It was a perfect summer’s day in London, nicely warm and pleasantly devoid of the usual wetness that clings to the city at most times of the year. Three Singaporeans were making a trek to a certain rather nondescript building in south London’s Bermondsey district, once littered with wharves and warehouses but has started its transformation into a more gentrified neighbourhood studded with stylish lofts, hip eateries and boutiques.
The trio – Elijah Toh, Meng Chao and Raymond Singh – were heading for the home of one of England’s newest microbreweries, Brew By Numbers, to taste their wares. For beer geek Raymond Singh, it was the thrill of the hunt; to be one of the first from Southeast Asia to check them off his extensive bucket list of beers to try. Elijah Toh, on the other hand, was not just a beer aficionado; the director of Singapore-based beer importer Applehops was keen to add new beers to his rapidly-growing portfolio. He had brought along Meng Chao, the proprietor of specialty beer retail shop Brewers’ Craft (and also co-founder and tapmaster at all-taps craft beer hawker stall Smith Street Taps), to seek his expert opinion.
When they arrived they were greeted by a crowd that was spilling out of the brewery doors into the street, people were sitting on road-side wooden pallets; Brewery By Numbers were pulling in a crowd comparable to the more established Kernel just 5 minutes walk away.
Founded by Tom Hutchings and Dave Seymour, Brew By Numbers is located along a mile stretch that contains a number of other cutting-edge British breweries, including The Kernel, Partizan Brewing and Fourpure. Bermondsey is actually one of London-based Toh’s personal go-to places on a Saturday morning for some great beer and food, and Brew By Numbers – also BBNo. – was one of the breweries whose beers he was keen to import back to Singapore and neighbouring Malaysia.
“Brew By Numbers came highly recommended by peers in the industry,” recalled Toh. “It speaks volume when (Scottish microbrewery) BrewDog invested £50,000 of their own development funds into Brew By Numbers.” Toh had first gotten in touch with Brew By Numbers the previous summer, which culminated in this particular brewery tour that took place last July.
Founded in as recently as 2012, Brew By Numbers began like most microbreweries – a couple of friends who had a passion for beer and have been dabbling in homebrewing for a while. Dave Syemour had discovered craft beer in Australia and New Zealand, while Tom Hutchings was a big fan of The Kernel Brewery during its early days and was consistently blown away by the intensity and variety of flavours that come from the new world hops they were using.
Brew By Numbers is so named because of its cataloguing system which consisting of two sets of numbers (see chart on right). The two first digits denotes its style, while the last two indicate the recipe or version number. For example, its Ginger & Grapefruit Saison, which will be available in Singapore from this month, is 01 | 04: 01 for the refreshing farmhouse style, and 04 for the specific recipe.
Brew By Numbers, which had been brewing from a friend’s basement, finally became reality when in November 2012 they received permission from Southwark Council to brew beer for sale. They were ready for the big time, and so were their recipes, from Brettanomyces-laced Saisons to single-hopped India Pale Ales.
The trio started off their BBNo. with a Motueka & Lime Saison on draft that was fruity, funky, aromatic and zesty – perfect for the warm summer. “I remember saying something along the lines of ‘This would be great for Singapore (weather) too!’ to Elijah,” recalled Meng Chao of Brewers’ Craft. That was quickly followed by a Motueka & Centennial Session IPA, Traditional Porter, and finally finished off with a bottle of Barrel Aged Export Stout, a slow sipper with bourbon notes at 8.4% ABV.
In July 2012 a generous philanthropist donated enough money for Dave and Tom to move to stainless equipment. That investment allowed many upgrades that would help BBNo. achieve their goal of selling beer brewed in their basement space.
“While they stuck to making a smaller range of beer styles as compared to some of their peers, they are nonetheless a great selection,” shared Raymond Singh. “I don’t know if they are able to produce enough of a selection to attract attention amidst the flood of other brands and beers that we have been seeing recently, but my opinion is that their beers are good enough to spark interest among those who truly value discovering good new breweries.”
“Their stouts and porters were very delicious,” he added.
Meng Chao agrees. “From the few BBNo. beers I tried, they are well-made, balanced, very flavorful and drinkable, even the higher ABV ones. In the case of the saisons, they are pushing some boundaries by using non-traditional ingredients, such as ginger and grapefruit in their saison,” he said.
“So, yes, I was quite impressed by the BBNo. beers.”
The problem though, like with all good microbreweries making cutting-edge and really lovely beer, was that generally demand outstrips supply. It was already difficult for Brew By Numbers to produce enough to supply the rest of the country, supplying to Southeast Asia was out of the question at that time. But in December last year, five months after that fateful visit, Applehops’ Toh finally got a call from Hutchings. Brew By Numbers was finally ready to export to Singapore.
“You can imagine the smile on my face when Tom informed me that they are ready to work with us,” Toh beamed.
“My parting advice? Note down the beer numbers you’ve tried and compare it to the next batch of numbers with different versions or recipes that will be available in future,” shared Toh. “You’ll experience something new every time!”
5 variants are currently available – the 05 | 08 India Pale Ale Mosaic, 08 | 02 Imperial Stout, 15 | 1 Black IPA (Yakima Valley), 16 | 02 Red Ale (Amarillo Citra Simcoe), and 01 | 04 Ginger & Grapefruit Saison. Bottled Brew By Numbers beers can be found in Singapore at all good craft beer bars and specialty beer retail stores; limited kegs are available.
Disclosure: Author is co-founder of Smith Street Taps.