At a beer station on Bogyoke Aung San Road, servers traipse from table to table, handing mugs of Myanmar Beer to cheroot-smoking men in longyis. Another beer station in Sanchaung township looks almost exactly the same, but with Dagon Beer decorations and brew dripping from the taps.
All over Myanmar, domestic brands such as Myanmar and Dagon have dominated the beer market since the early 1990s, when the military regime established the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) conglomerate and founded Myanmar Brewery Limited. At the time, an import ban on foreign beer ensured their hold on Myanmar’s drinkers. Drinking beer became a de facto toast to the military elite.
But, like everything else in The Golden Land lately, the beer landscape is changing – rapidly. The USDP-led former government loosened restrictions, and in 2013 Carlsberg Group secured one of four foreign beer brewing licences. The Danish company formed a joint venture with U Thein Tun’s Myanmar Golden Star (MGS) to build a US$75 million brewery in Bago, where they now brew Carlsberg, Tuborg and a Myanmar-specific brand called Yoma. (U Thein Tun also owns the majority share in Myanmar Consolidated Media, which publishes The Myanmar Times.)
Heineken’s Asia Pacific Brewery (APB) scooped up a licence two years later, joining with U Aung Moe Kyaw’s Alliance Brewing Limited and building its own $60 million plant in Hmawbi, less than 100 kilometres from the Carlsberg facility. Along with the namesake brand, Tiger Beer and ABC Stout, the Dutch company has begun marketing Regal 7 beer, a Myanmar-specific brand that will compete with Yoma and Myanmar.
Despite international reach and clout, however, both companies have struggled to make a dent in the military’s substantial market share, estimated at roughly 60 percent of the market. UMEHL – which saw Japanese giant Kirin buy a 55pc stake for $560 million after former partner Fraser and Neave was booted – brews Myanmar Beer, Black Shield, Andaman Gold and Myanmar Premium out of its Myanmar Brewery Limited. It also wholly owns and operates Mandalay Beer, the country’s oldest brew dating back to the 1850s. The Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), which functions in a similar fashion as UMEHL and was also founded by the military, claims another 10pc of market share, brewing Dagon, Dagon Light, Dagon Super, Dagon Malta Fresh and Dagon Extra Strong.
FINGERS IN MANY … GLASSES?
In addition to ABC’s joint venture with Heineken, U Aung Moe Kyaw is one of the largest players in another drink market: whisky.
Through his International Beverages Trading Company Ltd (IBTC), founded in 1997, he owns a 50pc stake in the Myanmar Distillery Company (MDC). The company claims to control roughly 80pc of the total whisky market, with its Grand Royal whisky line (plus all of its derivations) being the most popular brand.
The other 50pc stake in MDC has been owned by TPG Capital, an American private equity firm, since 2015.
Among others, MDC also produces Eagle whisky, Golden Island rum and Grand Royal gin.
Grand Royal has also been Chelsea FC’s “official whisky” in Myanmar since 2012.
Beer, whisky and Premier League sponsorships; he certainly has the liquid version of fingers in many pies.
That leaves roughly 30pc of the market up for grabs. Anthony Clark, CEO at Myanmar Carlsberg, said he estimates more than two-thirds of the leftover space is currently occupied by illegal beers smuggled over the Thailand border.
“The border states would have a much higher degree of smuggled beer, for which there is little in the way of reliable information,” he said, guessing that Chang beer would hold a clear lead in that area.
The stream of illegally imported beer often works its way through ethnic armed groups thirsty for funding, said one industry source who asked to remain anonymous. The source added that the smuggling issue may be factored into upcoming peace talks.
After accounting for these illegal imports, Heineken, Carlsberg and Mandalay brands are left to battle for less than 10pc. And in many instances, they are battling more than each other.
According to notes from a recent Myanmar Carlsberg meeting, the outgoing government made changes to licensing laws in December 2015. Now, breweries are required to obtain distribution credentials by district rather than state or region, effectively quadrupling the number of fees and amount of paperwork needed to pump beer into bellies across the country.
Furthermore, many beer stations and restaurants have five-year contracts with Myanmar Brewery Limited. Those businesses that consider terminating the contract would face a ban on selling competing products for at least one year. Effectively, the only way to get Yoma or Regal 7 into a beer station is to step in as soon as one opens.
The foreign brands are doing just that. Zita Schellekens, the director of corporate relations for Heineken’s joint venture in Myanmar, APB Alliance Brewery Company Limited, said that getting into bars and restaurants is often difficult.
“Of course we take a proactive approach in going to bars that we believe fit our brands,” she said.
So far, premium restaurants have been the main staging ground. New, high-end restaurants in Yangon choose between Carlsberg’s three brands or Heineken’s four, and territory is staked out business by business. Penthouse? Carlsberg. Hummingbird? Heineken. The next fancy joint? Anyone’s guess.
But the staging ground is set to grow. Myanmar’s current beer per capita hovers around 3.7 litres – by comparison, neighbouring Thailand guzzles 33 litres per person, and Vietnam downs more than 40. According to research agency Euromonitor International, the value of Myanmar’s beer market will double from an estimated $375 million in 2015 to $675 million in 2018. During that time, many of the beer stations’ five-year contracts with Myanmar Brewery Limited will elapse, creating a potential gold rush as the foreign brands try to bite into UMEHL territory.
“The fact that the current market is underdeveloped is a challenge but even more so an opportunity,” said Schellekens. “In short, we want the ‘pie’ to get bigger and of course we want to have a bigger part of that pie.“