The craft beer scene has progressed over the last few years, with many hole-in-the- wall joints around the city. Even new bars, cafes and restaurants are showcasing a wide selection woven with rich, unique characteristics created by independent breweries. Four owners tell us about their entrepreneurial decisions to open craft beer businesses, and how they’ve adapted to Covid-19 restrictions.
Three-year-old BunkerBunker relocated from Prinsep Street to a tiny space in Club Street’s Emerald Garden at the end of 2020 after its lease had expired. Founder Keola Ho jumped at the chance of taking over the quirky hole-in-the-wall space when Maxi Coffee moved out. As Ho had an inkling that the pandemic would last another three years, he thought that a low-cost concept would be more ideal.
Today, BunkerBunker’s wall is framed by three fridges teeming with beers and natural wines. “We carry up to 120 different labels of each at any point of time,” he says. The beers come from all over the world, including Belgium (lambic and trappist ales) and the US (pale ales and IPAs).
“We move decent volumes of sour beers, too. Over the last few years, they have become popular here.”
As for adapting to today’s challenging circumstances, Ho shares that the pandemic has created a unique situation for everyone. And, of course, scaling down his operations was a good move while he plans for the future. His solution to the 10:30pm ban? “Day drinking,” he quips and adds that BunkerBunker also curates and delivers to customers.
“Without a fixed menu, we can suggest and create custom orders. This takes more effort but provides the best experience, particularly for home deliveries. Additionally, we provide clients with the option to host private sessions for groups of up to five, and we curate the catering and beverage selection.”
It has also started serving stout milkshakes. “By working with Apiary, we can customise the base flavours of our ice cream and play around with various stout variations.”
BunkerBunker also hopes to build a platform that thrives through meaningful collaborations and partnerships with local brands. For example, the company has been invited to curate the beer section of Apiary’s new grocer concept in Joo Chiat. Singapore’s Shake Coffee is also collaborating with it on a six-month pop- up at Prinsep Street.
Orh Gao, which opened at Serene Centre at the end of 2018, is a lively coffee house during the day and a bustling craft beer bar at night. “Our goal is to be a neighbourhood hangout. Many of our customers begin their visit with coffee and switch to beer as the day progresses,” says co-owner Samuel Low.
He also tells us that the stouts, available on a rotation basis, are popular. “We usually have imperial stout on tap. The one right now is King Kong Knee Drop, brewed in Nozawa Onsen, Japan. It’s aged in Ichiro’s malt whisky barrels.”
Low was introduced to craft beers some years ago. He remembers really enjoying his first sips of Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar and Founders Breakfast Stout at the former Liang Court’s Thirsty Craft Beer shop. Subsequently, he started to drink different craft beers almost every day, and appreciated the variety of flavours that ranged from marshmallows, whisky barrels and fruit to French fries.
Today, he believes that the demand for craft beer is huge and will keep growing. “People are beginning to enjoy the exciting varieties. Many were eager for new experiences and care packs during the lockdown.”
As for the current alcohol curbs: “Thankfully, our outdoor beer garden allows us to increase our seating capacity while social distancing. Many bring along their dogs after a stroll in the Botanic Gardens. With the 10.30pm curfew, we just have to encourage people to come in earlier.”
Motivated by the demand for craft beers, Low launched another outlet in February this year at King Albert Park. Called Yeastside, it serves sourdough bakes and coffee during the day, and sourdough pizzas and beers at night. “Orh Gao offers kampung vibes and Asian food. Yeast Side is for the modern hipsters,” he says, adding that their plan is to decentralise drinking holes and bring them closer to the people.
Almost Famous at Chijmes was launched in December 2018 to create an approachable setting as well as introduce craft beers to a new audience. “Most drinkers’ first impression of craft beer is that it is always bitter,” says co-founder Kenny Lee, who used to work in the specialty coffee industry. Over time, they’ve tried IPAs, stouts and many other types of craft beer “People are beginning to enjoy the exciting varieties. Many were eager for new experiences and care packs during the lockdown.” SAMUEL LOW OF ORH GAO BELIEVES THAT DEMAND FOR CRAFT BEER WILL KEEP GROWING out of curiosity.
As palates evolve, Lee is surprised to find that many of his customers are now more adventurous in trying sour ales or Lambic from Belgium, which initially weren’t appreciated. “People started appreciating more sours. At the same time, wine drinkers are becoming more accepting of sour ales.”
Today, the craft beer bar with a minimalist decor features 15 rotational beers from Sweden, New Zealand, Poland and other places on tap. “Over the years, up and coming Asian breweries have also become part of our changing list. They include Hong Kong, Vietnam and, of course, our local breweries.”
According to Lee, Almost Famous was also created to become a platform for collaboration among various industries. The founders wanted to develop a platform for appreciating craft beer as a lifestyle. It is common to experience ups and downs when starting something new, but that is part of learning and growing. Along the way, they have made new friends who have gone on to become bar owners themselves. In essence, it is a friendly community where relevant experiences are shared.
Despite reduced revenue due to the recent challenges, Almost Famous’ new craft beer subscriptions have kept it afloat. Drinkers can visit its website to select a monthly subscription package of six to eight craft beers. “The receiver gets to enjoy different seasonal beers while working from home. We are surprised by how the demand for craft beers has kept its pace.”
Almost Famous also recently introduced new dishes such as Southern fried chicken and crispy whitebait. “We’re currently working with Love Handle, Ebb & Flow Group’s latest culinary concept, to further expand our new dine-in menu to include items like Vegan Fried Chicken, Tempura Broccolini and Smashed Sausage Muffin.” Guests can pair beer with their vegan dishes, and can expect an ever- changing curation of beer and food.
MIKKELLER BAR SINGAPORE
Copenhagen-based craft beer brand Mikkeller launched in Singapore in March this year at the bustling Chinatown Complex Food Centre. Founded by industry veterans Kuok Meng Chao and Daniel Goh, Mikkeller Bar Singapore is a collaboration with SST Trading Co., a craft beer distribution company.
Sylvester Fedor, general manager of Mikkeller Bar Singapore says, “Singapore has been big on supporting local, while also being keen on international experiences due to the travel restrictions.”
He adds, “We thought the bar would combine the best of both worlds, hosting Scandinavian beers alongside delicious local food. Thankfully, Mikkeller’s HQ was also interested in expanding its universe despite the pandemic.”
Fedor adds that it’s heartening to see more people pick up craft beer. “I’ve seen more distributors, and more craft beer bars opening. We are seeing more hotels, restaurants and other bars gradually offering craft beers as well.”
As a result, craft beer consumers are more willing to try sour beers, hazy IPAs, and Snakebites, a UK style made from lager and cider. “I always enjoy introducing our products to potential customers when we host tastings. I believe this infomal exchange of knowledge by the industry as a whole has also helped grow the scene.”
Currently, its bestsellers include Mikkeller Japanese Rice Lager and Game of Thrones Iron Anniversary New England IPA. “Both are easy-drinking beers and pair well with hawker food. For something unique, there’s the Mikkeller San Diego Tradblod, a boozy imperial stout brewed with maple and coffee and aged in bourbon barrels.” Fedor recommends pairing the latter with Amoy Chendol.
Tackling Covid-19 restrictions hasn’t been easy for them, however. “As we’re located in a hawker centre, the double whammy of a 10.30pm curfew and the restriction of two persons per table has drastically affected our sales. Like others, we’ve begun offering both delivery and growler takeaways for customers who prefer to hang out in groups at home.”
The bar has also started air freighting beers from around the world This allows the Singapore consumers market to sample producets from highly rated breweries that may only export in limited quantities. The froth, it seems, is only getting frothier.