Brewing in Singapore

One man's adventure of brewing beer in Asia.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Media Mania

The preamble:

There are many things about brewing in Asia that make it fun and exciting (mostly I am just glad to be brewing again, but there are other things as well).

Back in the day, when I was a brewer in the early 1990’s in Seattle, there was a huge buzz about micro & craft brewing. It was a new and exciting concept - a small local brewery. People treated brewers a bit like hometown heroes. When I went to a party and was introduced to people as a brewer – the reaction was always “Wow, a brewer, that’s cool ! How’d you get to be a brewer?” Of course back then there were maybe 300 people in the whole of the US who actually made beer for a living. It was a rather uncommon profession. In the ensuing 20 plus years since then being a brewer has become somewhat less of a novelty. Back then the thing that most of us (most of those 300 or so brewers) really wanted, what we all worked together to help achieve, was that every town (big and small) across North America have its own local brewery. Over many years that goal was realized, but at the same time we unwittingly diminished our own sui generis. The profession of micro brewer became less unusual and our status (at least at parties in Seattle) became somewhat less elevated. And I have to admit – I liked being unique and interesting at parties - I missed it.

Thus when I was offered the opportunity of moving to Southeast Asia to help develope a micro brewery “revolution” there, I knew that I was being offered another chance to help create something unusual - and once again be sort of .... especial.

Little did I know what I was getting myself in to.

The Point:

The purpose of my blog is to tell you (the avid reader) about my experiences of brewing in S.E. Asia. And the media has become a major part of that experience.

Asia Pacific Breweries (APB) is a BIG company, they have a really good media & communications department. Those folks have worked hard to get Archipelago Brewery tremendous media coverage. The results have been a bit amazing. In the first 3 months our brewery and products were featured multiple times on television and radio, and in dozens of newspapers and magazines articles. It was not uncommon for me to give two or three interviews a week. It was hectic but kind of fun too. I thought that all the attention would be short lived, that in a few weeks, maybe a few months, things would calm down and go back to normal - but the coverage has not waned. Each time we bring out a new beer, or do a special event the interest is renewed. And now there is a fourth Micro brewery in town (The Pump Room) and that has caused an even further increase in interest. Even as we near the one year mark the request for interviews continues unabated. I am still doing an average of two interviews a week.

I think that it is a combination of several things – Micro breweries are new and different, Singaporeans are very food and beverage conscious, APB does a great job of interacting with the media and small brewing has became a near global phenomenon. It is a whole new facet of my job and it makes it all that much more exciting.
It's not your usual brewer routine - press conferences, speaking engagements, photo shoots, talk shows, a PR handler (who, BTW rules) - it's all a bit surreal. One would never get this kind of attention in the States or Europe today. I must admit - I find myself enjoying the attention.

Now, If I could just get invited to a few more parties.

Below are a few links to some of the media coverage. (you may have to cut n paste the URLs),9171,1590182,00.html

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


Singapore is a city of great diversity. Nowhere is that more evident than in the number of languages that people speak here. During an average day wandering around Singapore you will easily hear four, five or six (or maybe more) different languages. You might hear; Mandarin, English, Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese, Teochew, Tamil, Tagalag, Thai, Indonesian, Hindi, Javanese, Japanese, Korean, Hakka, German, Bengali, Hainanese, Foochow, Malayalam, Punjabi, Telegu, Vietnamese – and these are just some of the ones that you are likely to hear ! The official languagesin Singapore are English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil, and ANY government document can be had in all four of these languages. Pretty much any official or warning sign is in at least three, and usually all four, of these. And let us not forget about Singlish - a “pidgin-English” or creole mix of English, Hokkien, Malay, Tamil and a bit of Cantonese. The longer you are here the more of it you pick up - it's unavoidable. Checkout - the Coxford Singlish Dictionary at -

When I first arrived in Singapore I had a bit of trouble even understanding the English that was being spoken. At meetings where there were many people of different cultural (linguistic) background it took me about five to ten seconds to adjust my ear to their accents and of course by that time they had usually made their point. British accents, Malay accents, Indian accents, Chinese accents, Australian accents – my head was swimming in a sea of unfamiliar sounds and I could barely keep it above water. And then sometimes people would switch into their mother tongue to more fully explain a point to someone else. I was totally lost. I spent the first five or so meeting here wondering if I would ever understand anything anyone was saying. But eventually my brain makes new pathways and I got the hang of it.

So I thought I would learn Chinese.

Chinese (well, some Chinese) has four tonal “inflections”, or four different ways of saying one word. I am told that Thai has six and that Vietnamese has eight (wah lau! Like I was not confused enough with four). I will give you an example: I have a friend, his name is Xiau Chu, or "little Chu". Xiau (inflection down) means little, but Xiau (inflection up) means crazy, Xiau no inflection means … something else, I don’t know - and if you say it just right Xiau in Hokkien means sperm. So, I live in fear of calling my friend crazy Chu (or something worse). Luckily Chinese is also very contextual and thus few would make the mistake (regardless of how badly I mispronounced it) of thinking I was calling my friend sperm Chu (at least not on purpose). Xiau, like most words, has four different meanings (all pretty much seemingly unrelated). There are many examples of this, but this is the most vivid. On top of that Chinese it not written in Romanized characters, making learning it even more difficult. And hence the fact that I only know about 20 words in Chinese.

Singapore is surrounded by Malaysia (to the north and east) and Indonesia (the south and west) and these two countries share a common language or bahasa

Bahasa (both Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa Indonesia*) has no “inflections” like other Southeast Asian languages, and is written in Romanized characters, there are no tenses and the constructions is easier (at least for me). So when I admitted my defeat in my attempts to learn Chinese, I thought I might take a crack at learning Bahasa. From southern Thailand all the way south through Indonesia it is the native language of about 25 million people. It seemed like a no brainer.

I set out to teach myself Malay/Indonesian, first by reading up, then by listening to web sites and CDs, and finally by attempting to speak to people (one gets use to the strange looks while they slaughter the proper pronunciation). If I don’t get rattled and if I have not had too many beers I can convey the basics, ask and answer questions, or even catch a bit of a conversation. I have a long way to go. This was made evident during my last negotiation of pricing. After a greeting and some discussion I asked (instead of how much – berapa), I asked why (mengapa) ? He looked at me a bit oddly and told me the price and then (very kindly) took out his calculator and showed it to me as well. I realized my mistake and smiled weakly. I am sure as I walked away he was shaking his head thinking Bule Gila (crazy white people). I figure the best way to learn is try it out. I am trying, and maybe one day someone new to Singapore will be walking down the street and they'll hear me speaking Bahasa to a friend - and think wow Singapore really is a diverse place.

*bahasa literally means language in Malay/Indonesian. So technically I speak Bahasa Ingriss, but if you ask someone "do you speak Bahasa ?", most people will know what you are asking. Interesting Bahasa is related to Polynesia/Hawaiian and shares some cognates and concepts. Having grown up in Hawaii (and knowing a little Hawaiian) makes learning Bahasa a little easier.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Big Brew Day

Our friends over in Indonesia at the Dragon Brewery moved locations recently. You may recall that the owner of the Dragon brewery (Tan Munj Tai) was kind enough to let me brew a few test batches at his brewery back in 2005 (see the December 2005 & January of 2006 posts) and we have developed a good friendship over the past year.

So when Mr. Tan called me and said he needed some help I was glad to see what I could do. We met at The Archipelago Pub (79 Circular Rd, near Boat Quay) and he told me he needed a temporary brewer. My contract forbids me from working for anyone else but it doesn’t say I can’t help out for free. Still I didn’t want to violate my contract but I did want to help out, so I called up my friend Tony to see if he might be interested. Tony is an all grain home brewer here in Singapore and he was excited about the chance to brew on a larger system. Our friend Bill (another of Singapore’s active homebrewers) wanted to join in and we were glad to have him along. So the three of us headed over for a day a brewing, beer and Makan (eating).
Tony, Bill and Chandra (the assistant brewer at Dragon Brewery) did the actual brewing, I mostly just drank beer, ate copious amounts of great food and gave the occasional suggestion.

Now, I could tell you all about our big day brewing at the new location but Bill has done a far better job than I can (plus he has some good pictures)
Look to Bill’s sight (“Bill’s Beer adventures” listed to the right) or follow the link below

Click on “Big Brew Day”

Take it away Bill ........

Train Kept a Rollin'

The New Year has brought some changes to our small company. Yes, we are small. We are owned by a huge company (Asia Pacific Breweries – APB) but the Archipelago Brewery “company” is small. We have only six employees, we had nine but … well, as I said the new year brought some changes. We lost three of our team; our sales manager/person (Max Lo), our operations manager (Chong Hui Cheng), and our Envisioner (Chan Loo Siang). They were all friends and I am sad to see them leave. But I think that each will find success in their next endeavor.

As I said Archipelago is small, and APB is big (they own over 28 breweries throughout Asia). Now, working with a big company has some decided advantages; the benefits are good, they have money (so you can have good equipment), they are strong and respected in the industry, and you can piggy back on that muscle (like getting better pricing on raw materials). Of course there are downsides too. A big company (like a big ship) is not maneuverable, it is slow and takes great effort to change its direction. It is complicated, there are layers of systems and layers of management, and even finding out who the correct person to talk to about an issue can be difficult.

Since Archipelago shares many systems with its next door neighbor (the Tiger Brewery) I seem to run into the big vs. small issue with some regularity. We have our own brewery (separate building, brewing equipment, sales and marketing) but we share many of the other services of the larger brewery; utilities (water, sewer, steam, CO2, electricity), billing, purchasing, warehousing, payroll, etc. I come from a small business background so I sometimes I feel like a fish out of water. I seem to always be messing something up – I have not used the right form, or I have sent my wrong form to the wrong department, I did not check with …. Somebody, or I need to get “X” before I can have “Y”. I just can’t quite seem to get in sync. It’s all a bit like the movie Brazil for me.

If you are a big company all that may work for you, but when you're a small company wedged into the big company system it can create conflict and frustration, especially when your small company was purposefully designed to be quick and responsive to the market. And I think that was part of what brought about all three of my friends leaving, trying to be maneuverable while attached to a train going down its own tracks.

Now what got me started on this train of thought was some of the good things about being attached to a big company. My personal favorite is our shares utilities. After five years at Anderson Valley Brewery (where almost everything is self generated and disposed – including sewer and some power) is like a dream not to have to worry about water, sewer, steam boilers, CO2, electricity, generators, fork lifts etc, etc, etc. (my utility requirements are not even one tenth of one percent of what they use next door). There are other nice touches too – we have our own company doctor, our own cafeteria that serves about 300 meals a day (both breakfast and lunch – the typical lunch is about $1.00 USD - free salad on Tuesdays), a bus service to take people to and from work, regular health screenings, free passes to movies, the zoo, the bird park, and about every sports event, and a pub that serves free beer to all employees. Yes, the working life in Asia is very different than it is in the USA.

Sometimes I am a bit frustrated because I have not yet learned the system or sometimes I am just frustrated with the system. One has to learn a certain sort of Zen attitude to get along in corporate life anywhere, otherwise it is just all too much and you get derailed. Now I am not saying I have mastered this (not by far), but I am beginning to learn – all be it a bit slower than some, but I am learning.