Old Wives Ales heads to Myanmar for beer festival

Myanmar Craft Beer Festival

Victorian brewery Old Wives Ales, is heading to Myanmar for its inaugural craft beer festival.

Old Wives Ales was launched in 2015 by four founders, Nathan Keatch, Justin Spicer, Shannon Brooks and Mattias Isaksson, who is also head brewer at the Queenscliff Brewhouse in Victoria.

Isaksson explained that he wanted to be part of the inaugural Myanmar Craft Beer Festival in Yangon this weekend to learn and share knowledge with the local industry.

“We’re hoping to do that exchanging of ideas and a few collaboration brews,” Isaksson said.

“You can learn from anyone whether you’re experienced, or not so much. I’m sure they have a lot of ways of operating their brewery that I can learn from,” he said.

“That’s what the whole craft beer revolution is about, trying to spread the word about independent and high quality beer.”

He said that gaining inspiration from other countries could help develop the Australian brewing identity further.

“It seems like we’ve been carbon copying America’s craft beer development and their way of doing things, which obviously seems to have worked over there, but there are a lot of differences between the countries, and maybe there are other approaches.

“I can’t wait, it will be interesting to witness,” he said.

Old Wives Ales got involved through the Merri Mashers Brew Club, a Melbourne homebrew group, of which Myanmar Craft Beer Festival organiser Luke Corbin was a founding member.

Corbin, who moved to Myanmar in 2016, is spearheading the festival in his role at Burbrit Brewery, the country’s only independent craft brewery in production.

Corbin said that he and a committee of five helped found the festival to share their love of craft beer.

“Its purpose is to give craft beer fans in Myanmar the opportunity to come together, share their love and knowledge about all things beer and taste beers from international breweries that would otherwise never be available in the country,” he explained.

Seven breweries from across Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and of course Australia are joining Burbrit for the festival, bringing their own beers, engaging in collaborations or both.

The country is at an interesting stage in the development of its craft beer industry, but Corbin said that there is a lot of red tape when it comes to opening a brewery which is hindering the industry’s growth.

“Regulations are post-socialist, strict in many ways but in other ways still in flux. It is nearly impossible to set up a brewery as licenses are political,” he explained.

“They are political because the Army makes a lot of money from the Myanmar Brewery, the largest brewery in the country, and the Army controls most of the state apparatus – some recent reforms towards effective civilian government notwithstanding.”

Despite outside concerns about the relationship between Lion owners Kirin and the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEHL), owned by the country’s military, Corbin said he had no problems with it.

“But of course, Kirin should take responsibility for their business decisions and make their corporate social responsibility actions clear to consumers and stakeholders,” he said.

Corbin also explained that Kirin had taken over the Mandalay Brewery as part of the deal with UMEHL, and he was optimistic about the future for the first and oldest brewery in the country, which he is publishing research on.

“Kirin’s involvement has boosted the Mandalay Brewery’s capacity immensely and allowed that brewery to continue operation.

“I have high hopes that if Kirin brings in some fresh blood at the Mandalay Brewery and can focus on that brewery’s historic legacy, they could really turn it into something cool,” he said.

This may be good for big beer, but for producers in general, the excise regime is getting tighter, and producers are being forced to install flow metres to measure production.

Myanmar’s burgeoning craft beer industry only exists because of influences from abroad, particularly from the US and Australia, Corbin explained, despite the challenging conditions in which it is forced to grow.

“The industry is open to outside influences but only through the existing narrow windows, which is to say the existing corporate brewers adopting particular, big-beer practices from abroad, or new products being smuggled into the country.”

He said that somewhere between 10-20% of all packaged beer for sale in Myanmar is smuggled illegally from Thailand, and as it is so difficult to setup, new breweries will struggle, but the example of Thailand implies that things can change.

“From an upstart craft brewery still trying to open in Myanmar, [the future] still looks extremely dim. The licensing regime has to change, it is just a matter of when. It could be one year, it could be five years, it could be ten years.

“In the worst case scenario, the license regime will liberate but still remain punitive towards small-scale producers, something like what Thailand has suffered until recently – benefiting big investors only.”

But for Burbrit things are a bit more positive. And with the craft beer festival this weekend, Burbrit has a chance to learn and develop relationship with brewers across Asia Pacific, including Old Wives Ales.

Mattias Isaksson of Old Wives Ales said that the chance to be part of it was not to be missed.

“I’ve always loved South East Asia and when Luke mentioned there was going to be a craft beer festival, [I knew] I needed to be a part of this, so he added us to the bill as the only non-South East Asian brewery on the lineup.”

While exporting wasn’t something Old Wives Ales was considering yet, (although it already distributes its beers, brewed at Melbourne’s Burnley Brewing, to WA, Tasmania and through Victoria and NSW) Isaksson said that we have seen some Australian brewers successfully export to emerging beer markets.

“You never know where things can lead further on. Exporting isn’t something we’ve talked about but we’ve obviously seen that with other breweries around Australia and it’s a great model if you could get it to work, expanding into growing craft beer markets.”

He said Old Wives Ales wanted to be a part of it to witness the early stages of the ‘craft beer revolution’ in another country.

“At this stage it’s the actual experience itself, being able to be apart and witness craft beer in its infancy stage over there, and getting to know people in that industry in the South East Asian region.

“Just the thought of being part of a festival in Yangon and doing something exciting to drive interest in the festival, seeing how things are being done over there, that’s reason enough for me to want to go.”

The inaugural Myanmar Craft Beer Festival is being held on 19th January at the Burbrit Brewery in Yangon.

Find out more about Luke Corbin’s experiences of brewing in Myanmar on Beer is a Conversation with Matt Kirkegaard.

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