Here's Why The Craft Beer Industry is Growing in Singapore
The beer-making community in Singapore has long been a robust one, and particularly so in the past decade where craft beer is concerned. Even microbreweries such as Paulaner Bräuhaus and Brewerkz (established in 1996 and 1997, respectively) are as invested in the scene as the newer players. Just ask Gabriel Garcia, the brew-master at Level33, a restaurant and craft brewery which opened at the Marina Bay Financial Centre in 2010. He faced a daunting task when circuit breaker measures were announced by the government in light of the Covid-19 pandemic in April.
“We had to stop restaurant operations, and quickly think of how to develop online sales and open channels,” Garcia recounts. It also occurred to him that other breweries would be in the same boat, and that perhaps they could sell their beer together as a stronger effort. He reached out first to personal friends at Rye & Pint Brewery—who said yes—then Paulaner Bräuhaus, RedDot BrewHouse, Binjai Brew and Lion Brewery Co. Some, like Brewlander, were interested but were not in time to get into the first tranche of offerings, although its founder John Wei has since become a leading figure in the resulting #SGCraftTogether initiative.
The first six-pack collaboration, The O.G., was launched by late April, featuring Level33, Paulaner Bräuhaus and Rye & Pint Brewery. By May, there were 12 breweries involved in a 12-pack offer, along with other collaborative efforts, which included a WhatsApp chat group, a beer collection and drop-off point that Brewerkz kindly volunteered for, and sharing of resources. For instance, Level33 soon found itself out of bottles as there was a shortage of packaging in Singapore due to the mass pivot to offer home delivery. Garcia was offered a pallet of cans from Brewerkz, and was able to make use of a small canning machine to produce Level33’s first cans of its bestselling 33.1 Blonde Lager, among others. It is, in fact, still using cans instead of bottles, says Garcia, which are much lighter and more practical than bottles.
“If we do it again, I would keep a pack for myself,” he adds, referring to the potential second offering of a collaboration pack. That’s right—although it was a great opportunity for beer drinkers to get their hands on these mixed-brand packs, the brewers had to restrain themselves. They would have had fewer beers to sell and every contribution to the bottom line counted.
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“There wasn’t a need for a craft beer association before ... but now the natural next step is to get organised”— Gabriel Garcia
Now that Level33 and other restaurant-microbreweries have reopened, it is the local craft brew labels that are continuing the spirit of collaboration under the #SGCraftTogether umbrella. Garcia sees it as a step forward for the already tight-knit community. “There wasn’t a need for an association before as Singapore is small and everyone is already in touch,” he explains. The soft-spoken Argentinian himself got to know the scene and community through monthly brewmaster gatherings at Brewerkz when he first arrived eight years ago. “But now the natural next step is to get organised,” he adds. Fact is, there’s no stopping the local craft beer manifesto with a further five new craft beer companies starting out in 2020, namely Alive Brewing Co, Sunbird Brewing Company, Off Day Beer Company, Civilisation Brewing Co, and the soon-to-be-launched Niang Brewery Co.
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Kasster Soh, one of the five co-founders of Off Day, concurs about the need to have an organisation build up the local craft beer industry. An importer and bar owner for the past five years, he feels that there is still a lot of room to grow and that even with some 30 brands locally, the scene is in a nascent stage. “My partners and I want to create a great Singapore brand, which happens to make great beer,” he expounds. Off Day’s focus is on a lifestyle label with a style of hop-driven yet balanced beer suited for Singaporean palates of all levels, whether beginner or long-time craft beer fan, with lifestyle tie-ins such as music events and initiatives to protect the environment.
According to the founders, Off Day aims to be a company that is a “force for good”, with concerns over conscious capitalism and returning value to the community that they operate in. They have set up ongoing R&D projects for exploring the use of spent grain in beer production as fish feed, for instance. “The idea is to build our own circular economy, reduce waste, recover resources, and turn them into meaningful production.”
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Off Day was also the only Singaporean label to brew the All Together Beer, an open-source recipe provided by Brooklyn’s Other Half Brewing, a well-regarded craft beer brewer. A total of 825 breweries from around the world got involved to brew a New England IPA in their own communities to help raise funds for the hard-hit hospitality industry. Off Day’s take was dry-hopped for a juicy and smooth style that kept the bitterness manageable, in line with the brand. Two dollars from the proceeds of each bottle went towards the funding of free meals for hospitality workers in Singapore, with matching contributions from Smith Street Taps, 3rd Culture Brewing Co, American Taproom and Good Luck Beerhouse.
What is it about craft beer that inspires such together-ness? Soh reckons it’s part of how craft beer got started around the early 1980s. “There’s always been a beer culture around the world in the first place, but craft beer—beer that is made with better quality ingredients and in smaller quantities—was pitted against the big beers since it started.”Even today, craft beer has only a very slim toehold in the Singapore market, making up just three per cent of a US$1.7 billion industry, according to projections by statistics portal Statista. This David-Goliath scenario would explain the sense of camaraderie among the brewers—collaboration beers, knowledge exchanges and shared facilities are not uncommon. “Just don’t ask me to define craft beer,” laughs Soh. That’s a conversation for the proposed craft beer association to answer.