KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 2 — I’m in a beer bottle shop watching the shop owner pour my Weihenstephaner Weissbier with bated breath. The reason for my trepidation is simple: there’s a trick to pouring a perfect glass of Weissbier (a Bavarian beer where most of the malted barley is replaced with malted wheat or Weizen in German).
Firstly, the vase-shaped glass is washed clean but not dried. Then he holds the glass at an angle – just so – and the beer is poured slowly along the inner side of the glass (otherwise we’d end up with nothing but foam).
Leaving a bit of the beer in the bottle, he swirls it smoothly to mix with the yeast at the bottom before pouring a perfectly flavourful and frothy head. My first gulp confirms it: Ales & Lagers is the place to go for folks who know their beer.
A thirst for more
The brains behind Ales & Lagers, purportedly the first Malaysian imported beer shop that focuses on educating customers on beer appreciation, is former advertising executive Kennhyn Ang.
As a beer enthusiast, he has been running a beer-centric blog Beerbeer.org since 2008 and started Ales & Lagers in October 2012 to target a niche market for craft beers.
“I just enjoyed drinking beer and I wanted to tell people that there is a wide selection of beers out there. The more I learned about beer, the more I understood that all along we have been drinking the same type of beer but simply sold under different brands,” says Ang.
From drinking plenty of craft beers to brewing his own, Ang’s interest in beer has become a full-blown passion but his family never expected him to open his own beer shop.
Ang laughs, “I’m still the only member of my family who drinks beer. Sometimes when I bring some beer back home, they will use it for cooking instead! My mom would ask me to bring back some Shandy instead as they are more likely to drink that.”
A place like “Cheers”
Make no mistake though – this isn’t a pub or bar. The place is small and whilst there are a few standing tables and high stools, most of the space is given over to the shelves and crates of beers.
Ales & Lagers carries different types of beers from around the world including boutique, craft, artisanal and microbrewery beers. Ang says, “Currently we import pilsners, IPAs (India Pale Ales), porters, stout and other beers from Europe, Australia, America and other countries.”
Originally intended to be run purely as a retail shop, Ales & Lagers has grown to become more of a “retail bar” with a small community of regulars, just like the bar in the TV show Cheers. Ang notes, “A lot of people who come here have their beers here in the shop itself.”
In fact, part of his job is to get customers to try beers they may like: “When asked what beers they like, most customers are unable to describe, perhaps because they are so used to the same type of commercial beer.”
Ang likens our current choices of beer to fast food: “As we have very little variance in terms of what beers we are exposed to, we usually don’t bother to learn more. Usually we are enticed by advertisements.
For example, I may not like a certain fast food chain but I will eat at their outlets every month without fail – at least twice or thrice!”
Grinning, he adds, “It’s all about marketing.”
Creating a (beer) buzz
It’s still an uphill battle though as most customers are used to commercial bottled beer. Craft and boutique beers, by comparison, tend to be expensive and a rarity.
Ang is all too familiar with this: “Pricing-wise, beer overseas is cheap, at about only 2-3 bucks (dollar for dollar) whereas beer in Malaysia is more expensive. A lot of tourists tell me this isn’t justified when food is so cheap here.
“There are four taxes just to import beer – an import duty (RM5 per litre), two excise duties, and lastly a 5 per cent government sales tax – which all adds up!”
Hence, while response from customers has been good, Ang does not expect most of them to come back and buy and drink beers every day.
“We are not here to fight the existing market. I rather see it as we are trying to create the market for craft beers, but it’s not easy either way. We want to tell people that there are other choices, but also to get existing beer drinkers to try craft beers.”
Plenty of non-beer drinkers are also converted through sheer curiosity. Ales & Lagers has a strong social media presence, especially on Instagram. Ang explains, “I follow influencers and also those who share a common love for food, for example. I believe beer and good food go hand-in-hand.”
Beer meets “wok hei”
Ang encourages his customers to bring their own food to Ales & Lagers to enjoy with their beers if they are drinking in-house. “I believe that learning how to appreciate food and beer go hand-in-hand. Local street food can go particularly well with craft beers.”
For example, Ang suggests pairing a plate of char kway teow, if it’s not too spicy, with a Steam Ale. If it’s spicy, one can mellow down the noodles down with a Juniper Pale Ale like Rogue or a dark beer such as Kooinda Milk Porter.
“We always ask our customers what they have been eating and what they’d recommend. The more we appreciate what we eat and drink, the more we appreciate everything we taste,” he says.
“People tend to tell me, ‘You are a beer drinker, you must hate wine.’ In fact, I love wine. I love whisky. I love taste. If it goes well, if it blends well, then it is awesome.”
However, Ang warns that the beer may lose its character as it enhances a particular dish, or vice versa. “Some foods like fish and chips are lacklustre when paired with a beer. On the other hand, a dish like bak kut teh is too strong and pungent, and the beer loses out.”
The challenge then is to select carefully so both the food and beer complements each other. Ang observes, “Sometimes I’ll call and ask if there are any regulars in the shop. If there are, I’ll buy some roast duck to share with them. Its rich flavour is strong enough to stand up to a good craft beer.”
His advice: “At the end of the day, I ask my customers if they enjoy their beer with a specific dish. If they do, then by all means, go ahead.”
Me, I think my Weissbier will splendidly with a nice, greasy roti bom…
Ales & Lagers
D1-G4-06, Solaris Dutamas, No. 1, Jalan Dutamas 1, 50480 Kuala Lumpur
Open daily 3pm–10pm
Tel: 012-262 8171
This story was first published in the print edition of The Malay Mail, August 1, 2013.