What is beer to the average Singaporean? Probably nothing more than a can of Tiger or a pint of Guinness. At best, many Singaporeans like myself are chin chye [okay with anything] when it comes to the alcoholic beverage.
We’re “more concerned with where the best place is to get a cheap tower” or where we can “find beer with the highest percentage of alcohol,” says Tay Dao Qian, a beer lover and homebrewer.
Dao Qian is part of a growing pool of Singaporeans who’ve taken to brewing their own beers at home—hence the name “homebrewer”. Despite the commonly held belief that homebrewing is illegal and prone to causing food-poisoning, it is neither.
Homebrewers, unlike most casual drinkers who see beer as synonymous with alcohol and a means to a (drunken) end, prioritise the quality and flavour of the beer they are consuming.
For example, the beers that homebrewer Daryl Yeap brews at home are centered around the concept of maximum taste with minimum alcohol—achieving such a balance will allow him to drink more good quality beer without the side effects of getting drunk.
“This is a concept that is very foreign to those who drink a lot of commercial, flavourless beers.”
When it comes to homebrewing, there are no rules.
Unlike with wines and spirits, “There are no traditions to satisfy or restrictions of what people perceive when it comes to beer,” says Kai Han, a long-time homebrewer.
“It’s just about experimenting and satisfying yourself.”
The allure of homebrewing lies in its ability to provide a rare avenue for Singaporeans to get creative and push the limits with their concoctions—whether it’s with flavours (Kai Han has tasted beers made with durian, cheese and herbs), or with different techniques of fermentation and processing.
The added benefit is that while the rest of us low-SES folk are restricted to what beer our local NTUC carries, they are not. Dao Qian has brewed an award-winning Hojicha beer while Daryl lets me sample a mango and passionfruit brew he’s made.
Naturally, their skill and easy access to good beer has gone towards making them quite popular amongst their friends.
“It gets you bragging rights,” says Nick, a former moderator of the Singapore Homebrew Club, “People like that you can brew your own beer and are always coming round for a drink.”
But while there are definite perks, homebrewing is far from being a hobby for the masses.
For starters, it’s tedious work. Brewers are locked in a furious battle against bacteria which can easily spoil one’s beer, and everything has to be sanitised and cleaned religiously before brewing can commence.
It’s also capital and space intensive. For beer (usually made in large quantities of between 20 to 30 litres) to ferment, it has to maintain a temperature between 18 C and 24 C. As such, homebrewers such as Dao Qian have taken to purchasing as many as 3 extra fridges to store their beer at home.
Lastly, beer is a risky endeavour. Homebrewed or not, require at least 2 weeks of waiting around before it is ready. If after two weeks the beer turns out to be bad, it would’ve been a colossal waste of time, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
These factors not only make one reluctant to even start homebrewing, they also contribute to a high attrition rate.
Nevertheless, those who press on are rewarded.
“Comparing the final product to something commercial and realising that you can match it or even exceed it makes all the hours and effort worth it,” insists Kai Han.
It’s clear then for these homebrewers are doing what they do for the love of beer and out of a desire to push the envelope. If they were like us and just looking for a quick alcohol fix, there are surely simpler ways.
I assumed that by virtue of being able to brew their own beer at home, they would have no reason to drink “flavourless” commercial beers like Heineken or to even pay $14 for a bottle of better quality craft beer.
It also didn’t help when John Wei, homebrewer and head brewer of Brewlander & Co, told me that he believes Singapore’s quality of homebrew is so good that it surpasses that of some microbreweries here and elsewhere.
Not only do homebrewers regularly drink outside to get inspiration and ideas for their own creations, they also see drinking as a social activity, though not quite in the same way most regular drinkers do.
While we may consume beer to get high, drunk or to enable us to communicate more effectively with each other, homebrewers see beer as a different social tool.
Natasha, Nick’s wife and fellow ex-moderator of the Singapore Homebrew Club, shares that her favourite spot to drink is at Smith Street Taps. Nestled away on the second floor of Chinatown Complex, she can always count on finding a “beer geek who’s nice to chat with” at Smith Street Taps.
Unlike how we often share our hawker tables begrudgingly with strangers, Natasha always looks forward to striking up a conversation with the people she’s sitting with—the topic of choice being beer of course.
“We’ll chat over what beer they’re drinking, what beer they would recommend, where they like to drink and what they like to brew,” she tells me. “Beer is one of the great equalisers, you can just talk to anyone over it.”
At the same time, as someone who’s not knowledgeable about beer at all, the thought of sitting down with a beer geek-enthusiast-connoisseur sounds incredibly intimidating. I estimate it would take only minutes before I begin to feel grossly out of my depth.
From John’s observations, the number of participants in the annual iBrew Challenge, Singapore’s main homebrew event, has grown significantly over the years. Where two to three hundred people used to join, now he sees anywhere from four hundred to seven hundred people.
The main problem however, lies in the stagnation of Singapore’s craft beer industry.
When craft beer first took off about a decade ago, we were on good footing. Singapore had around 10 to 15 microbreweries and craft beer stores. We were essentially the pioneers of craft brewing in the region.
Ten years later, we still have the same few stores we did back then, with few newcomers.
According to John, countries like Vietnam, Hong Kong and Thailand that just 4 years ago had only 2 to 3 breweries, now have two or three times our number.
Their growth is even more phenomenal given the fact that craft beer in those countries can cost significantly more ($5 to $7) than local beer brands (50 cents to a dollar).
On the other hand, I’m told that a bar in Singapore can charge anywhere from $10 to $12 for a Tiger while craft beers only cost $2 to $3 more.
The movement is further dampened by less than noble craft beer distributors just looking to make a quick buck. According to Daryl, while there are distributors who do it out of a genuine love and passion for beers and who want to share it with others, there are also those who just want to capitalise on the movement.
“They bring in very average beers from other countries and market it as life changing.”
Then again, most of us probably can’t tell the difference—many of the homebrewers I speak to are of the opinion that Singaporeans aren’t discerning when it comes to beer.
The fact of the matter is, we just don’t have a widespread culture of drinking in the same way that say, European countries do. Most of us only care about drinking what is in fashion, what can be easily found, or what is cheaply priced.
Our ignorance towards beer—homebrewed or otherwise—is probably one of the few downsides to being such a food-centric country. With all our focus being on the “F” in “F&B”, it’s little wonder why our beverages get the short end of the stick.
At best, John estimates that only 1% of Singapore’s beer consumption comes from craft beer. “There’s still a long way to go before saturation.”
Even if the recent growth in the number of homebrewers adds a much needed boost to Singapore’s craft beer industry, it seems that beer, for the foreseeable future, will remain very much a niche sector for now.