Brewing in Singapore

One man's adventure of brewing beer in Asia.

Monday, January 16, 2006


You know that uneasy feeling you get when you haven't done something in a long time, something that you are suppose to be good at, but it has been a while and you kind of begin to wonder if you can still pull it off. Maybe you just thought you were good at it, but you really weren't (you know like most white guys and dancing). Or maybe you really were good at it back then, but you are out of practice now - you use it or loose it. I think that most of us have experienced this kind of semi-irrational fear at some point.

That was the kind of the feeling I had a few weeks back when we went over to brew in Indonesia. Was I ever really that good at this ? People had said so ..... but maybe they were just being polite. I mean, well yeah, I had brewed some good test batches at the Elysian back in April but come on, I was working with one of the best craft brewers in the world - how much could have gone wrong there ? Now, here I was in a foreign country, with a brewer who didn't speak my language (or me his) working on a small (and somewhat funky) brew system and using ingredients I was not entirely familiar with. I didn't even have a water analysis.

I was beginning to feel a little ill at ease here.

On the plus side; Xiao Chu is a competent and conscientious brewer, the brewery was better than some (ah, not as good as others), I had Ernest (a Davis trained brewer) there to translate and help, my ingredients were top notch (Crisp malt & Haas hops), the yeast was healthy, strong and a great strain, I'm a fairly a skilled brewer, and I've always been a pretty lucky guy.

So how wrong could things go ?

I would not know the answer to that question until we arrived at the brewery to package the beer. I procured three 10 liter kegs from APBS, stuffed two of them into a large suitcase and rubber banded the other to the top. Now, all I had to do was get these bomb shaped canisters out of Singapore, into Indonesia, fill them with an alcoholic beverage, get them back out of Indonesia and through the customs in Singapore (a country not renowned for it’s lax importation laws). Let’s review; four border crossings, bomb shaped canisters, filled with alcoholic beverages, in Indonesia = Muslim country = not really fond of alcohol in general. It should be a breeze

Getting out of Singapore really was easy, scary looking things LEAVING the country – not an issue. On arrival in Indonesia I encountered immediate resistance. Me, and my suspicious looking stainless steel canisters, were accompanied by the dark blue uniformed guards into the special back room. Heck, I hadn't even made it to the line for x-ray machine. The back room looked very much like a scene from Midnight Express. A small room, four guards, all standing around, the captain behind the big wooden desk giving me the hairy eyeball. Me stuttering (my Bahasa somehow failing me) as I tried to explain that these were empty kegs for the local brewery to fill. “Nothing inside, empty” – “Buka - boleh?”. This went on for a while; me fumbling along and the big boss scowling at me across the expanse of wood. I felt he was warming up for a bribe. Then - Thank God, Ernest pops in through the door - coming to my rescue, not just knowing what to say but how to say it and in what language. It turns out that they were more concerned with us bringing in the kegs duty free than the whole looks-like-a-bomb-thing. We filled out some extra paper work, I promised thyat they would not stay in the country, and that I would take them out with me when I returned to Singapore. Ten minutes (and a few ounces of sweat) later, we were on our way.

And, I am happy to report that things went very well at the brewery. The yeast performed well, Xiao Chu took great care of things and resulting beer was really quite nice. I feel fairly confident in saying that it is the first Sienna Brown Ginger ale with Melakan Palm sugar ever made in Asia (at least in recent years).

We filled the three kegs that we had, drank a few jugs for testing purposes, had a small feed with Mung Tjia and Xiao Chu, and our day was well on its way.

Returning to Singapore the next day proved to be no problem as well. Tony and I found the Singapore customs agents to be not only nice, but helpful too. See - I knew we could pull this whole thing off - no problem. And now we have the prototype for our third production beer. - thank you Ernest, Xiao Chu, Tony, Bill & Mung Tjai - without them, well, I would proably still be back in the big bosses office surrounded by gaurds dressed in blue uniforms.

Don’t forget you can click on the “additional pictures” link that's to the right to see updated pix of the brewery’s progress.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

By the Numbers

Happy New Year Everyone!

Can it really be 2006 already? Whoa! Just a few days ago (seemingly) it was 1978, Led Zeppelin was blaring out of my little lemon yellow cassette player and I was trying to decide if I would look good in one of those John Travolta disco suits, and if so would it help me get any chicks (BTW - the answer to both of those questions turned out to be a
resounding NO!) Now, here we are more than a quarter century later and I am not really very comfortable with the math that got us here. I think I'm gonna need a couple a beers to help sort it all out.

Last week (back in 2005) we went over to Indonesia to the Length Brewery to brew a test batch of beer. Well, really we went over to assist their regular brewers in making the beer.
Xiao Chu (their Head brewer) and Chandra (his assistant) did most of the real work. We helped out where we could and monitored the process. We is Ernest, Tony and myself. Ernest and Tony the only two all grain homebrewers in the whole of Singapore. That's a pretty cool claim - the ONLY two all grain home brewers in the entire country! - Yes, it's true Singapore is not huge place, but that truly makes them each one in a million (actually they are 2 in just over 4 million, but who's counting).

I thought it was great that they wanted to go over to help, and as I have said before without Ernest's help in translating I am sure I would never have been able to set up the deal to brew there, much less pull off the actual brewing. We brewed a Sienna Ginger ale (with palm sugar added). I think that Xiao Chu found the idea of putting Ginger and Palm sugar in the beer a bit odd. The thought of the ginger clogging up his heat exchanger freaked him out a bit but he was willing to give it a try. In the end the beer went off by the numbers and we hit our gravity, color and flavors specs. We pitched my favorite hard floccing London Ale yeast and pretty soon the fermentation was moving along.

Not too much later we were drinking beer in the Length Brewery Pub, and of course a bit of Makan. Mr. Tan (the brewery owner) is an excellent host and a great cook. He and his kitchen staff made up two dishes that were fantastic, a mullet steamed with thinly sliced ginger, and pork in onion and garlic stir fry. Both dishes were amazingly good (ho brah, broke da mouth) and they went great with the Length Brewery's Dragon beers.

We need to go back next week to give the beer a try and keg some up to bring back here for taste test analysis. Taste test analysis sound so scientific - we're gonna drink some and then talk about it. If everybody like the concept of the beer then we refine it a bit, or if it is all but perfect (as I am sure it will be, well .... hope it will be) then we will have our third and final start up beer. Of course I'll need to develope a few seasonal beers too.

Back in Singapore our brewery building is still on schedule. The roof is on, the walls are up, the window frames are in, and next week they will start laying the tile. It is really looking good. Mr. Chua (Thiam Construction Company's project manager) has the crews working 24 hours a day sometimes just to keep us on schedule. They have 24 days left before Chinese New Years (and the cessation of all work in SE Asia). It's great to work with a company who is committed to getting the job done on time. In less than 30 days I will be moving my stuff into a new office. Then all we will need is brewing equipment, but that is coming along as well.

For more photos of the brewery's progress (and Singapore) check