Corrine Chia & Lincoln Goh, The Drinking Partners
Not so long ago, most of the beer in town was yellow, fizzy and roared at you from a can. That changed in 2006. When husband-and-wife team Lincoln Goh and Corrine Chia returned to Singapore after a work stint in the UK, they brought in small batches of beer, first for personal consumption, then for The Drinking Partners in 2007.
‘Back then, nine out of ten retailers neither heard of nor tasted craft beers,’ explains Chia. ‘We spent many evenings going from table to table at different restaurants and cafés asking people to try our beers.’ Now, the pair cart out their heady Belgian Trappist, Danish brews and other beers with big hop and funky notes to a growing portfolio of cafés and bars.
Goh and Chia also have a craft beer nook at Pasarbella: The Great Beer Experiment, which stocks unique bottles and drafts from the US, UK, Denmark and Belgium. And they’re opening a new bar, Druggists, with 23 beers on tap. Additionally, the pair conduct beer education workshops, pairing dinners and blind tasting competitions, all of which have garnered them a following they call the Cult Beer Club. ‘We want to get more people on board, get more beer love going,’ effuses Chia. Whatever infectious brew they had back in the UK, Singapore’s drinkers are all the better for it.
Colin Tay, TSA Wines
‘When are you going to change your name to TSA Beers?’ Jeremy Reynolds of Eastern Craft jokes to TSA Wine co-founder Colin Tay. ‘We really should soon,’ laughs Tay. ‘Most of our portfolio is craft beers now.’
Founded initially as a wine trading company in 2008 with friend and fellow grape enthusiast Karambir Khanijou, TSA started bringing in British ales like Wychwood’s impish Hobgoblins and Ginger Beards, and tamer Marstons and Brakspear beers, before picking up the Scottish envelope-pushing Brewdog beers. The rest, as they always say, is history. In the six years since, Tay no longer has to beg for establishments to carry his beer. ‘Cafés, bistros, high-end restaurants and even hotels are calling us now to list our beers and ciders,’ he says.
Among the craft-drinking community, Brewdog’s Punk IPA, 5am Saint and Dead Pony Club are often cited as giving geeks their first taste of craft beer. It’s a testament to the transformative power of craft beer that’s converted TSA Wines... or, erm, beers. Whichever name they settle on.
Jeremy Reynolds & Hitoshi Koyano, Eastern Craft and JiBiru
Representing beers from Japan, Italy and the UK, Eastern Craft and its bar, JiBiru, have tuned a 20-something crowd into their first taste of craft, thanks to ‘that bottle with the owl on it’: Hitachino Nest. It’s the flagship brand of Briton Jeremy Reynolds and his Japanese general manager, Hitoshi Koyano, introduced to the former when he worked at a British-style pub in Tokyo. In 2001, a few years after Reynolds settled in Singapore, he partnered a few friends to open JiBiru and then, to capture a wholesale market, Eastern Craft.
Four years on, the 313@Somerset bar has established itself as a haunt for the everyman drinker charmed by the sweets of Hitachino Nest’s Wheat and Pale Ale brews. ‘JiBiru’s not really a hardcore beer geek place,’ explains Reynolds. ‘I hate to put it this way, but we’re craft beer for the masses. We have a very big regular crowd who like to drink their favourite beers.’
Their retail website stocks great value box buys, and the portfolio grows with each twice-yearly trip Reynolds takes to Japan to stay up to date with the nation’s beer trends.
Winston Kwang, BeerStyle Distribution
You’ve probably seen beers like Rogue’s Dead Guy Ale, giggled at the Arrogant Bastard and Sublimey Self Righteous Bastard branding on Stone Brewing Company bottles, and tried to scrape your tongue after a sip of the more bitter than bitter Tricerahops Double IPA by Ninkasi. The importer of trailblazing labels from the US and one of the earliest distributors, Winston Kwang’s straight-talking, no-holdsbarred advocacy for craft beers is much like his range of strident brews.
The man’s equally dedicated as his fellow distributors, all of whom ensure their beers are transported cold from brewery to warehouse. We’ve run into Kwang and gone bar hopping with him across the cafés and restaurants bold enough to stock his brews. We’ve watched him eye the backroom nooks and crannies his kegs and bottles are stored in, ever determined to weed out bad practices that deteriorate his beer’s quality.
‘We don’t just sell craft beer to make money,’ Kwang declares. ‘We want to help retailers sell more beer and for consumers to drink better beer. I always believe craft beer is for everyone rich and poor – everyone deserves better.’
Yann Loh & Queenie Loh
While most traders in Singapore have expanded their portfolio with more offshore breweries and rarer labels, brother-andsister operation Rogue Merchants has gone down the sweet cider path, giving locals an alternative to craft beer.
After falling in love with artisanal brews in Melbourne, where Yann and Queenie Loh lived for a few years, Rogue brought in Aussie brews by Mountain Goat and Hawthorn Brewing Company before realising the popularity of cider among local drinkers. These days, the smiley pair happily dish out Swedish Herrljunga flavoured ciders and Yarra Valley Coldstream Apple Cider at beer festivals and to cafés in the city. It may not be cold, hoppy beer, but it’s an important enough starting point that will hopefully lead more sippers towards the bolder world of craft brews.
The newest kid in the importing scene, UK-based Singaporean Elijah Toh set up Applehops at the beginning of 2014 initially as an online wholesale grocer. But the brand changed its tune after Toh secured the rights to distribute Charles Welles in Singapore, and operations manager Pang Xue Yang now fronts the wholesale operation locally.
Applehops’ story highlights the fraternal spirit that’s present among local distributors. Toh credits BeerStyle’s Winston Kwang and the Smith Street Taps duo (see next page) for showing him the ropes to this tricky, tax-filled business, and his brands have even staged tap takeovers at the latter’s hawker bar. Applehops certainly isn’t the first to bring UK flavours to Singapore, but the outfit plays steward for the new wave of UK breweries like Beavertown, Tiny Rebel, Siren and Wild Beer who’re chasing after bigger, hoppier brews.
Daniel Goh & Kuok Meng-Chao, Smith Street Taps
Daniel Goh conquered Chinatown and the east side of the island with his 99 Bottles store and Good Beer Company hawker bar concept, and Kuok Meng-Chao the west with his tiny HDB bottle shop, Brewers’ Craft. Initially competitors, the two formed a brew-mance over pints of beer around town. ‘We found that we shared a common interest in wanting to grow the craft beer industry at a time when people didn’t quite understand the product,’ explains Goh.
It wasn’t until January 2014 that their unifying concept came to fruition in the form of Smith Street Taps, just a few stalls adjacent to Goh’s Good Beer Company at Chinatown Complex. A barebones hawker stall where funky draft taps provide the only (mismatched) décor, its launch party was probably the busiest that the grimy tables and chairs in the once-sleepy wing of Chinatown Complex had ever seen.
At the same time Smith Street Taps opened, few other potential bar owners bandied around the idea of opening a bar with ten, 15, maybe 20 taps. But Goh and Kuok took the plunge after convincing local distributors to bring in kegs, a risky product to carry because it just didn’t move as fast. We’ve since noted the increasing number of bars featuring craft beer on tap, something you wouldn’t have seen a few years back because of – fun fact – Asia Pacific Brewery’s tight hold on beer taps around town.
Tap takeovers at the stall have also exposed local drinkers to brews from a specific brewery. ‘I hope we’ve helped educate people about the different kinds of beer styles that’s actually available in the market,’ muses Goh, but the local craft beer community, grown around the lime green melamine tables, will probably say Goh and Kuok have done that and so much more. They’ve united a whole band of beer drinkers, and they didn’t even have to scree concrete and distressed metal to do so out of their humble hawker almost-bar. They just shared their love for good beer.
Roland Utama, Thirsty and The Drinkery
‘What we carry at Thirsty’s a good reflection of what we ourselves enjoy drinking,’ says its owner, Roland Utama. And the brand’s success shows that the man has pretty good taste. Stocking a staggering range of US-dominated craft beers from local and international distributors and craft breweries, his relatively late arrival to the local game, in late 2012, hasn’t stopped the Thirsty brand from blossoming into three bottle shops, in Liang Court, Holland Village and Tiong Bahru.
Thirsty manages to tread the fine line between catering to the fickle craft beer geek always seeking new flavours, and the beer-curious with its approachable prices and service. Going beyond being a retailer, Utama has partnered a couple of friends to set up a distribution business, The Drinkery, last year. They now bring in the wildly popular Modern Times range of tall canned beers, colourfully labelled Lost Coast beers from northern California and super hoppy Green Flash Brewing Co beers from San Diego. The group has even worked with Alt. Pizza to have their beers served alongside the restaurant’s unique pies.
On a mission to democratise quality beers for the wider population, Utama isn’t ready to rest on the mini-empire he’s built so far. The man’s paired with restaurateurs WWWConcepts to open a 20-tap concept at the revamped Capitol building in March, named TAP, and continues to look for new avenues to make craft beer accessible to anyone seeking new flavours. ‘There are two types of drinkers in Singapore: those who drink to get drunk, and those who drink to enjoy,’ explains Utama. ‘We cater to the latter.’
Frank Shen, Nickeldime Drafthouse
Nickeldime Drafthouse’s Frank Shen is a man who turned his passion for craft beer into a job. He proposed to Hidden Door Concepts’ Christopher Lim the idea of setting up a taproom like those on the US’ West Coast – witnessing an American expat shed a tear upon sipping a brew he poured at Beerfest 2014 only made the idea that much more attractive.
Opened in September last year, Nickeldime is committed to both newbies and advanced drinkers. Shen’s not afraid to put harder-todrink sour beers, heavy stouts and high-alcohol monsters on his 15 taps, with beers taken care of in a cold room. ‘I’m happy when somebody tells me I picked a beer they liked, and when they say things like, “I only came back here because of you”,’ he chirps. ‘That keeps me moving.’