Getting crafty

Craft beer is increasingly becoming the tipple of choice for well-travelled Singapore drinkers who are fuelling a fresh demand for artisanal brew.

Published Thu, Jul 2, 2015 · 09:50 PM

IT started with coffee. Then food, and on to cocktails. Now, Singaporeans' love affair with the global craft movement is reaching a new segment of the food and beverage (F&B) industry - beer.

More restaurants and bars are stocking or importing their own craft beers than ever before, with distributors either popping up or jumping onto the bandwagon. Meanwhile, beer guzzlers are fast eschewing their Tiger draft for more exotic names like Barefoot Bohemian, St Peter's Cream Stout, Magic Rock Cannonball or Bateman's Mocha Beer.

The Brewers Association in America defines craft beer as "small, independent and traditional", where one of its criteria is an annual production of six million barrels of beer or less.

"There's a saying in the craft beer industry that there is a beer for everyone," says Daniel Goh, founder of The Good Beer Company which he started in 2011.

"Whether you prefer something fruity, very hoppy, something crisp and refreshing, or something dark, heavy and powerful, there is a beer to suit everyone's palate."

Agreeing with him is 38-year-old Corrine Chia, who finds that "craft beers tend to have better flavours, better structure, better body". She is the co-founder of the nine-year-old craft beer distribution company, The Drinking Partners, which was one of the first few companies in Singapore to import only craft beers.

Ms Chia recalls that it carried craft beers from just four or five breweries when it first started out but now, it has at least 26. Clearly, the demand has grown, and it has also opened a bottle shop and bar The Great Beer Experiment, as well as a restaurant called Druggists.

"Craft beer drinkers are the same people who go to different cafes to try out different coffee roasts, or to markets to buy sambal chilli or jam made in craft batches," says Ms Chia.

Another reason for craft beer's increasing popularity in Singapore is the fact that it has been trending in Western countries such as the US and UK as well.

In fact, just in March this year, the Brewers Association reported that in 2014, craft beer achieved a first-time-ever double-digit volume market share of 11 per cent. In retail dollar value terms, it was even higher at 19.3 per cent of market share.

This is for the US market alone. In Singapore, the number is much smaller. A few industry players have estimated the market share for craft beer to be less than 5 per cent at the moment. But they agree that this number is growing slowly but surely.

"I don't think you'll ever see that kind of share in Singapore, because beer sales are driven a lot by coffeeshops, and craft beer can never be in that position," says Ian Lim, senior manager of Gourmet & Festivals at Sphere Exhibits, which runs the annual Beerfest Asia. He believes that at least for the next few years, craft beers will still be limited to bars, pubs and selected retail outlets.

That said, he adds that "Singaporeans are also very tuned in to global trends". "As the trend grows overseas, we'll pick it up locally as well. It's a cycle where one or two bars carry craft beer, people are interested and try it, the audience will view it more prominently and give it a shot. There's a whole adventurous appeal to it."

Shifting interests

Over the years at Beerfest Asia, Mr Lim has observed that the audience's preference has shifted. The number of people visiting the mainstream beer tent has decreased, while the number of people visiting the craft beer tent has increased.

He explains: "Beerfest attracts two types of people - the ones who come for craft beer, and the others who come for entertainment and take the beer as a byproduct of the experience. When we started, most people were there for the latter, but nowadays people seem to be more about the beer first, good times later. The priorities seem to have shifted."

The global shift in customer preferences has, of course, caught the eye of large commercial brewing companies, and made them sit up and take notice. For instance, beer company Anheuser-Busch InBev (which manufactures Budweiser) has since 2011 purchased smaller craft beer breweries such as Elysian Brewing in Seattle, Goose Island Brewing in Chicago, and Blue Point Brewing in Patchogue, New York, among others.

Here, Asia Pacific Breweries (APB) Singapore started a craft brewery known as Archipelago in 2006, and has since launched a Bohemian Lager, Irish Ale, Belgian Wit and Summer Ale.

Malcolm Davies, 48, head of Archipelago, reveals that the company is currently in the process of updating its permanent offerings, starting with the Summer Ale which will be released as a Summer IPA (India Pale Ale) later this month, with "New World hops and more malt that will also see the alcohol content increase".

Still, craft beer is unlikely to overtake traditional beer in terms of popularity in the future. He says: "Craft beer certainly is gaining traction among many consumers, especially the adventurous and the curious, but mainstream beer still accounts for a vast majority of beer that that is consumed in the market today."

Agreeing with him is 30-year-old Roland Utama, the director of the three-week-old TAP Craft Beer Bar at Capitol Piazza who also runs three craft beer retail outlets called Thirsty.

He likens the trend of craft beer to that of gourmet burgers, and explains: "Places like McDonalds, for example, serve cheap and consistent burgers. It's not the best burger in the world, but it's a burger and it's cheap, it's familiar, and it's everywhere. That occupies 90 per cent of the burger market here, probably. The other 10 per cent are the hipster places that charge anywhere between S$12 and S$30 for a burger. Those are of a higher quality, with better taste, and are somewhat healthier because they use real and fresh ingredients without preservatives."

Frank Shen of Nickeldime Drafthouse in Novena still remains hopeful, however, that a little bit of education is all that will take to convince people that craft beer is the way to go.

Although he admits that traditional beers are cheaper if you are "drinking to get drunk", he believes that "once you drink a good craft beer, you'll never go back".

At his bar, Mr Shen serves 15 different beers on tap, and usually includes a lager, a Belgian wheat, a German wheat, stouts, an IPA and a lesser-known sour beer. Even his food is mostly beer-infused, such as his pizzas which use beer instead of water to make the dough, and burgers that have beer-candied bacon.

He points out that with young entrepreneurs starting F&B businesses these days, they are usually more open to serving craft beers instead of traditional beers in order to keep up with the trends.

"I hope it does overtake traditional beer though, because it just tastes better. It's like if you find a chicken rice that's so good, you'd want it everywhere so you can eat it anytime. That's my perspective anyway," he says.

Like Mr Utama, he also sees craft beers as "healthier" in a sense because they do not contain preservatives. Their main four ingredients are water, yeast, malt (grains like wheat or barley), and hops (a type of flower).

The infinite possible combinations of these four ingredients is what differentiates one beer from another, and is how companies such as the six-month-old importer Brews Brothers are creating a niche for themselves within an already niche industry.

While most craft beer comes from countries such as the US, the UK, Belgium and Japan, Brews Brothers started with a brewery from Ireland. Its managing partner Siddharth Singh, 25, explains: "We wanted a place with a slightly different influence on the beer. (That) brewery did slightly modern interpretations of the traditional Irish beer - they have a red ale and a stout, slightly different hops and malt than what you'd typically expect."

Local brewing

Singapore also has its own craft beer brewers - stalwarts such as Brewerkz, LeVeL33 and 1925 Microbrewery and Restaurant. One of the newest entrants is Little Island Brewing Co, a local brewery and restaurant that opened at Changi Village just earlier this week.

Its co-owner Francis Khoo says that it took him about a year-and-a-half to find the right location and clear all the red tape to open his 10,000 sq ft eatery, which seats about 250 people both indoors and outdoors.

"In Singapore, it's very difficult for artisanal craftsmen to make good food for the masses. It's expensive and not commercially viable. High taxation and a lot of red tape makes it very difficult," he points out.

"Because of that, I think it lowers the risk for me because you don't have a lot of people who are also setting up. It makes our offering more unique, and more exciting. It's good and bad in a way," he says.

Down the road however, the craft beer movement could possibly even evolve into one where people will start brewing more "made-in-Singapore" beers - at least that is what Ms Chia of The Drinking Partners believes.

She says: "People will start with home-brewing for example, and there will be more attempts by people to set up a brewery."

Mr Khoo, for example, plans to start out with staples like pale ale, golden ale and stout. "Then we'll do extreme beers like fruit beers and mead (honey beer). We'll also do seasonal brews like whiskey ale."

Says Ms Chia: "It's a natural phase of the whole movement. Like how you see a lot more people setting up coffee roasters by first being a cafe then becoming a roastery. It's the same life stages."

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