Malt and Myanmar (Part I)



The Mandalay Brewery in Mandalay, Myanmar, the former Burma, is of great interest. It was founded 1886 in the aftermath of the Third Anglo-Burmese war by Dyer Breweries, creation of English brewery entrepreneur Edward Dyer.* Dyer established early breweries in India and expanded elsewhere in Asia. Later, his storied company, through merger, became Dyer Meakin and finally, in 1949, Mohan Meakin.

Burma was first a province of British India, and from 1937, a separate administration of Britain. The Japanese took over in WW II, and by 1948 Burma became independent.

On the website of an Asian-based investment advisor, there is striking display of labels from the brewery’s history, and other labels pertinent in the context.

One of the hardest infantry fights of the Second World War was to regain Mandalay, late 1944-April 1945. This was the culmination of a long campaign to retake Burma, preceded e.g., by British and American jungle raiders operating behind enemy lines (Wingate’s Chindits, Merrill’s Marauders). The Burma Road which supplied China was a key strategic objective.

On conquering Burma in 1942 the Japanese, with Thai involvement, set up a puppet republic and a compliant Burma Independent Army.

Most of the city, outside the central administrative and military district of Fort Dufferin, had been levelled by Japanese terror bombing. The Japanese occupied Fort Dufferin as a command centre. The brewery was, and is, north of Fort Dufferin in the city and apparently was not affected in this fighting.

Japanese business interests took over control of local industries. Mandalay Brewery became a fief of the Japan-controlled beer and liquor monopoly in Taiwan, Takasago.

Beer production continued but later the facility switched to soy and miso production according to a number of sources.

A focal point of the March 1945 fighting was to win Mandalay Hill, which directly overlooks Fort Dufferin. That battle was led by the 19th Infantry Division (British Indian Army) with RAF, New Zealand, and U.S. Army Air Force support. Gurkha, African, and domestic British units were also involved in the Mandalay assaults.

Once the hill was taken, heavy bombing and artillery were directed to Fort Dufferin but the last defenders could not be dislodged. The fort was protected, first by a street-wide earth wall, and then a wide moat.

Breaches in the wall were made but the moat proved an effective barrier. One nighttime raid to cross it and scale the walls was abandoned due to deterring fire.

The fort had been built by Burmese rulers before the British won control of all of Burma, and they had done their work well.

After a heavy, B-25 Mitchell raid, with most of Mandalay lost, the Japanese decided to abandon the fort. They escaped through drains built under the moat, straggling south and east. Freed civilian prisoners walked out with a white flag and the Union Jack. By end of March 1945 all Mandalay was back in British hands.

The brewery was still intact, as cinematic reportage on the final assault by the Australian Associated Press confirms.

The fact of the British taking back Mandalay Brewery made the rounds of army scuttlebutt, even reaching America as we will see, probably via U.S. Army fliers in Mandalay.

We know it from a news column by Bob Hope, “It Says Here”, that appeared in the syndicated press in April 1945. That’s Bob Hope, the famous entertainer. The column ran between 1943 and 1951, an outgrowth of his well-publicized USO tours and other war-work.I linked an example linked appearing in Albany, New York on April 13 in its Times-Union.

It seems doubtful the busy Hope actually wrote the series. More likely the team of writers he used for his scripted comedy did. Certainly the columns read like a series of Hope one-liners.

Some jokes fall flat or are obscure – there is an impression of hasty composition – but a wan smile is raised by:

The next phase will be the capture of a pretzel factory in Rangoon.


… the British like their beer warm, too … that’s like seeing Dorothy Lamour and admiring her hair dress [hair style].

The above probably caused a musing smile in Hope. After all, Hope was British-born, not just that, but in Eltham just outside London, where quality beer was once made (now part of Greenwich).

His father had a liking for alcohol, too. Unfortunately, it depressed the family’s fortunes and caused them to migrate to America when Bob was only four.

The capper in the column is when an American flier tells Hope that after seeing the brewery (maybe from his B-25), he “sat down and wrote Forever Amber”.

If any in Toronto get the joke without checking first, I’ll buy you a pint the next time (2021?) such can be arranged. Forever Amber was an American novel of 1944, a Restoration romance, and not a little racy for the time. It made a big splash on release and the young author, Kathleen Winsor, became instantly famous.

At least the joke-writer knew the colour of English beer. Maybe he had attended a celebrity U.S. and British beer contest held in New York in 1937.

The Mandalay Brewery was remembered with wry humour in a different but related context, by the historian of a British tank regiment that fought in Upper Burma earlier in the war. It was 1942, Britain had lost Rangoon and British forces had to evacuate the country.

The book, The Seventh and Three Enemies (1953), recounts the fighting of the 7th Queen’s Own Hussars in that campaign. The author, G.M.O. Davy, states that a rumour developed among the men that the Mandalay Brewery would soon close. Even though the men had seen very little beer since arriving in Burma, this sped them into action. See the book itself for the rest (p. 249).

Quite possibly this was India ale or a pale ale, labels that appear in the collection linked above.

If, as seems likely, Mandalay brewery was dry on recapture by the British of the brewery, those in the victorious forces who wanted a beer were not deprived, indeed due in part to Canada. A few years ago, the Waterloo Chronicle (Waterloo, Ontario) reported on a gathering of veterans. From the story:

Budd, now 89, was in one of two Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons stationed in India during the Second World War and flew Douglas C-47 Dakota military transport planes helping resupply the British 14th Army.

“The day after they took Mandalay back, I delivered 6,000 pounds of beer and whisky,” recalled Budd, who flew a total of 161 missions during the war. “We got quite a good reception.”

While it may sound frivolous to send so much alcohol so quickly in that situation, clearly it was intended as a tribute to those who had well-earned it. It was just one of countless attempts during the war to bring the balm of beer to hard-fighting men and women, in tribute and thanks to their sacrifice.

No doubt in Mandalay, after a Canadian had done his good work, many a glass was raised to brothers in arms who couldn’t be present, in hospital or forever interred in Burmese ground or waters.

Coda: today both the Mandalay and Myanmar breweries in the country are majority-owned by Japan’s Kirin Brewery. A sample label of Mandalay Brewery appears above, sourced from this Ratebeer link. It appears to be an ale, in the old style Dyer brought to Asia.**

Note re image: all intellectual property in image above belongs solely to the lawful owner. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

For Part II of this study, see here.


*According to Ian Colvin’s book The Life of General Dyer, Edward was born in Calcutta in 1831, but apparently was sent to and educated in England, whence he returned East.

**A book written a few years ago by Jeffrey Alexander, Brewed in Japan: The Evolution of the Japanese Beer Industry, states that from October 1942 until 1945, Takasuna Beer, a subsidiary of Kirin, ran the Mandalay Brewery “via Taiwan”, hence for Takasago.  This is an interesting finding, and means, therefore, that when Kirin acquired its current majority holding some years ago, in effect Mandalay Brewery was returned to its fold. I might add, Kirin announced at the end of last year that due to alleged human rights abuses by Burma’s military government, its minority partner, it is reviewing the status of its Burma investments. See details from this Financial Times report. As far as I know at date of writing, the ownership interests have not changed.


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