SINGAPORE: Beer that tasted like vinegar was not what home brewer Mark Chen had in mind.
But that was what he often ended up with when he first picked up home brewing as a hobby four years ago. “It doesn’t always turn out well,” he recalled with a laugh.
But in a corner of his home in Hougang he persevered. With a second-hand brewing kit from a friend, Mr Chen would spend hours every Saturday hoping to perfect a pint with different grains, hop varieties and yeast strains.
He soon improved and began moving away from following recipes in home-brewing magazines to experimenting on his own.
“My wife loves to cook and she experiments a lot, which inspires me,” said Mr Chen. “We always go to the market together and at the spices and dry herbs section, I started asking myself why all these ingredients are found in local food, but not beer. That’s when I started experimenting.”
Now, some of these home experimentations are available in the market after the 36-year-old left his architect job to start craft beer brand Niang Brewery last year.
“Architecture has been quite a long journey for me and I was scared to jump into something new… but I realised I don’t want to regret not doing this.”
Among the first to roll off the production lines was a concoction inspired by one of these visits to the wet market. Called the “Warming Spirit”, it is a take on a saison – a historical beer style brewed in Belgian farmhouses – that comes with hints of black pepper, ginger, coriander seeds and orange peel.
Another – a West Coast Indian pale ale (IPA) with notes of pine and tropical fruits – aims to recreate a childhood memory.
“My grandmother used to have a fruit garden at the back of her house in Simpang Bedok but we were never allowed there when we were young. I wanted to recreate this elusive, mystical experience of a forbidden garden through a beer,” said Mr Chen.
The new entrepreneur is hoping that this “story-telling around local flavours” can set him apart from the competition. Even with the COVID-19 pandemic depressing most industries, the local craft beer scene has remained abuzz with a stream of newcomers.
Including Niang Brewery, there were five new brands last year, Mr Chen told CNA. “There is a demand for craft beer – I won’t say it’s huge – but that’s enough to keep new players coming.”
It is not just in the world of craft beer that the fizz continues. The craft spirits market also saw a new local micro-distiller entering the market.
Singapore Distillery debuted with a suite of six gins last July, including unique variants like coconut pandan, Japanese cucumbers and a rose blend inspired by the local bandung drink.
The youngest player also has the biggest distillery among existing entities, with a 500-litre, custom-built copper still.
“We’ve been preparing for a long time,” said head distiller Ashwin Sekaran who first had the idea of starting his own distillery in 2017.
Then on a family holiday to the United Kingdom, experiences of being given extensive gin menus at local bars, as well as subsequent visits to a craft distilling trade show and gin distilleries opened his eyes.
To make sure he knew “how to make gin properly”, Mr Sekaran spent the following year taking up apprenticeships and courses in the Institute of Brewing & Distilling in London, Brewlab in Sunderland and the University of Adelaide in Australia.
Product development, alongside a “long” process of getting the distillery up and running, meant that the company could only start formally last year.
Having to kick off his venture during a pandemic was not ideal, but Mr Sekaran said his gins with a focus on Asian flavours have had a “good reception” so far. To meet demand, his distillery located in a flatted factory in Ang Mo Kio has been operating seven days a week to churn out about 500 bottles of gin a day.
IN HIGH SPIRITS
The global artisan world of alcohol has seen effervescent growth for some time, with the concept of “craft” taking off in beer before spilling over into other alcoholic beverages.
Industry players say there is no proper definition, but “craft” generally refers to beer and spirits made in small amounts by micro and independently-owned outfits. Apart from small-batch exclusivity, they are also often seen as emphasising quality and having a wider range of innovative flavours.
In line with the global trend, Singapore has seen more microbreweries and distilleries setting up shop. They supply the market with locally-made beer, gin and even whisky, sometimes with uniquely Asian or Singaporean flavours.
Euromonitor said there were more than 20 microbreweries here in 2019. Growth was partly helped by the introduction of a new licence in 2012 that allowed producers of less than 1.8 million litres a year to pay a lower annual fee of S$8,400. Previously, all breweries had to pay the same annual fee of S$43,200.
But even with the rapid growth in numbers, industry players say the local scene remains nascent compared to other markets with more active craft beer movements, and is far from being saturated.
For instance, New Zealand’s brewers association said in 2019 that the country had more breweries on a per capita basis, compared with the United States, United Kingdom and Australia.
“People tend to look at the sheer number of brands here and think there’s an overcrowding problem, but that really isn’t the case,” said Mr Kasster Soh, who wears many hats in the craft beer scene and is most recently, one of the co-founders of one-year-old beer brand, Off Day Beer Company.
As for craft spirits, which had a later start, there are four distilleries at the moment – Tanglin Gin, Compendium, Brass Lion Distillery and Singapore Distillery, all of which emerged over the past three years.
“I think all of us probably had the idea at around the same time,” said Mr Sekaran, who recalled there were no distilleries in Singapore when he first had the idea of opening one in 2017.
“At the time, the craft beer movement was under wayso in my head, I was like ‘We have craft beer but there’s no craft spirits, why?
“But craft gin was also starting to come in from overseas and bars like Atlas were opening up. So there was some excitement going on and maybe people will also get excited about local spirits,” he added.
Accompanying the rise in supply, demand has also seen an uptick amid a greater appreciation from consumers.
“When I first started craft beer about eight years back, it was very hard to sell an IPA but these days, people are not just coming to the counter to ask for IPA, they are also asking us for sour beer,” said Mr Kevin Ngan, who co-owns Off Day Beer Company but also runs several craft beer bars like Good Luck Beerhouse and founded Singapore’s first incubation brewery The General Brewing Co.
“The landscape has really changed.”
Those who enjoy a twist to their beer are mostly the millennials, said Euromonitor International’s senior research analyst Jarred Neubronner, who noted demand from this group as one of the factors propelling the growth of craft beer in Singapore.
Echoing that, both Mr Soh and Mr Ngan said younger drinkers tend to crave for something different as they place more emphasis on “what they consume or the people behind the brands”.
More broadly, Singaporeans are well travelled while the advent of the Internet and social media have helped people to pick up new trends from abroad. More craft beer bars have also emerged in the last five years, adding more avenues for consumers to venture beyond the usual lagers and stouts, they added.
“It is inevitable that craft beer will pop up on people’s radars,” said Mr Soh, who also manages alcohol distribution business The Mad Tapper, liquor store Temple Cellars and craft beer bar Freehouse.
Mr Simon Zhao, founder and master distiller at Compendium, shares similar observations.
Prior to setting up Compendium about two and a half years ago, the 36-year-old founded Rachelle The Rabbit Meadery in 2016 where he focused on making mead – a fermented, honey-based alcoholic drink.
Mead remains a staple at…