Singapore’s industrial west is where you’ll find the pillars of the island’s beer scene – which is ironic because that’s nearer to Malaysia than the bars downtown.
Among the flat top factories is Tiger Beer, the first locally brewed beer since 1932 and a global icon today. Down the street is Brewlander, established in 2017 and now one of Singapore’s leading craft brewers.
These two players bookend the 20 plus local breweries today and, if anything, should know what a Singapore beer style is. “I don’t think any one of us has an answer,” says Brewlander founder John Wei.
Comments a Tiger spokesperson: “Lager remains the most popular beer in Singapore but we can’t say that there is one quintessential Singapore beer style as consumers’ tastes are always changing.”
Well, what does Brewerkz, the restaurant and brewery that’s been around since 1997, think? “We’re not sure if there is a quintessential Singapore beer style yet,” says co-owner and executive director Wee Tuck. Helpful? Not.
Considering how old Singapore is, their answers shouldn’t be unexpected. The nation is only 55 years old. Its colonial history goes back barely 200 years. Compare that to Germany, whose beers have existed since the 19th century.
Neither is Singapore associated with beer, asserts Dr. Saroja Dorairajoo, a senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore’s Department of Sociology, who researches the sociology of food. “Beer has always been marketed as an international drink,” she says. “Even the breweries in Singapore brew for international brands such as Heineken and Guinness. No doubt we have a local brand, Tiger. But one has to note its genesis as a colonial era beer brewed for colonial administrators.”
If youth is a hindrance, maybe food can help define a Singapore beer style. The country’s culinary scene is extremely dynamic, diverse, and reflective of the residents’ kaleidoscopic identities. It’s also a big tourist draw, one the authorities recognise. They have even successfully lobbied for UNESCO to include the city’s hawker culture on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2020.
Like the local fare, a Singapore beer should combine different styles and have strong flavours, says Yeo Eng Kuang, co-founder of The 1925 Brewing Co. For him, it’s a hybrid between a lager and an ale. “Something light and refreshing, yet packs lots of flavour,” he says. “That means the taste will not be as clean and crisp. It sounds almost like creating a new style, but it’s not surprising. If you look at our food, everything is just rojak, everything is just mixed up together.”
Over at Brewlander, Wei says pairing beer with food subconsciously influences how he brews. That, and his predilection for day drinking. “It’s always very dry, very crisp, which is great as a refreshing, thirst-quenching beer.”
Before he brews a beer, Casey Choo of That Singapore Beer Project runs focus groups consisting of different demographics – a side effect from his degree in psychology – to find out their preferences, lifestyles, and drinking habits. One word that constantly pops up in these groups is refreshing. “As a state that is heavily overworked, we often want to find an escape,” he says.
Choo thinks the ideal Singapore beer should be as refreshing as a lime juice, and he points to his gose called Kiam Sng Di (Hokkien dialect for salty, sour, and sweet) as something similar. Flavoured with green guava and sour plum powder, a common local snack eaten by dabbing slices of the fruit into the powder, it’s a beer that’s bracingly tart yet still assuringly recognisable.
“We came up with a sour beer around a familiar idea so people wouldn’t take offense to its acidity,” Choo says. “If a Singaporean drank a lager, a style we drank from young, and it tasted sour, then they would immediately think that it’s a broken beer. If you want to share something sour, even if it’s as refreshing as a lime juice, then it has to be familiar-tasting to avoid instant dislike.”
Pouring for the People
Is familiarity the secret sauce to brewing a Singapore beer? After all, the local landscape is getting increasingly crowded. At least five new brewers joined the fray this year. Options for quality imported and local craft beer continue to grow. And with the craft beer space vying for the same geeky drinkers, expanding outside this audience could hold the key.
“The tricky part starts right after the beer is brewed,” Choo says. “How do I put this tasty beer into the hands of the people? Different people will have different answers, and that’s the reason why I think there’s a lot of space for local breweries to come up. If you find the right angle, you would be able to appeal to Singaporeans and our rojak of preferences and habits. That’s part of dealing with the complexity and thrill of selling beer to Singaporeans.”
The Singapore government has been helpful. Both Brewerkz and 1925 were given the Made with Passion label this year to promote their awareness among local consumers. Tiger partnered with the Singapore Tourism Board in 2019 to support local talents. But for every hardcore hophead, there’s someone who wants an unoffensive beer. There are those who pay top dollars for every limited edition cult beer drop, while others balk when presented with a $17 pint.
One way to reach the regular beer drinker is by educating the establishments that serve them, says Wei. He trains restaurants and bars unfamiliar with craft beer on how to set up and maintain the draft lines. Serving glasses, temperatures, and how to talk to customers
about the beers also get a mention.
“It’s like going to a wine bar,” Wei says. “The sommelier is able to make recommendations, share with you stories behind the vineyards, the vintages, the grape differences. There is a lot of conversation going on in a very relaxed manner. It also increases your appreciation of the wine. That part for beer is heavily missing.”
As for Yeo from 1925, the term craft is very unnecessary. “The last thing we want is to come up with another definition and draw another line,” he says. “We got to make things less complicated. Beer is just beer.”
Putting passion aside, maybe developing a Singapore beer is about recognising that beer brewing is just a business like any other. The hawkers didn’t set out to be on UNESCO’s list. They did it to get by. Brewers too have to stay relevant, be nimble, and change with the
times, no thanks to the rollercoaster that is 2020.
For Tiger, this means giving consumers choices like non alcoholic beers. For Brewerkz, it’s about collaborating with different and unexpected Singapore institutions on a beer. And for the smaller guys, consistency is key.
“The challenge for all their growth,” says Wei, “isn’t can you make good beers, but can you make the same beer? Again?”
As a young nation, it seems like a clearly defined beer style – like the Czech and their pilsners, and the US West Coast and their IPAs – is still not within Singapore’s reach just yet.
But with the local craft beer scene booming, and by extension a continuous experimentation on what a Singapore-made beer can be like, perhaps an identity will soon enough organically emerge.
For now, the rojak that is the Singapore beer style should be appreciated for what it is: expressive, encompassing and evocative of the island’s melting pot of cultures and flavours.
About the Author
Jethro Kang enjoys boozing, biking, and climbing, and he’s still figuring out how to do all three at once. When not writing for Spill, he’s pouring beers, opening wines, and hoarding bottles of cru beaujolais. You can find him at @thisrocksmysocks.