Craftsmen and women are making their favourite craft beers and spirits with skill and lots of heart, right here in this town.
Singapore’s craft beer culture has been brewing for quite a few years now. Says John Wei, brewer and yeast whisperer of Brewlander & Co., “In Singapore, we had microbreweries which operated more like F&B establishments for many years. However, the big change happened from 2010 with importers bringing in world-class craft beer. Likewise, home-brewing started to grow as well. Drinkers’ palates became more exposed and developed over time, resulting in a small, growing community of craft beer enthusiasts.”
Along with it came a coterie of local brewers—homebrewers or otherwise—keen on injecting a local touch to the drinks they made. And it’s not just for craft beer. The growing popularity of previously obscure drinks like mead—made by fermenting honey and water—and the revival of spirits such as gin worldwide have had trickling effects here as well, kindling interest not only in drinking them but in making them.
Says Andy Hodgson, operations manager of Tanglin Gin, a new gin distillery based in Singapore, “When you look to places like the UK, the home of the modern renaissance of gin, even just a decade ago a pub would have had one gin on offer. Now there’s about 315 distilleries, and pubs have gin menus. Australia is not that different with at least 100 gin distilleries there now. For Singapore, it just took a little imagination to realise a city with a rich gin heritage that includes the gin-based Singapore Sling needed its own gin to put into it.”
With a wave of enthusiastic craftsmen tinkering away on our shores to the point where there are plans to start a Distillers and Brewers Association of Singapore, we can only say cheers to good drink, and bottoms up.
Brewed with passion
John Wei, brewer and yeast whisperer of Brewlander & Co., started home-brewing about a decade ago, after a “beer awakening” in Cornwall, UK. Two years ago, in partnership with former radio DJ Daniel Ong and television host Allan Wu, he started Brewlander & Co, hitting the market with signatures like Pride, his take on a saison beer. He says, “We go big on flavour, and are very experimental in our brewing approach.”
Erstwhile brewing out of Cambodia, Brewlander recently also started brewing out of a microbrewery in Jurong Food Hub owned by The General Brewing Co.. The Jurong setup focuses on producing The Fringe Project (TFP), a series of beers that aim to up the ante on locally-made craft beers. New beers will be produced almost monthly, and be made available at bars such as Freehouse, Good Luck Beerhouse, Smith Street Taps and 3rd Culture Brewing Co..
Says Wei of two TFP beers to be launched in September, “Given the success and feedback on TFP 004 Beware the Seagulls, I’ve decided to brew another English beer that will be served with a classic British hand pump. You won’t get a better compliment than when an English person says the beer reminds them of home. The second will be a Munich Helles. This beer may just well be technically the most difficult we’ve done. It should be ready near Oktoberfest period, and the idea is to remind people how tasty a well-made simple lager is.”
Started by four men—two Australians, a British and a Dutch—Tanglin Gin is a passion project that grew out of a love for gin and being together in Singapore at the right time. All hold day jobs, including the brewer Tim Whitefield himself, who’s an architect but grew up making sloe gin with his dad. From their micro distillery in Mandai Food Link, comes First Batch Orchid Gin ($108), just 2,000 bottles in its first run, made with botanicals such as juniper, coriander seed, liquorice root, angelica root, amchoor or Indian dried green mangoes in powdered form, and two orchids—dendrobium orchid, added in the powdered form of its dried stalk, and the fruit of the vanilla orchid.
On why they didn’t go with the Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid that is Singapore’s national flower, they say it didn’t work with what they were trying to do. Explains operations manager Andy Hodgson, “If we had persevered, it may have been possible, but the history of dendrobium being used in Chinese herbal medicine meant that it just worked. More importantly, vanilla and dendrobium really play their roles in the flavour of Tanglin.”
The result is a gin that Hodgson describes, is slightly citrus on the nose, followed with a mouthful of herbaceous flavour, and finished with a creamy mouthfeel.
Heart of a lion
Launched this month, Brass Lion Distillery at Alexander Terrace is the brainchild of Jamie Koh, who’s also behind The Beast Southern Kitchen + Bourbon Bar and Chupitos Shots Bar. She started conceptualising Brass Lion Distillery back in 2012, when craft distilleries were starting to take off in the US and around the time craft cocktails were being introduced to drinkers in Singapore. Spending the next six years apprenticing with master distillers in the US and Europe, she says her stint with a distiller in the Black Forest in Germany influenced her most.
“I got to experience distilling as a way of life, where every household had a mini-still in their house as they have had for generations,” she shares. “I saw how people there built upon this tradition to create successful businesses both regionally and internationally. The distilling process I saw there is very relevant to the type of distilling process and gin we want to showcase here. We use a completely manual still, custom-made from a German copper pot still maker.”
Other spirits are planned in the pipeline, but for its debut, Brass Lion Distillery is launching three gins ($88 each)—the Brass Lion Singapore Dry Gin; a Gin Pahit or a pink Angostura bitters-tinged gin; and a Butterfly Pea Flower Gin. On coming up with their flagship Brass Lion Singapore Dry Gin, Koh says one of their greatest challenges was finding the right blend of botanicals that would make a gin that was “light and floral, with hints of fresh citrus and an underlying backbone of juniper”.
The final 22 botanicals used such as torch ginger flower, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, pomelo and Mandarin peels, says Koh, reflect Singapore’s cultural history as a melting pot of cultures and a trading hub within Southeast Asia. They also pay homage to flavours that are familiar to Singaporeans and Southeast Asians. She adds, “To stay true to creating a gin that showcases the best of Singaporean flavours, most of the botanicals used are either grown in the distillery’s on-site herb garden, or sourced from the local wet markets.”
Equipped with facilities such as a tasting room, R&D lab and retail space, Brass Lion Distillery hopes that visitors to the distillery can learn more about the gin distilling process, and even try their hand at distilling a bottle of gin of their own.
Mead in Singapore
A beverage that has a long history, mead has been growing in popularity in the past few years. Some attribute this to hit shows such as Game of Thrones that are making the medieval and ancient hip again. Rachelle the Rabbit founder Simon Zhao says that while there were reference points for starting microbreweries, none existed for starting his meadery at Westview Food Factory. He recalls that there was a lot of trial and error involved and much-needed support from family and friends when he first started in 2016. “I named the brand after my daughter, Rachelle. Just like how I wish for Rachelle to grow up with a strong character, I designed the flavours to be something unique. Each flavour is like a part of Rachelle; some are sweet, some are spicy, some are floral, some are complex.”
And some come with a decidedly local character, such as Rachelle’s Bandung ($45), a rose-infused mead reminiscent of the Southeast Asian rose-syrup-and-milk drink called bandung. Next up, they are looking into launching an osmanthus mead, and probably a sparkling mead in the later part of 2018. The meads are currently available at establishments such as Druggists, Mikkeller Bar, The Great Beer Experiment and Native, as well as at bottle shops like Temple Cellars and The Straits Wine Company. Restaurants such as Nouri, afterglow by ANGLOW and Como Cuisine at Dempsey have also shown interest in their product.
This is an updated version of the article Brew Town, first published in Wine & Dine’s Sep/Oct 2018 issue – Behind The Scenes At Singapore’s Top Restaurants.