Malt and Myanmar (Part III)

I will address an instance of brewing, of a sort, in Rangoon during the three-year Japanese occupation, 1943-1945. As well, I discuss a traditional pale ale made in Myanmar today. But first, George Appleton.

Rangoon, the Cathedral, the Japanese

Appleton was a long-lived Englishman, a Cambridge-educated, Anglican cleric and later a noted author. From the mid-1920s to the immediate post-war period he ministered mainly in Burma, one of the many missionaries who combed the East under the British flag. Once the Japanese were pushed out of Burma (1945) he returned to his fold in Rangoon, at Holy Trinity Cathedral.

The design and construction of Holy Trinity, a neo-Gothic, red brick pile completed in 1894, are explained in this informative précis at Archiseek.

Appleton wrote an account in 1946 of the depredations visited on Burma’s churches during the war. He also imparts interesting social background on Burma. This included the wide ethnic mix that existed, especially the significant Indian and Chinese populations.

Of the Europeans he writes:

12,000 Europeans, mostly British, completed the quota of foreigners in the country. These were in Government service or industry and trade. The latter class had a large share in overseas trade, shipping and organised industry. They contributed much to the life and wealth of the country, but naturally were under control of boards at home, whose chief interests were profits.

On the whole there was not enough friendship between British and Burmese. In many a British home in Rangoon no Burman had ever been entertained as an equal, and the powerful and exclusive Gymkhana Club aroused much bitterness by refusing to admit people of Asiatic birth as members, even if they were the equals of Europeans in social and educational standing. It is much to be hoped that at least one first-class international club will be organised in the new Burma, which will be open to members of all races.

The Jews, not mentioned by Appleton, counted some 3000 in Rangoon just ahead of the war which included members of the famous Sassoon family. They left in 1942 knowing Japanese rule would hardly favour them, and never returned, a few families apart. See this Times of Israel report in January 2019.

Before the war the Gymkhana and Pegu clubs were the most exclusive in Rangoon, symbolizing at the extreme the inequities of the colonial system. The British clearly were on the way out by 1946, although their sacrifice to liberate the country were appreciated in Burma.

Burmans, in the older terminology, had found that the Japanese were not preferable as overlords, at any rate. For some background on this see Donald Seekins’ JPRI Working Paper No. 87, August 2002. He points out that the arbitrary and harsh conduct of the Japanese military police, and army officers who had previously served in Korea, were resented in particular.

In 1945 the Burma Independent Army, established by the Japanese in conjunction with the puppet regime, switched sides to fight with the British.

In preparation for Japan’s invasion its fliers bombed Rangoon in 1942. Parts of the centre were destroyed with much loss of life. Added to the damage was later Allied bombing, including by American B-29s in 1945. Despite this, Appleton states that the city was largely intact.

A contemporary press report (May 1945, West Australian) suggests more extensive damage than Appleton suggests. Still, his account deserves credibility given his long familiarity with the city.

The Cathedral During Occupation

A news story in the Sydney Morning Herald graphically explained the fate of the church. For “wine” (sake) production, a large trench was dug in the floor to hold the vats. Various accounts of this episode employ different terms: brewery, distillery, saki or toddy factory, but it is clear that sake was being manufactured.

Other parts of the church were used to stable mules and for a cow-shed. The place was in a shambles, with large rats on the loose, when the British came back.

Anne Carter’s 2012 Bewitched by Burma gives a more thorough account of the condition of the church on the Japanese exit. The exterior was hardly affected, but inside it was pretty bad and substantial cleaning and restoration were necessary. She refers to “presses”, which suggests quite clearly sake was made.

Appleton explains that British funding, and volunteer labour by sojourning British troops, helped restore the church’s condition. Enough patching was done that the church was re-dedicated in July 1945 in a ceremony that attracted 1000 people. It may be noted the wider war had not yet ended; that came September 2, 1945.

Why had the Japanese desecrated the church? An early-1930s trade study of Burma by the U.S. Department of Commerce mentions no brewery or other fermentation facilities in Rangoon. So, the church was selected for this. I’d guess its sturdy walls insulated the fermentation to a degree, or maybe it was simply that the building was available and convenient.

The Pegu Club

Where was the sake consumed? No doubt in soldiers’ messes, and by businessmen and other civilians associated with the occupation. It seems likely sake was poured at the Pegu Club, made by the Japanese into a brothel, one of the notorious “comfort stations” they established in territories of conquest.

After the war the premises were used for various public purposes but moldered, finally, and were mostly abandoned. A few years ago a multi-state consortium, anchored by a prominent Myanmar family, acquired the property to create an events space. A complete and remarkable restoration was done. This Nikkei Asian Review piece fills us in.

The new Pegu website describes the history and current uses of this storied property. Much of the old teak was intact and has been perfectly restored. Where necessary, fresh marble was secured from the quarry near Mandalay that supplied material for the original construction.

The website gives what must be the definitive version of the Pegu Club Cocktail.

The Cathedral, Burma, and Pale Ale Today

Today, Holy Trinity Cathedral looks pristine, you may take a wide-screen tour via this YouTube video. Still, Christianity is much reduced in the country. The military government – ethnic Burma is Buddhist – periodically represses practitioners. A Province of Myanmar nonetheless exists, six churches by my reading, staffed entirely by local ministers and other personnel. Since the mid-1960s foreign Anglicans are not permitted to minister in the country.

Anglican congregants in good part derive from ethnic minorities, the “hill people” in particular and especially the KarensThe website of the Diocese of Yangon describes Anglicanism in the country today with an informative timeline.

Parenthetically, I was intrigued to learn (from other sources) that in the 1870s Bass Pale Ale was used by remote churches for Communion. Numerous accounts attest to it such as in Vanity Fair, 1876.

Man’s spirit will improvise where necessary, and it shows certainly the great penetration India Pale Ale had in the Far East. Still, Rangoon itself was not itself among the Asian cities graced with a brewery, as seen above.

Myanmar today is obviously very different from the era of British tutelage, yet traces of the former time subsist, physically and otherwise. To this day Yangon is considered the oldest repository of colonial-era buildings in Asia.

In Yangon, the Burbrit Brewery (from Burma-Britain, I like that) offers among its range a pale ale. The description on the website suggests the beer adheres closely to the lineage of British pale ale. It is 6% ABV and 35 IBU. The formulation in toto (see website) suggests the beer is closer to early India Pale Ale than the mass-market beers currently styled ale in Myanmar.*

The website states that India Pale Ale must have entered Burma early on. Certainly true, but there is yet more since Mandalay Brewery made beer labelled as India ale and pale ale before World War II. (See my Part I).

One day I will visit old Rangoon, today’s Yangon. I will take in Holy Trinity Cathedral, traces of the old Jewish community, and much else.

I will taste of Burma’s past and Burma’s present, not least via the Burbrit pale ale.

Note re images: The first image above is drawn from this Wikipedia entry on Holy Trinity Cathedral, Yangon. Believed in public domain. The second image is from the Burbrit website, see here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*This page describes the management and brewing team of Burbrit, and gives the impression of a well-planned, first-rate operation. Burbrit is the first and I believe so far the only modern craft brewery in the country.





2 thoughts on “Malt and Myanmar (Part III)”

  1. Hi Gary,

    I live in Yangon and work with Burbrit. I and am also writing an anthropology PhD on alcohol in Myanmar. You have alerted me to a couple of sources which I appreciate. Let me know if you want to write a Part IV and if there is anything I can do to help.


    • Hi Luke:

      Great to hear from you, and delighted you have seen my notes (never would have expected it!). Glad they were of interest and good to hear that you are are examining systematically alcohol history in Myanmar.

      I might do a Part IV, I am still thinking of a theme to organize it around, so thanks for mentioning and I may revert.

      I should add, I’m well aware that there were, perhaps still are, numerous indigenous forms of alcohol, from rice, millet, sugar, etc., in Burma or adjoining lands. My own areas of investigation are in the European beer tradition, but I did come across some of these other forms in my reading, and they look certainly interesting.

      Best wishes for the brewery and your work, especially at this highly unusual time. One day I hope to visit Myanmar and of course Burbrit to say hello and taste what looks like a great range!



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