The (1930s) Penang Girl’s Beer
Not the least of the European beers that sought an early market in the former British Malaya was Kloster Bier, originally from Neustadt, Germany, today a suburb of Bremen.
The label was, from the 1930s until the brand’s apparent demise in Thailand some years ago, a characteristic white as shown below (source: the Can Museum):
Labels, bottles, and other paraphernalia regularly appear for the beer on auction sites, e.g. this atmospheric bottle, also connected to the early Thai market, when the brand was still imported.
While originally German, it was later produced in Thailand under license, as discussed below. It seems it was sold in Germany as well into the 1960s, but with a different label. See e.g. this can, also at Can Museum.
Neustadt Kloster Bier must be distinguished from Weltenburger Kloster and other Kloster brands in Germany, as kloster simply means cloister, the enclosed part of a monastery.
The term evokes in other words a monastic brewing tradition, generally of the past, associated with the brewery or the area, common enough in Central Europe.
I discuss Neustadt Kloster Bier in my recent paper “An Outline on Beers and Brewing in British Malaya: 1827-1957. Part I”. It is available for purchase from the Brewery History Society, see details here.
As I set out there, by 1933 the brand was owned by Beck’s of Bremen, so may be viewed somewhat like Beck’s-owned St. Pauli Girl (formerly “Girl” Brand), one of the stable of Beck’s brands selected for specific markets.*
I first learned of the brand in the article “Cosmopolitanism and the Modern Girl: A Cross-Cultural Discourse in 1930s Penang” by Su Lin Lewis, a British academic. It was published in the journal Modern Asian Studies in 2009 by Cambridge University Press.
Per the article abstract:
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Modern Girl emerged in advertisements, cinema and public discourse all over the globe … Lively debates about the Modern Girl in Penang’s English press wrestled with the tensions between cultural authenticity, diversity and modernity … The Modern Girl thus represents a new way of looking at the history of colonial Malaysia in the interwar period: one not focused on ethnic nationalism and communalism, but on a shared, multi-ethnic mode of belonging rooted in the globalist environment of the late colonial port-city.
The article is most insightful, and mentions Kloster Bier among other international products, such as Pepsodent, promoted with verve in that period to a certain demographic of a multi-ethnic population.
Malaya, as today for its successors Malaysia and Singapore, was a multi-racial society comprised mainly of Malay, Chinese, and Indian groupings. This tripartite classification can be simplistic given the many sub-divisions among these groups, including as to language, but is commonly still used to describe with economy the ethnic diversity.
Malaya counted yet further ethnicities including the Japanese, a small European and Eurasian population, and persons of Middle East origin.
I explain in my study how Kloster Bier vied with other brands, both local and imported, for a market that in part comprised the one limned by Lewis in her article.
Much like Beck’s itself, which I discussed earlier, Kloster Bier seems to have had mainly an international career, with eastern Asia demarcated in particular for this purpose.
The brand appeared in the former Java (now Indonesia), Japan, Thailand, and probably elsewhere in Asia.
It became a major seller in the postwar Thai market, produced finally under license granted by Interbrew, forerunner to Anheuser Busch InBev, to family-owned Boon Rawd, producer of the well-known Singha brand.
Beck’s was in the fold of Interbrew by then, due to its acquisition by Interbrew in 2001.
By 2016, it appears Kloster Bier is no longer produced in Thailand. In that year, a marketing report was written envisaging a re-launch of the beer, although this has not occurred to date, to my knowledge.
The report is set out in Slideshare, a site devoted to marketing and advertising studies. It is an excellent capsule of how the brand was positioned, its strengths and weaknesses, and how the writers envisaged a relaunch.
The report states that Boon Rawd started producing the beer in 2003, replacing Thai Amarit (subsidiary of San Miguel of Phillipines) which brewed it from 1975 until 2002. Before that, other evidence suggests it was imported and distributed under agency.
The study explains the market was “upper target level”, competing with brands such as Carlsberg, Heineken, and Asahi. The authors consider the beer lost its position due finally to being viewed as “Thai or fake European”.
They proposed numerous interesting ways to restore its position, including by highlighting the German heritage.
What struck me reading the study was consistency with the 1930s advertising environment described in Lewis’s article. The 2016 report uses terms like “young adult”, “next generation”, “sophisticated”, and “educated” to explain the brand’s “identity prism”.
Many patrons of upmarket Raffles Hotel in prewar Singapore encapsulated this demographic. In 1938, on the eve of a cataclysmic war, Raffles’ bar menu listed Kloster, among other international and local brands, as my article showed. Extract from menu (via nypl.org menu collection):
The 2016 report explains that at the same time there are two sides to the licensing coin. One emphasizes the origins of the brand, in this case European, which implies premium quality and justifies higher price.
It does seem Kloster fetched a higher price in Thailand than some Thai-origin brands.
The other side of the coin holds, after a period when a brand is produced locally, the market may perceive it as local or a faux-import. Other brands, genuine imports or perhaps more recently licensed, may erode the former’s market share.
It appears something like this happened to Kloster in Thailand, which at one time was a top brand there. A c. 2010 YouTube commercial gives an idea of its heyday and profiled market. The sophisticated young adult theme is prominent.
It does not take long for this process to unfold. Take Stella Artois, which in Canada has been brewed locally for about a year. By my perception, it is already becoming a local brand.
I’d wager few younger Stella consumers have any specific knowledge of its Belgian origins, even though by a few key-strokes the origins and history of most brands can usually be found.
Pricing of course is a factor in this calculus. Where the faux-import is popular-priced or near enough, the adverse reaction noted in the 2016 report may not occur, or be delayed.
Note re images: source of images above is linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.
See concluding Part, here.
*I did not pursue the pre-1930s history of Kloster Bier, whether it was independent at one time and acquired by Beck’s. In the 1930s, it seems likely supply in the Far East was from Singapore, see Concluding Part linked above.