Brewing in Singapore

One man's adventure of brewing beer in Asia.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Festival of Lights

The first week of November this year marked the celebration of both Deepavali and Hari Raya on Tuesday and Thursday respectively. In Singapore’s multiethnic community these are both major events, and they are both national holidays.

Deepavali is the Hindu Festival of Light that is believed to dispel darkness and bring illumination into one’s life. The truly remarkable light show on the main street in Singapore’s Little India has the wattage to make sure of that. Deepavali is a time when Hindus remember to thank the gods for happiness, knowledge, peace and prosperity. It is a four day festival that commences with Kartika Shudda Vijiya that marks the vanquishing of the demon Naraka. The last day of Deepavali marks the beginning of their new year.

Hari Raya is the Muslim festival that marks the end of the month of Ramadan (the month of daily fasting). The faithful fast from dawn till sunset every day, and in addition to not eating or drinking, Muslims are also forbidden from smoking and having sexual relations. They are expected to avoid lying, breaking promises or cheating during the month of Ramadan as well. The primary purpose of all of this is to remind Muslims of self-control and submitting to the will of Allah.

The obvious up sides to this week were; a lot of happy people, lots to do and festivities to see, and a three day work week. The down side was it set the brewery project back about a week, but what can you do – everybody was having such a good time.

That weekend I was invited out to dinner with my new friend Ernest and his wife Muilee. They wanted to take me to see the last vestiges of a Singapore that once was. Out on the southeastern Island of pulau Ubin, kampong (village) living is still a way of life. Most of the people that live on pulau (or island) Ubin are fishermen, substance farmers or they rent bicycles to the few tourists that happen to find their way over. To help ward off development a large portion of the island has been turned into a nature park, with a keen eye on preserving as much of the rustic ambience of village life as possible. To get to pulau Ubin one has to go to the Changi point jetty where a small (and somewhat rickety) collection of “Bumboats” take turns ferrying people out to the island. The Bumboat captains wait patiently dockside until they have the 12 or more passengers needed, enough to make the 20 minute crossing worth their while.

We arrived late in the afternoon but still had enough time to walk around the main village and see a bit of the kampong life. The center of town had had an old covered stage area for public performances, a temple, a couple of out door eating houses (as they are called), and several bike retail shops. There are houses just out side the main square and a small police post.

After wandering about for a bit we settling in for an excellent dinner that consisted Chili Crab (who I got to meet prior to his being prepared - live tanks are common here, they insure super fresh seafood), Char Kway Teo (fried broad rice noodles in dark sauce with extra stuff), fried rice, an excellent large fried fish, a vegitable whose name I am not familiar (but it looked and tasted like a cross between Bok Choy and young cauliflower), and as an added special treat, we were lucky enough to be able to try some of the local wild boar. And what would dinner have been with out a few beers (cold, fresh Tiger Beer - ummmmm).

The meal was excellent, the surrounding were beautiful, and the company great. Later, standing on the jetty waited for the requisite 12 people needed for the boat ride back to the city, I realized that it was the first time I had seen any stars since leaving NorCal (where in our black little corner of Anderson valley I was nightly awed by the vast multitude). We loaded into the open air boat and started on our way, the stars now bouncing about us as we bumped along. By the time we had reached the other shore they had all disappeared, swallowed up by man made light.

Friday, November 04, 2005

On the Move

Things have been quite hectic for me in the past two weeks. What with my shifting from the apartment in Chinatown to my new place in Bukit Gombak, my field trip to Indonesia, the civil work on the new brewery building and the final negotiations for the brewing equipment.

Of all these things the shift to new housing and the acquisition of amenities took up the largest block of time. Housing in Singapore comes in one of three basic types; landed houses (for the wealthy), private condominiums (for the upper middle class and expats), and HDB flats (government built housing for the middle and working class). About 65% of Singaporeans own their own housing, so renting, although not unusual, is not the norm. My new residence, “The Madeira”, is a private condo (mostly because condos are what is available to expats). It is significantly closer to the brewery in Tuas, and a little more out of the way and less crowded than being downtown. My new neighborhood, Bukit Gomabk, is a small group of HDBs and condos clustered around a hilly area. There is lots of greenery and several nice parks very near by. And like all the areas in Singapore there are dozens of places to get really good inexpensive food very close by. My apartment is on the 17th floor above most of the bugs and other critters that roam freely here, and on a good day (like today) I can see the mountains of Malaysia some for 20 miles distant. The Madeira complex consists of three towers surrounding a central swimming pool area. Each floor (in each of the towers) has six apartments, each facing out off a central elevator/stairway shaft. I think my unit is one of the better ones as it faces out and has views on three sides. I cannot really see any of my neighboring apartments and equally as important they can't see me (some units are not so fortunate). On the side without any view (the side that attaches to the central tower) is my front door and the back wall of my bomb shelter (yes that’s right folks a bomb shelter – don’t ask, I don’t know). By law every apartment has one, although I don’t think anyone keeps it ready as a bomb shelter, many people use it as the live in maid’s quarters – it even has it’s own little bathroom. Yes, it's kind of odd. Since I won’t be having a live in maid, and I have no bombs to shelter I use it as a storage area.

In the surrounding grounds there are 4 pools (one XL for laps and the like, two for kids, and a Jacuzzi type pool thing), a BBQ area (with about 12 BBQ pits and tables and chairs), a gym, a banquet room, a putting green, tennis courts, gardens, several fountains and three play areas for the kids. All together the property is about 15 acres. It all feels rather decadent to me but, it is by no means the fanciest place I looked at - I guess that’s condo living in Singapore. On my first night here there was a tremendous thunder and lightning storm and I went down to the pool for a swim and had a pretty good light show, floating about on my back looking up between the three towers. I think I am gonna like it here.

The other thing of note that I did was travel to near by Indonesia for the weekend. Some of the guys from the Singapore homebrew club were heading over to Batam island, they told me that there was a small brewery there called the Length Brewery and I thought that it would be kind of cool to go over and check it out. Batam is only about an hour ferry ride away but it could not be much farther from Singapore. Singapore is (literally) the model of efficiency in Asia; excellent roads, fantastic mass transit, great housing, wonderful parks, the list goes on and on. Indonesia on the other hand has had political instability for many years that has hampered the development of a solid infrastructure. Batam in particular has suffered from growing pains. Declared a free trade zone in 1989 it grew without many controls, then came the Asian economic crisis in the late 1990s, and not much has happened there since then. Batam is the definition of a boom town gone bust. Many buildings stand half completed, the roads are in bad shape, the sidewalk worse. The rupiah is so devalued that when I changed $200.00 Singapore dollars they gave me 1.21 million rupiah. I was an instant millionaire. Okay, the down side ithat a beer cost 13 - 18,000 (really only about $1.75 USD) and a steak sandwich 58,000. The largest available banknote in Indonesia is equivalent to about USD - $10.30! It was kind of hard to get use to shelling out thousands for a single item. But the people were nice and they were patient with my fumbling about for the right bills.

What with one bar and another it took us some time to actually get to the brewery. Which, as it turns out, did not matter because they were closed for Ramadan. We did manage to find an outlet that served the Dragon beers (made at the Length Brewery) and they even had all three styles available; light, dark and green. Yep, green. The light is a pilsner style beer, the dark beer is a dark lager and the green well, it’s green. I later found out through discussion with the owner and his wife that they add nutritional seaweed to the beer and that is what's responsible for the green color. The beers overall were good and the green beer turned out to be my favorite. The seaweed added a slight bitterness that I enjoyed and I have to admit I was enamored with the color.

Later the following week I was able to meet up with the owners in Singapore and with the help of Earnest (one of my new found brewing friends) as a translator we agree that I should go out to the brewery and have a look to see if maybe we could brew some test batches there. So next weekend I will again travel to Indonesia again to have a look at the 3 hectoliter Dragon/Length Brewery. I admit I am looking forward to another pint of that tasty Green Dragon beer.