Small beer for Macau

The all-encompassing Wine Museum of Macau has a problem: specifically, what to do about Mark Myrick? Mr Myrick is the young American who started the first brewery in Macau's long history. And while his first two draught beers are gradually becoming successful - already in the Hyatt, Mandarin, Westin and a few pubs, selling the equivalent of 4,000 bottles a month - it does not exactly qualify as a wine.

But Mr Myrick believes his beers should qualify for a wine museum.

'After all,' he says in his 4,000-square-foot micro-brewery, 'Macau has never made its own wine, naturally. So when a beer comes along made 100 per cent in Macau, we should really qualify - even with a special cubicle of our own.' True enough, some decades ago beer could only be made where the water was pure enough and with enough character for the flavour. Macau would hardly have qualified.

'But today,' Mr Myrick says, 'water treatment is so sophisticated that wherever you have the market - and the capital to set up the brewery - you can make a good beer.' Currently, Macau Brewing Company has two beers: Golden Ale and Praia Grande.

The former is light, floral, somewhat fruity, with a colour resembling that of San Miguel. About 60 per cent of Golden Ale is sold in Macau.

The Praia Grande, though, with a slightly higher alcohol content (about 5.5 per cent) sells a bit less. Its coffee colour is not sufficiently attractive to the Chinese market, but its flavour has more personality.

Macau publicist Liz Thomas describes it as possessing a 'nutty flavour. It's more earthy, more malty'.

The brewery can make any number of beers, depending on the malt and hops used. In fact, at their opening party, they had two unfiltered beers which were better appreciated.

'But the cloudy colours,' Mr Myrick says, 'put people off. We still have some educating to do.' His own education was not in beer but in Asian studies. A native of Washington's Crossing, New Jersey, he studied Putonghua then went to Beijing to work in import-export. He also studied beer.

'But only as a very serious consumer,' he explains.

'Every beer had its prizes and awards. And I rapidly grew tired of seeing certificates like 'Winner 5th Prize of Hubei International Beer Competition'.' Later in Hong Kong, Mr Myrick and some American partners decided micro-breweries were the beer of the future. They would raise the money - $15 million - to make their own beer.

They were hardly the first in the area to do so.

Scott Ashen, of South China Brewing Company, started in June 1995 and already sells six different brews, including three contract beers for different bars. The company has been so successful it has been taken over by an American conglomerate, and is now listed on the Nasdaq index.

Mr Ashen agrees with Mr Myrick that education is the major factor in selling these beers.

'First,' Mr Ashen says, 'we have to reach the top end of the market, because we're going to be a bit more expensive than mass-produced beers like San Mig or Carlsberg.

'But at the same time, micro-breweries use no additives, no artificial ingredients. And we can have any permutation of flavours. In other words, we're distinctive.' Mr Myrick adds another plus.

'The upper end of the market may take imported beers, but beers usually don't travel well. Or if they do, they'll be pasteurised, and already that means a loss of flavour.

'Our beers are unpasteurised, so they keep their flavour.' The minus is obviously the cost. A $7.50 glass of San Miguel as against a $10 Macau Golden Ale.

Mr Myrick's first choice for a market was Vietnam, but after some investigation, his group realised that Macau, without its own local beer, was a better choice. The main obstacle was to find a place large enough with a high enough ceiling to fit in the vats.

'After we found the factory area,' he says, 'we signed a lease in June last year. The equipment had to be custom-designed for the area, but we had that installed in October.

'Sixty days later, we had our first brews ready for tasting. Since that time we've been refining the tastes for the Macau market.' Brewing beer is hardly labour-intensive, with only five employees of the micro-brewery. Each month, 360 kilograms of malt come in, mainly from the United States. The hops also come from the US and Germany. Yeasts come from libraries of different yeasts around the world, but the brewery is beginning to grow its own.

'So far, we have only draught beers, but these are selling well in the hotels. So we're going to start in a small way in retail selling.

'Our first bottles have just come in from Germany, our labels are ready, and then we'll be ready for the supermarkets,' Mr Myrick says.

Still, Macau is a limited market, and Hong Kong looms large in their future. What are the chances? Mr Ashen welcomes the prospect.

'Our only problem is educating the public. The more education there is, the more choices people have, the more they get used to paying marginally higher prices, the better we all are.' Mr Myrick adds: 'We simply have to show the beer-drinking [market] that there is a lot more than factory-made brews and simple light lagers.'