As it was more than five years ago, the enduring challenge for Alvin Lim is convincing more Malaysians to hit the booze like his 72-year-old mother.
“My mom loves to drink, but she was always drinking Royal Stout or Tiger beer,” says Lim, who with four family members owns and operates Kuala Lumpur’s pioneering TAPS Beer Bar. “Then we started bringing in these craft beers, and now she’s drinking Kooinda Black IPA every time she comes in, so I think we’re doing our job. We’re just a bit ahead of our time.”
TAPS celebrated its five-year anniversary in January. Located in the clubby, central nightlife area of Changkat Bukit Bintang, the place offers 14 draft beers poured from a custom-made tap system designed by Lim’s uncle, a Shell engineer. It’s a fancy contraption befitting a beer list particularly fancy for Malaysia. On our most recent visit, for instance, TAPS featured a UK-heavy lineup highlighted by brews from Thornbridge Brewing, Buxton Brewery, BrewDog, and Siren Craft Brew. TAPS carries around 150 bottles, as well, both at Changkat and at its second outlet in the expat-favored neighborhood Mont Kiara. A third TAPS location—this one in Penang—is in the works, too.
Outside of TAPS’ brick-and-mortar business, last October Lim expanded his annual Better Beer Festival, held previously at the Changkat bar, to a splashier two-day affair at trendy Publika mall in the KL suburbs. For that fifth edition, the BBF enticed at least 1,000 attendees each day with lures that included around 10 food vendors, “Meet the Brewer” events with six breweries, a beer appreciation class, and beers from more than 30 breweries from 10 countries.
A few weeks later Lim teamed up with the Singapore-based craft distributor Eastern Craft Trading to launch Takumi Craft Bar, a small bar specializing in Japanese craft beers, whiskies, and wines located at Isetan The Japan Store. Beers from Kiuchi Brewery—perhaps most known for its line of Hitachino Nest Beer—flow from the bar’s four taps, while Hitachino, Kinshachi Brewery, Yo-Ho Brewing Co, and Far Yeast Brewing bottles stock the fridge.
Lim had some difficulty at first convincing breweries with high global demand like Mikkeller and To Øl to ship their brews to Malaysia. “Sometimes it was hard to get their confidence because they’re very sensitive about their products and whether they will be taken care of or sold properly. A lot of the breweries weren’t convinced of the way we were doing it,” says Lim. “So we started off with Australian breweries since my cousin is familiar with the industry around Melbourne, and then got the Aussie brewers to put in a good word for us.”
Today Lim says “it’s a breeze” working with most breweries, though planning can still be something of a logistical headache. Some breweries, like BrewDog and Rogue Ales, require Lim to place orders at least 30 days before they are shipped. Most beers coming from the United Kingdom, Europe, and United States take six to eight weeks to arrive once they’re sent, and then they must clear Malaysia’s notoriously fickle customs, of course, before they’re on their way to Lim’s storage facility.
Given the considerable investment in procuring its products, TAPS doubles as a regional distributor, another task with a unique set of challenges given that most bars and restaurants have exclusive agreements to serve beers from the region’s omnipotent macrobreweries. “We can’t offer monetary rewards or extra goodies with our beers because the smaller breweries don’t give any,” he says. “We only sell to people who are willing to take the beers without special treatment or rewards from us.”
Lim distributes to between 120 and 130 bars, restaurants, supermarkets, and other venues across peninsular Malaysia, though he considers less than 50 of them active clients who place orders throughout the month. There’s no way of getting around it: craft beer is simply a tough sell in Malaysia, in large part due to the higher price point.
Expats and tourists, predictably, carried TAPS from the start. Lim says that foreigners accounted for roughly 70-percent of Changkat’s business during its first year, though today he estimates more of a 50-50 split of expats and Malaysians between the two KL bars. While that sounds like progress—and Lim is quick to clarify that more and more locals are giving craft a shot—the shift can be at least somewhat attributed to a shrinking expat population as Malaysia’s sluggish economy hastens a job decline in certain industries.
“We still find it a challenge to sell craft beer to Malaysians because the general concept around here is just that beer is the cheapest way to get drunk,” says Lim. “We don’t have any craft breweries in Malaysia to sort of bridge the gap between commercial beers and craft, so most people still don’t understand the concept of craft beer—and if they don’t believe in craft beer, they’re not going to go to a craft beer bar.”
In other words, more than five years, three new bars, and a successful annual craft festival in, Lim and his colleagues still hunt for more Malaysian regulars. After all, mom can only drink so many Black IPAs.
TAPS Beer Bar – Changkat is located at One Residency, Jalan Nagasari, 50200 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. +60 3-2110 1560. Open Monday to Saturday 5pm – 1am, Sunday 12pm – 1am.
TAPS Beer Bar – Mont Kiara is located at G-1, Mont Kiara Mall, 1 Jalan Kiara, Mont Kiara, 50480 Kuala Lumpur. +60 3 6206 5983. Open daily 11am – 1am.