The 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.
From the 1930s until the brand’s demise in Thailand some years ago the label was a characteristic white, as shown below (source: the Can Museum):
Labels, bottles, and other paraphernalia regularly appear for the brand on auction sites, see e.g. this atmospheric bottle, also connected to the early Thai market. At the time the brand was still imported.
While originally German, Kloster was later produced in Thailand under license. It seems it was sold in Germany as well into the 1960s, but with a different label, e.g. this can, also at Can Museum.
Neustadt Kloster 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 from the distant past. Breweries since the 19th century at least have traded on the association, with varying degrees of justice.
I discuss Neustadt Kloster Bier in my recent paper “An Outline on Beers and Brewing in British Malaya: 1827-1957. Part I”. It may be purchased from the U.K.-based Brewery History Society, details on request.
As I set out there, by 1933 the Kloster label was owned by Beck’s Brewery of Bremen. It may be viewed somewhat like Beck’s-owned St. Pauli Girl, one of a stable of Beck’s brands sent to specific markets.*
I first learned of Kloster 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.
The article abstract notes:
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.
Lewis’ article is most insightful. She mentions Kloster among other international products, such as Pepsodent, promoted with verve in 1930s Malaya to an upmarket audience in a multi-ethnic society.
In the interwar period Malaya, as today for its successors Malaysia and Singapore, featured a multi-racial population comprised mainly of Malay, Chinese, and Indian groupings. The tripartite classification can be simplistic given the many sub-divisions among these groups, including as to language, but frequently is still used to describe the main cultural and ethnic groupings.
Malaya counted yet further ethnicities. In the 1930s these including the Japanese, a small European and Eurasian population, and persons of Middle East origin.
I explain in my paper how Kloster vied with other brands, both local and imported, for a market that encompassed in part the segment limned by Lewis.
As for Beck’s itself, which I discussed earlier, Kloster seems to have had mainly an international career, with eastern Asia demarcated in particular. 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 a license granted by Interbrew, forerunner to Anheuser Busch In Bev. The licensee was 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 is no longer produced in Thailand. In that year, a marketing report was written envisaging a re-launch, 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 had been positioned, its strengths and weaknesses, and how the writers envisaged a revival of the brand.
According to the report Boon Rawd started producing the beer in 2003. It replaced Thai Amarit (subsidiary of San Miguel of Phillipines) which brewed Kloster from 1975 until 2002. Before that evidence suggests it was imported and distributed under agency.
The report explains that the Kloster market was “upper target level”, competing with status brands such as Carlsberg, Heineken, and Asahi. The authors consider the beer lost its position finally due to being viewed as “Thai or fake European”.
They proposed numerous interesting ways to restore its position, including highlighting its German heritage. What struck me reading the study was how little comparatively had changed from the 1930s advertising strategies discussed in Lewis’s article.
The marketing report uses terms such as “young adult”, “next generation”, “sophisticated”, and “educated” to explain the brand’s “identity prism”. This was very much the profile international marketers envisaged in cosmopolitan centres in prewar Malaya such as Penang, and no doubt Singapore.
The stylish Raffles Hotel in prewar Singapore encapsulated and symbolized 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 explained. This is an extract from menu (via nypl.org menu collection):
The Kloster report also explains that there are two sides to the licensing coin. One emphasizes the origins of the brand, in this case European, with its implication of premium quality to justify a higher price (whether justified in practice, often a different issue!).
The other holds that after a period when a premium brand is produced locally the market may perceive it as local or a faux-import. Other brands, either genuine imports or more newly licensed, can erode the former’s market share.
It appears something like this happened to Kloster in Thailand, which earlier was a top seller there. A c. 2010 YouTube commercial gives an idea of the target market in its late heyday. A sophisticated young adult theme is stressed.
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.
*I did not pursue the pre-1930s history of Kloster, e.g. whether it started independent before acquisition by Beck’s. By the 1930s Kloster in the Far East likely was supplied from Singapore, see discussion in the second Part, linked above.