In our inaugural edition of Makers & Shakers, we sat down with John Wei, founder and head brewer of Brewlander, to learn more about his craft brewing journey.
In the seven years covering Singapore’s drinks scene – and later expanding to dining and travel – we’ve come across many personalities we’ve always found interesting. You know, the kind of people you’d happily chat with for hours over a beer or some whisky. Many of them are thought leaders in their own right, and usually keen to share ideas or astute observations about their areas of expertise.
We’ve decided to come up with an entirely new section to cover these personalities – Makers & Shakers. Here we’ll chat with some of these folks and, hopefully, draw out interesting facts and learn more about different facets of Singapore’s food and beverage scene in a fun and engaging manner.
For our first-ever Makers & Shakers interview we chat with John Wei, founder of Singapore’s very own Brewlander. Originally a gypsy brewery, Brewlander recently took the unprecedented step in setting up a new brewery facility in Tuas to become one of the largest independent craft breweries in Singapore. In the midst of a pandemic, no less.
John is also considered by many as one of the godfathers of Singapore’s craft beer movement. Since turning professional he has helped guide and support other brewers, some of whom have gone on to start their own beer labels, such as District Brewers.
How did you get from being a homebrewer to starting Brewlander, today one of Singapore’s largest independent breweries?
My journey in craft beer really started after a ‘beer awakening’ moment in the UK where I still vividly remember saying to myself, “Wow, I didn’t know beer could taste this good!”. That experience propelled me into homebrewing, a hobby I started in 2008 which later turned into an addiction.
It’s funny because I’ve resisted and fought the idea of brewing commercially for years, because I didn’t want to make my hobby a job. But in 2016, I left my corporate job under very disappointing circumstances. That ultimately made me question if I wanted to go through the same drama and sacrifices for another organisation, or to do something on my own for my family and myself.
So very quickly between a few friends, we pulled together S$150,000 as working capital to make a few batches of beer. And see to where that would take us. We definitely didn’t have enough money – or conviction! – to build a brewery then. Gypsy brewing was the lowest barrier to entry. Through a buddy of mine based in Phnom Penh – the owner of Cerevisia Craft Brewery – I was introduced to a brewery in Cambodia that had excess capacity. They were very happy to generate additional income from allowing us to brew there.
When I said allowing us to brew there, I mean every single word of it. Most breweries will just ask you for a recipe and not want you to come bother them. This brewery allowed us to be totally hands-on. I still remember going there the first day and the look on their faces as they sized me up! But I don’t blame them because I would have probably had the same reaction if I saw a pint-sized Asian kid who barely looked old enough to drink beer walk into my brewery.
We brewed an initial four batches of beer. The rest is history.
How we managed to stretch that starting capital for three years without putting in a single cent extra is truly a miracle. I still can’t believe I pulled that off. The first couple of years was truly trying; not many customers were eager to put a local beer on their menu. Thankfully, we persevered, and the quality of our beers started to speak for itself.
We slowly started changing people’s mindsets about local craft beers.
Singapore’s craft beer scene has grown by leaps and bounds over the years. What particular enduring trends have you witnessed over the years?
The one biggest thing that comes to my mind is New England IPAs. The style is extremely juicy, has very little bitterness for an IPA, and really feels like you are drinking a fruit juice. Consumers just can’t get enough of this flavour. It still is massively popular, but it does disrupt the growth and consumption for other beer styles.
Smoothie sours are also huge. It’s delicious, but I’m maybe a little too much of a purist to consider it still being a beer.
Where do you see the local beer scene going in the coming future?
Great question! When I look at the beer scene as a whole, I consider two main things: the general beer market, and the local craft market. Stop for a moment and think about this – Singapore’s consumption per capita is 22 litres per annum. That is considerably lower compared to Thailand (27 litres), Laos and Vietnam (over 40 litres). I think the challenge for us collectively would be, “How can we make beer sexy”?
When it comes to local craft, I think there have never been a time where we’ve got this many brands and choices available to the consumer. That’s great! Where we need to start working harder is for us to venture beyond the craft beer geeks and reach out to new drinkers. To grow the pie collectively instead of aiming to take market share off each other and making things more difficult for ourselves.
What we are trying to do at Brewlander is to reach out further to casual drinkers and offer them choices, rather than preaching to the choir. In a sense, we are trying to help shed the idea that craft beer is a novelty, and make it a lifestyle choice for the consumer. As we craft lovers know, once you go craft, it’s very hard to go back! So we hope to see local craft beers more readily accessible in different channels.
You were gypsy brewing before. What made you finally decide to open Brewlander’s brewing facilities in Tuas?
I’m still asking myself the same question!
But the main reasons (for opening a new brewery) are business risks, improved production quality, and, most importantly, really just building our home here in Singapore. The business was growing to a point where it was too risky if the contract brewery didn’t have capacity for us. We ran into periods where we couldn’t brew in time and ran out of stock.
Likewise, I wanted to invest in a better setup that allows us to take the quality of our beers to another level. To be able to have absolute control over a facility and a team of our own has always been part of my plans. I’m very pleased with the improvements on our beers since moving back.
Lastly, the amount of traveling to brew in Cambodia was wearing me out! I wasn’t being productive enough. As a local brand, we’ve always wanted to be brewing in our homeground.
Tell us more about your brewery, and the beers you make there such as your cask ale.
When I started homebrewing, everything was DIY. That allowed me lots of experience in building and improving my setup at home. When we embarked on building a brewery, we wanted to heavily invest in technology and capabilities that would help us take our quality to another level.
Fun fact, most of the equipment installation was done by our three-man team. Due to the pandemic, we couldn’t fly the technicians into Singapore to commission our machinery!
We’ve got an automated four-vessel brewhouse (30 hectolitres), and a centrifuge that allows us to clarify beer without stripping as much flavour as compared to traditional filtering. We’ve also invested in a canning line as well as a bottling line. We’ve got a flash pasteuriser that we use for other projects such as our soda collaboration with Eggslut, although we don’t use it for our beers.
Ours is truly an efficient brewery that enables our brewers to be more productive. Likewise, it also allows us to conserve and reuse as much water and heat/energy within the brewery. We currently are able to run the brewery with just a 4-5 man team, both brewing and packaging on the same day.
One of the highlights of our brewery is the ability to brew very high-gravity/ABV beers on our system with relative ease. We’ve since done two 10% beers – the Triple Threat with Sunbird, and an Imperial Stout which is soon to be released. High ABV beers suffer with poor efficiency – an issue I’ve always had in the past – but we were glad that our kit allowed us to hit our gravities without much drama. Another cool feature we included allows us to steep any silly amount of hops at any temperature we desire, and this allows us to extract delicate hops aromas without the risk of over-bittering the beer.
Having more control also allows us to expand our repertoire and offer a wider range of beer styles to our audience. We’ve since launched beers such as fruited sours, pastry stouts and likewise lesser-known styles like English bitters. We have recently partnered with Good Intentions to offer cask ales all year round. Cask-conditioned ales are very special to me, but is quite a hassle to manage in the brewery. However, once you taste a pint of real ale, all that work is 100-percent worth it!
All-in-all, I’m really pleased with the level of consistency our brewery has given us.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for Singapore’s craft brewing scene currently?
Access to draft accounts! Until exclusive contracts at bars and restaurants are done away, this remains the biggest obstacle for all of us local craft beer producers.
Tell us about The Craft Alliance.
The Craft Alliance was a corporate rebranding we worked on in 2020 when we were working on building our new brewery. The capabilities of the brewery allows us to potential dabble into multiple things beyond our core focus in Brewlander, such as offer contract brewing for fellow craft brands, incubate new brands or ideas, and explore other creative beverage ideas outside of beer.
We started first as a gypsy brewer, so I completely understand the pain points of my fellow peers. It is important for us not to just offer our contract partners with brewing capacity, but extend value-added advice for both the production and beer side of things, as well as some commercial and consumer experiences in the trade.
In my time as a homebrewer, I’ve always tried to give back and help other fellow brewers to improve. The craft beer industry is very different to those of other consumer packaged goods (CPG); we are built around a strong global community. With our new setup, one aspect that we would start looking into is offering fellow local brands or aspiring founders an incubation in our brewery. And it isn’t limited to just beer.
Also, having the new set of tools available allows us to experiment on so many interesting and tasty drinks. One such example is our craft soda collaboration with Eggslut, which is a hit among their customers.
So in many ways, we feel that Brewlander is part of a greater movement in the craft scene. We want to play a role in being forming alliances in this journey.
Where are your favourite places to dine and drink at in Singapore, and why?
I usually stick to my comfort zone and what works. My favourites can appear a little boring to some.
For craft beers, I like going to Good Luck, Smith Street Taps, SG Taps, Ziggy Zaggy, The Guild, 16 Ounces, Locality, and Orh Gao Taproom for the assortment of beers but more importantly because of the fine folks that run these places. Great personalities behind the bar make the experience more than just drinking beer. If you like cask ales, check out Good Intentions.
When I’m in the mood of cocktails? I’d usually head to one of the bars run by the Jigger and Pony Group, such as Jigger & Pony and Live Twice. They make fine drinks, and also have great personalities behind the bar who take good care of me and my guests.
For wines? Park90 at Regent Singapore is the place for me. Great wines from trusted provenance at reasonable prices. The sommeliers there are superb in their wine knowledge and recommendations, and I can’t speak more highly about their service.
Food wise, too many! I love a really good bak chor mee, hokkien mee, kway chap, pizza etc…
[Image credits: Joel Lim Photography]
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