Last year Teo Hong Han, owner and head brewer of craft beer brewery Pink Blossoms Brewing returned from his work stint in the United States as an accountant specialising in cross-border tax restructuring, and decided to throw himself into building a brewery to make beers inspired by the ones he tasted there.
We were seated in Pink Blossoms Brewing’s brewery tap room in Ubi before opening time. It’s a utilitarian set-up – a stark space with a row of taps, some furniture and little else. Accountant turned owner and head brewer of Pink Blossoms Brewing, Teo Hong Han, emerged from the back and apologised for the wait. He’d been cleaning up the brewery in anticipation of our visit.
“I never imagined that I would become a brewer some day,” Teo reflected, as he poured us some beers. “Although I have always loved craft beer, I never really thought much about the craft beer business.”
He could be understating his love for craft beer a little bit.
Whilst working in the US, his keenness for craft beer would lead him all over the country visiting breweries in search of interesting brews to try. He’d drag his wife along on those weekend road trips – some of which would take over eight hours – as well. “Chasing interesting breweries and acclaimed craft beer became part of our lives,” he laughed.
“We got to taste the endless creativity of the US craft brewers and experience first-hand how vibrant and diverse the US craft beer industry is,” Teo shared. He would, by the time he returned to Singapore, have visited more than 100 craft breweries of different sizes across the continental United States.
It was from those trips that he decided that options for fresh craft beer in Singapore were limited, and that Singaporeans were missing out on all the different beer styles and interesting flavours that craft beer offered. So Teo woke up one day and shared his dream with his wife – that they would pack up, relocate back to Singapore, and start a brewery to share those flavours he’s fallen in love with in the States.
And that’s what they did.
It wasn’t easy for either of them to give up stable careers for the uncertainty of entrepreneurship. “Thankfully my wife has been extremely supportive. We agreed that if we don’t give this a shot, we will probably spend the rest of our lives regretting and wondering about the path not taken,” he remembered. With that goal in mind, he took up a diploma course to equip himself with the theory and practical skills required to set up a brewery from scratch and operate it.
Even forearmed, setting up the brewery was an exceedingly difficult – and expensive – experience as he knew no one in the industry that he can turn to for advice when things go wrong. And things often went wrong. From the choice of floor covering to the layout of the brewery to hoisting the behemoth structures in place, every step, he said, was a roller coaster.
When taking us through the brewery, he pointed to the false ceiling on the roof of the building that had a cut out. “We had to cut out a part of the ceiling to accommodate the installation of the fermentation tanks. While we measured the height of the tanks accordingly, we didn’t quite account for the slightly raised platform in the middle of the brewery floor,” he laughed ruefully.
The wholly self-funded brewery would cost him in excess of over half a million dollars, mistakes and all.
Unlike some of the newer homegrown craft beer brands whose founders were first members of local homebrewing circles who’ve gone professional, Teo wasn’t in those circles. So when Pink Blossoms Brewing emerged in July last year it had caught the entire brewing industry by surprise.
But his timing was right. Teo would come back to a burgeoning craft beer scene in Singapore. In the two years that he was away, industry stalwarts such as Archipelago Beer, Brewerkz, and RedDot remained on the lips of the Singapore beer drinker, while newer ones like Little Island Brewing Company and Brewlander had trailblazed the scene helped open up opportunities for other smaller independent outfits such as Daryl’s Urban Ales and That Singapore Beer Project. Like Teo, many of these brewers were similarly inspired by the many exciting beer styles they’ve tasted from overseas, and aimed to share the love of those beers with their fellow Singaporeans.
More importantly, consumers were beginning to explore beyond the usual ubiquitous lagers and challenge their palates. Pink Blossom Brewing’s Lean on Me, a New England-style pale ale, and its 100 Years milk stout – both are styles popularised in America and are now sweeping across the world – are aimed at slaking such thirst. Aside from visiting a few locations around town that stock Pink Blossoms beer, beer connoisseurs even make the trek to this “ulu” Ubi taproom to look for his limited edition, seasonal beers exploring styles running the gamut from a Belgian strong ale to a Russian imperial stout.
Teo doesn’t believe that local craft brewers compete amongst each other as much as they are trying to make the best beers they love and want to share with others. “The beauty of craft is diversity and variety. Everyone is doing their own thing or interpreting the same style in different ways,” he pointed out.
“For us it is introducing people who are unfamiliar with craft beers to craft beers and providing craft beer lovers with another option of beers which are freshly brewed in Singapore,” Teo added.
Neither does he think that craft beer in Singapore is a fad. “I believe there will always be demand for beers which are delicious and flavourful,” insisted Teo. The more interesting question, he said, is whether small independent craft brewers in Singapore can survive long enough to share their craft with the greater community.
“Running a craft brewery in Singapore is not easy. Gypsy brewers also have their own challenges. Without the support of the community, the odds are stacked against us small indie brewers.”
Teo looked around the room. “With the benefit of hindsight, the real challenge is not in the setting up but making sure that we keep the lights on.”
Then someone rapped the front door. A loyal patron had arrived, right on opening time. He is followed quickly by another. Pink Blossoms Brewing celebrates their first anniversary later this month; if the community continues to turn up in droves in support, they might just be the flower of Singapore’s brewing scene just yet.
[Photo credits: Joel Lim Photography]