rakosnik is not completely convinced. “Here is what beer drinking culture looks like,” the Czech native explains with a smile. “There is a photograph of [former US president] Bill Clinton, [former US secretary of state] Madeleine Albright and [former] Czech president Václav Havel sitting in a pub in Prague, and that was their meeting place. When you sign big deals and have major meetings over a beer, then you have a beer culture!”
The man has a point. Despite a population size of 10 million to our 30 million, the size of the beer drinking pie in Czech Republic is the same as ours, and is a far larger part of daily life than it is in Malaysia. We have some way to go, but Rakosnik is the first person to also say that Malaysia remains a cherished market for the company, which has enjoyed a presence here across several generations of drinkers. Incorporated in Malaysia as Guinness Anchor Bhd in 1964, it is now known as Heineken Malaysia Bhd after the Dutch brewer took over GAB’s holding company.
In its 54 years, the many brands under the beverage company’s stable have become constants in kitchen refrigerators across the nation — traditional favourites such as Tiger Beer, Guinness, Malta and Anglia Shandy are what our parents used to drink and that many of us would have stolen sips from, while newer drinkers often favour Kilkenny, Paulaner and Kirin. The growth of the cider category in the UK mirrors trends here, so Strongbow has also seen exponential growth in recent times. The brews have one thing in common despite their varied reach, type and country of origin — they represent an absolute dedication to craftsmanship.
That is the focus of The Great Brew Fest, Heineken Malaysia’s version of German beer celebration Oktoberfest. Held until Nov 10, the festival aims to raise the profile of its various brews and the levels of craftsmanship that is applied to each and every drink. Apart from the great value on your favourite brews at all participating outlets, you will also be able to own a first-of-its-kind set of the brew-inspired art limited-edition designer mugs, created in collaboration with local artists. Artwork from graffiti artists Cloakwork and Kenji Chai, Sling from custom motorcycle expert Beautiful Machines, digital artist Jarold Sng and tattooist Lynda Chean are laser etched on to metallic-coloured mugs, worthy of a collector’s item.
Interestingly, this year’s festival will also see the unveiling of a limited-edition beer, specially created for The Great Brew Fest. “For the festival, we want to build on what worked in previous years, which is to create a unique experience, but the focus for this year is the story behind every single brew. To really walk that talk, we needed to underscore the creativity and capability of our brew masters — and that led to the creation of this new, limited-edition brew. In Germany, Oktoberfest is always when new brews are introduced, so this is also about us adopting a bit of that tradition,” Rakosnik shares.
On cue, two frosted glasses appear before us. “Cheers,” he says, holding up his mug of the new Tiger Amber Lager to mine. It must be said that this beer goes down all too easily. Retaining Tiger’s signature crisp bitterness, the use of crystal hops — also called caramel hops — adds floral undertones to the beer that really raises its flavour profile. The pale light of the afternoon sun highlights the beer’s pale pink hue, also a result of the crystal hops.
“It’s a delicious beer, that’s for sure,” Rakosnik agrees, after a second drag from his frosted mug. “The brief given to the brew masters was to look at the heritage of Oktoberfest, and match it to Tiger’s signature taste, which is full-flavoured with a refreshing bite.”
At present, the plan is for Tiger Amber Lager to be a Malaysia exclusive just for the festival. Should consumer demand continue beyond that period, Rakosnik says the team will relook the strategy. “We will offer it to the global team to see if other markets want to pick it up, but our brew masters are learning from each other constantly, so conversations are happening all the time if this is something that other markets might want to adopt.”
The Great Brew Fest comes at the end of a relatively good year for Heineken Malaysia. An uptick in the consumer confidence index had a positive effect on beer sales — as resources and inclination to be merry were aplenty — while events like the 2018 Fifa World Cup did much to stimulate demand. What also helped was the company’s scope of products, which serves a wide range of tastes. “We are playing within a broad portfolio, and that’s good for us because any customer’s option when he wants to have a drink is driven by taste. If you want something light and sweet, we have Tiger Radler, for example, or the ciders. Then, you have lagers and stouts at two ends of the extreme, with plenty of options in between like Tiger White and Paulaner,” says Rakosnik.
Rakosnik was first in Malaysia 13 years ago as a backpacker and at the time, wondered what it would be like to live in KL one day. Several years later, his career in the beverage industry brought him back here to live and he has enjoyed his time thoroughly. Coming from functional, eat-to-live Netherlands to indulgent, live-to-eat Malaysia has been a quick adjustment, he says, and a favoured activity of his is to explore new restaurants and bars in the city.
“I have become so Malaysian to the point when a French girl I met recently looked at me oddly and said, ‘Wow, you always talk about food.’ So I guess I am very assimilated,” he quips.
He has also become familiar with why we drink what we drink — he has noticed, for example, a proclivity for isotonic beverages as a means to beat the heat and the non-alcoholic Malta, which provides a sustained vitamin B boost.
It is part of Rakosnik’s personal mandate to enhance the beer-drinking culture in Malaysia, ensuring its focus is on enjoyment, appreciation and understanding. This will not happen overnight, of course, but is part of a long-term plan that includes cultivating a sophisticated and responsible community of beer-drinkers that are well aware of the dedication and craftsmanship that go into brewing every mug. To that, we have just this to say — prost! Or perhaps, given Heineken’s international portfolio, “cheers!” may be a more neutral bet.
This article first appeared on Oct 1, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.