One of the biggest news to hit Singapore’s craft beer scene in recent time is the launch of Brewlander & Co; unlike most other Singapore craft microbreweries though Brewlander is actually a gypsy brewer in the vein of Denmark’s vaunted Mikkeller. It currently contract brews its range of beers in Cambodia’s Kingdom Breweries, and then ships them back to Singapore.
The beers of Brewlander & Co are also slightly different from those that are offered by its local peers; it’s almost unheard of to have a Singapore microbrewery list a Belgian farmhouse ale (a saison, in beer parlance), an India Pale Ale that uses wild yeast, as well as a double IPA to headline its initial offering of four beers. These beer styles are not only more challenging to make, they’re also somewhat more foreign to local palates.
“I didn’t want to be safe and just brew the standard lineup of a pale ale, an IPA, a stout and a wheat beer,” shares John Wei, head brewer of Brewlander & Co. “I wanted to push the boundaries on flavours and style more than what locals are comfortable with, even if it means a much higher cost and a smaller business margin.”
Most people who have heard of Brewlander beers would know that the Singapore beer brand is actually fronted by two local celebrities – former DJ, host and entrepreneur Daniel Ong, who recently sold his stake in pastry chain Twelve Cupcakes to Kolkata-based tea company Dhunseri Group, and Singapore-based American-Chinese TV show host and actor Allan Wu are both shareholders in the venture. Less known is the fact that the name Brewlander is actually head brewer Wei’s online moniker.
It was a chance encounter on a trip to UK that sparked Wei’s interest in brewing. He had fallen in love with the cask conditioned ales the UK was famed for, and emailed a brewery to ask if they could ship him some for his own personal consumption. They weren’t interesting in exporting, but a friend casually mentioned that homebrewing had become a trend in the United States so he researched the matter and finally ordered his first homebrew kit.
That started a lifelong love for brewing, and Wei began to submit his beers to Singapore’s annual homebrewing competition, iBrew Challenge. He began to win multiple awards at those competitions, and friends – and even random strangers – would encourage him to go professional. “At first, I brushed it off as people just wanting to be nice, and why go ruin my favourite hobby and make it “work”?” Wei laughs. But he did start researching business plans for starting a production brewery as early as 2013.
And last year when he was making some decisions about his career, he finally decided to take the leap. The whole thing fell into place when he shared with a close friend of his plans to possibly start gypsy brewing on a small scale. His friend Joey Yeo, who was in the corporate finance and advisory business, called him up a month later and said there may be interested investors.
One of those potential investors turned out to be Daniel Ong, and they dropped by iBrew Challenge 2016 to try his beer. One beer led to the next, and Yeo, Ong and another investor came on board as co-founding partners of Brewlander & Co.
Allan Wu joined later. Wei admitted marketing wasn’t his strong suit, and Ong recommended Wu to join and complement the team. “That way I can focus on the beer production, sales, and the business side of things,” he explains.
But celebrity partnership and endorsement doesn’t good craft beer make, nor help the brand stand out in a very crowded, competitive market. “Singapore has more than 15 brewpubs and breweries, and that’s quite a lot for a small city like ours. This was one of the dissuading factors for not starting earlier,” Wei admits.
Wei decided to brew in Cambodia for a few reasons. For one he knew someone at Kingdom Breweries, which made things a little simpler. “We had options to do it in Australia, New Zealand, UK, and Belgium,” Wei remembers. “I’ve visited two of them, and one was state-of-the-art. However, these are more contract-based where they do the brewing for me.”
Kingdom, on the other hand, allowed him to personally go in to do the brewing himself. “I was happy with the brewery setup when I visited it. The brewhouse is (of European make), and they have a lab as well as a solid bottling line,” he says. “It’s closer to home, and I can fly up on short notice in case of any troubleshooting.” More importantly though, shipments from Cambodia arrive in Singapore within a mere two days and so beers remained fresh.
“Our goal remains steadfast, that we want our beers to be as good or better than imported craft beers that you find on our shelves, and do Singapore and Asia craft beers proud,” insists Wei.
“As a brewer and business owner, I think we want to do things very differently from what the others are already offering, and add to the choice for local beer drinkers,” he adds. Wei agrees that brewing more challenging style can be a risky move; he doesn’t quite know if consumers in Singapore will start taking to those styles.
He’s doing a lot better than he believes. Assistant brewer Andrew Tierney of Little Island Brewing Company knows John from their homebrewing days and competing against each other at iBrew Challenge – Tierney has won multiple awards at the homebrew competition himself – and is effusive with his praise.
“John has pioneered many aspects of beer culture in Singapore,” shares Tierney. “I’m thrilled he is making his mark on the Singapore craft beer scene and look forward to what Brewlander has in store for the future,” he adds.
Commercially, the first batch of Brewlander beers to land in Singapore from Cambodia was also exceedingly well accepted. Chinatown-based craft beer hawker stall Smith Street Taps was one of the first venues in Singapore to tap Brewlander beers, and Singapore craft beer pioneer and co-owner of Smith Street Taps Meng Chao shared that the kegs emptied far more quickly than expected. “John has a great reputation as a fine homebrewer, and those of us in local craft beer circles have been eagerly awaiting to try his beers since he went professional.”
“Our goal remains steadfast, that we want our beers to be as good or better than imported craft beers that you find on our shelves, and do Singapore and Asia craft beers proud.” – John Wei, head brewer of Brewlander & Co.
But Wei admits that the road ahead is still exceedingly challenging. One of those challenges is the need for more education about craft beer, and especially on the service front. “Many would dwell on the financials of a business, or the quality of the product, but that’s the same for every business. What makes craft beer different is that, it isn’t a commodity but a movement,” Wei muses.
“We all talk about how US craft beer scene is leading the way and exploding, but we also fail to realise that it took them a good 20-25 years before craft beer became a phenomenon (there),” he explains. “I think we lack on the front of educating both service staff and consumers about what is craft beer, and starting a culture and a movement in Singapore like what you see in the cocktail, wine, coffee, Japanese whisky scene here.”
So what other out-of-the-box beer styles is Wei looking to brew next?
“We are still figuring out what our core beers are!” He laughs. “Going forward, I’ll introduce a porter, a session IPA and a hoppy wheat beer in our next batch. I’d also like to do a stronger and hoppier version of a saison,” he adds.
At some point, he’d really like to look into a small barrel-aging program, and release some kickass winter beers which develops for the better with extended cellaring, he reveals.
Brewlander & Co may be fronted by two faces familiar to those who follow the Singapore celebrity circuit, but to the homebrewing and craft beer circles here the real artist is the one who makes the beer.