Tuesday, 14 July 2020

A look at Singapore’s newest and most innovative independent craft brewers

While Singapore has been brewing its own beer for decades – from the ubiquitous Tiger Beer, which began production in 1932, to popular microbreweries such as Brewerkz, RedDot Brewhouse and LeVel33, all of which emerged between 1997 and 2011 – it wasn’t until a few years ago that the city-state’s independent craft-brewing scene truly began to flourish.

Buoyed by a similar trend taking place in countries such as the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, the past few years have seen an influx of small-batch craft brewers putting their unique stamp on the industry. Some of these, such as Off Day Beer Company and Sunbird Brewing Company, were started by veterans of the industry, while others, including Brewlander and Rye & Pint Brewery, were conceived by former home-brewing enthusiasts or hobby brewers who decided to transform their passion project into a full-fledged business.

“Our goals were very simple,” says Brewlander’s founder John Wei of the company’s inception in 2017. “We started to push boundaries with bolder flavours and different beer styles with the aim to create a quintessential Singaporean craft beer that rivals any imports. I don’t want to come across as taking credit for this movement, but I’m pleased that we were a large catalyst [for the] wave.”

We started to push boundaries with bolder flavours and different beer styles with the aim to create a quintessential Singaporean craft beer

Besides the far smaller scale of production – different studies put craft beer’s share of the overall local beer market between 2% to 11%, with Wei putting this figure at 1.5% – what sets these independent brewers apart is their dedication to experimentation: they are known for creating exciting flavours in limited quantities using novel and quality ingredients. While this often comes with a higher price tag than a mass-produced bottle from an established global brand, these microbreweries have managed to build a small but steady following who keep coming back for more.

Jasmin Wong (second from left) pictured with her team from Off Day Beer Company

Jasmin Wong, one of the co-founders of Off Day Beer Company, partly attributes this boom to the emergence of craft beer bars – such as Druggist, Freehouse and SG Taps – whose popularity in turn buoyed the city-state’s restaurants, cafés, bars and hotels to incorporate more craft beer offerings into their menus.

“With more craft breweries popping up, we hope that, collectively, we are able to put more beers into people’s hands. And by doing so, consumer palates will develop and become more discerning over time,” she says. “But we are not at saturation yet… you’ll still find that most craft beer in the market is imported, and there is still opportunity for greater growth.”

Covid-19 has undeniably had a negative impact on the craft beer industry, with relatively non-existent draft sales during Singapore’s circuit breaker period as restaurants and bars were forced to close their doors for over two months. “On premise sales account for up to 70% or 80% of craft beer’s revenue, so you can imagine how badly affected the industry is,” Wei reveals. “We do not expect on-premise consumption to improve until the end of the year.”

We are not at saturation yet… you’ll still find that most craft beer in the market is imported, and these is still opportunity for greater growth

These fresh hurdles come on top of all the existing challenges of being a local craft brewery, such as, according to Wong, high rental and labour costs, a less robust beer-drinking culture compared to cities such as New York, London or Melbourne and a consumer base that is not as well acquainted with and knowledgeable about their product. However, both Wei and Wong are confident that, despite the inevitable contractions and closures, the breweries that are able to keep their doors open will ultimately emerge stronger.

A few of the brews offered as part of the #SGCraftTogether package

It helps, too, that the industry is one where camaraderie and cooperation aren’t in short supply. For instance, a number of local craft breweries (including Brewlander) recently collaborated on the #SGCraftTogether beer package, a solidarity initiative to cross-sell each other’s offerings on their respective platforms. “It was especially heartwarming to see the more established breweries step in to help the newcomers, and I believe we will see more collaborations among the local breweries in the near future,” Wei says.

Wong echoes these sentiments. “Singapore’s local craft beer scene is small, friendly and healthy,” she says. “You’ll find familiar faces at the craft beer bars and be able to have lively conversations over a beer or two. Everyone is in for a good time, and even better when the beers are good. Even the most bitter IPA will taste (somewhat) sweet.”

It was especially heartwarming to see the more established breweries step in to help the newcomers, and I believe we will see more collaborations among the local breweries in the near future

Looking ahead, Wong sees brewers continuing to push the envelope by coming up with even more inventive flavours and packing “obscene amounts of ingredients” into a brew, while Wei hopes that there will be more of a focus on harnessing local ingredients to create uniquely Singaporean products.

“Brewers are generally very creative beings, and I expect more experimentation with regional ingredients and mixed-culture fermentation, which I really enjoy myself,” he says. “We are very fortunate to have spices and tropical fruits at our doorstep, and it would be encouraging to see us take the lead to create something special with [them] rather than look to the trends of the West.”

Whether you’re partial to a sweet chrysanthemum mead, New England IPA, coffee stout or sour plum gose, you’re sure to find your pint of choice at one of these eight standout local craft breweries.

Brewlander’s NEIPA is a hazy, punchy concoction made with Citra and Chinook hops

1. Brewlander

Founded by award-winning home-brewing aficionado John Wei – who began churning out his own beers in 2008 after a trip to Cornwall in the UK ignited his love for craft beers – this humble operation has evolved into one of the more widely known small-scale breweries in the city-state. Brewlander’s products are now sold in places such as Hong Kong, Malaysia and Cambodia, and it has plans to launch a new state-of-the-art brewing facility at the end of 2020. Besides a core range of IPAs, pale ales and porters, current limited-edition products include a Mango Salad Gose (which, aside from Alphonso mango, offers notes of habanero chili, basil and mint) and the Beach Road Pale Ale. The latter is a special collaboration with Raffles Hotel Singapore and features piney flavours with notes of citrus and stone fruits and a pleasing dry finish.

2. Pink Blossoms Brewing

After falling in love with craft beer while living and working in the US, former accountant and tax advisor Teo Hong Han swapped the corporate world for a life of hops, and Pink Blossoms Brewing was born in August 2018. The company aims to “celebrate everything that makes life beautiful” – a mission statement it lives up to with its diverse range of brews. Even the cans they come in are works of art. The brand brews out of a facility in Ubi and runs a tasting room where customers can sample their offerings. Lean on Me – their very first canned beer – is a celebration of friendship, a refreshing pale ale with lovely citrus and stone fruit notes. Meanwhile, Let it Be, a recent seasonal release, is an ode to serenity and change. It features a fruity and floral palate with a robust bitter finish and is sure to appeal to the hardcore hopheads among us.

A few of Off Day Beer Company’s most popular brews

3. Off Day Beer Company

Another fresh face on the scene, Off Day Beer Company debuted in February 2020 and is helmed by a star-studded group of industry veterans – Kasster Soh, Jasmin Wong, Kevin Ngan, Daryl Yeap and Casey Choo. Soh and Wong are founders of craft beer distribution company The Mad Tapper, Ngan is behind Good Luck Beerhouse and Temple Cellars, Yeap is the founder of Daryl’s Urban Ales and Choo runs The Singapore Beer Project. The company aims to produce “likeable, approachable [and] solid” beers that cater to a wide array of taste buds. Two of its recent seasonal releases are the Melon (a refreshing watermelon mint sour that’s perfect for balmy summer afternoons) and the Sunglow (an IPA bursting with juicy tropical notes). As part of Covid-19 relief efforts, the brand also launched the All Together beer – an easy-drinking New England IPA that packs a juicy punch. Created via an open-sourced recipe and brewed by 825 breweries in 53 countries, S$2 from each pint or bottle purchased will go towards subsidising meals for those working in the hospitality industry.

4. Lion City Meadery

If beer isn’t really your thing and you’re jonesing for something a little on the sweeter side, Lion City Meadery has just what you’re looking for. Founded by Singaporean industry newbies Sanjay Jegatheesan and Justin Herson at the end of 2019, this operation specialises in meads – an alcoholic beverage that’s usually created by fermenting honey. The brand’s core offerings span a range of inventive flavours, including a fragrant Hibiscus & Blueberry Mead and their Flagship Classic Singapore Mead. The latter is made with a custom blend of eucalyptus honey that was developed in collaboration with apiaries in Australia. Also currently on sale is their limited-edition seasonal Chrysanthemum Mead, which is created by boiling high-grade dried chrysanthemum flowers and is reminiscent of the popular non-alcoholic local beverage.

Alive Brewing’s One Night In Cologne, a lovely German-style light ale

5. Alive Brewing

Since debuting in April 2020, Alive Brewing – founded by two junior college friends with a passion for craft beer – has been pushing out a small but impressive range of craft beers. The permanent collection currently includes False Sense of Security, an easy-drinking hazy session IPA that’s redolent of tropical fruit flavours; Ministry of Plenty, a strong, earthy and hop-centric pale ale that’s inspired by a West Coast IPA; One Night in Cologne, a German-style light ale (the brand’s unique version of a Kölsch) that’s a malty delight with a fruity and floral touch; and their latest offering, Little Xtra: an IPA-esque brew with tropical and citrus aromas that they recommend reaching for if session IPAs don’t have quite enough of a kick for you but regular IPAs are too heavy.

Newcomer Sunbird Brewing Company was founded by Clive Tan in May 2020

6. Sunbird Brewing Company

Perhaps the newest entrant into the industry is Sunbird Brewing Company. It was launched by founder Clive Tan – who paid his dues at Archipelago Brewing and Brewerkz – in May 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. While the timing has certainly been tough, the brand has managed to stay afloat. Tan brews a core range of beers out of a facility in Mandai, which is then sold through its webstore. The Birds of Paradise White IPA has a pale hue and creamy mouthfeel, but contains less bitterness than traditional IPAs; the Eclipse of The Sun Scottish Ale is a full-bodied brew with malty, roasted caramel notes; the Fluff Up Belgian Witbier is a light and highly quaffable beverage made with raw wheat, oats, spices and orange peels; and the Fly in Light Pale Ale is a hop-forward option that’s heavy on the passionfruit and citrus.

7. Rye & Pint Brewery

Run by three Singaporean brothers – Luther, Rufus and Ross Goh – who turned their passion project into a thriving business, the family-owned Rye & Pint Brewery has been churning out standout local beers since 2015. Their facility in Tuas is capable of brewing 10,000 litres annually, and beers are bottled and kegged straight out of the fermenter in order to ensure that they remain as fresh as possible. The brand’s catalogue features a large variety of both permanent offerings and seasonal delights – from pilsners and hazy session IPAs to coffee ales and stouts. Currently available year-round are the Punchin’ Rye, a moderately hoppy pale ale with a passionfruit aroma that’s highly session-able; Star Gazin’, a hop-forward session IPA with a tropical aroma and a malty backbone; and the Trippin’ Wheat, a wheat ale with notes of bananas, citrus and cloves.

The refreshing Kiam Sng Di from That Singapore Beer Project

8. That Singapore Beer Project

If you’re looking to sample some distinctly Singaporean flavours in alcohol form, look no further than That Singapore Beer Project, which churns out some of the most interesting pints in town. Led by founder Casey Choo (who’s also one of the brewers at Off Day Beer Company), the company’s unique “people-centric” products are made using a bottom-up approach: before delving into the production of a new flavour, they source for input from their intended customers, then translate these insights into beer. The Kiam Sng Di (which means salty, sour and sweet in the Hokkien dialect) is a refreshing gose inspired by the local pairing of crunchy guavas with salty-sweet sour plum powder. Meanwhile, the Mangojack Invasion is a must-try for all New England IPA lovers: it’s made with Alphonso mangoes and honey jackfruits, offering a fragrant, creamy and juicy beverage heavy on the tropical notes.

SEE ALSO: Taste the world with delicious baked goods from Singapore bakeries

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