By Brian Spencer
“Uh oh — this looks like it might be a Cheese Sandwich Night.” **
I’d already been “sampling” beers for about two hours by the time my wife met me (and sized up my sobriety) at Singapore’s fifth-annual Beerfest Asia, held last weekend on a beautiful waterside location in the shadow of the Singapore Flyer Ferris wheel. I’ll spare you the “it’s hard work, but somebody has to do it” gagger and simply say that, yes, drinking beer, taking notes, and shooting the shit with folks in the beer industry certainly isn’t a painful endeavor, but I was working–and in this line of work that occasionally leads to becoming gradually bombed; again, not painful unless you overdo it.
As it turns out, opening night at Beerfest Asia 2013 fortunately did not tailspin into “Cheese Sandwich Night: The Return”, though there were ample ales consumed in the festival’s fun, surprisingly relaxed setting. I did, ahem, lose my footing getting out of the taxi back home, but the good (and award-winning; see below) people at Jungle Beer will be happy to know that I still managed to spill nary a drop of what was left in my takeaway cup of their delicious vanilla porter.
This all goes to say that, while opening night of the four-day festival was likely the tamest night of them all, I was impressed with the organization, layout, location, mellow vibe, and perhaps most importantly by the diversity of beers and exhibitors at Beerfest Asia. We were all there for the same reason; the palpable air of camraderie was just right. Like in most other Southeast Asian countries, Singaporeans rarely make drunken fools of themselves in public, even at events such as this one, but to again quote my wife, “Everyone (was) red-faced and ready to go.”
A Few Highlights:
+ Charles Ng used the festival to publically debut his new Japanese microbrewery import company Epicurean Nomads. Ng, who left a career in hospitality technology to pursue his passion for good beer, is currently working with five Japanese breweries handpicked from his travels around the country.
“We’re trying to focus on beers that are not pasteurized and unfiltered,” he told me. “We traveled around Japan, tasting at different breweries, talking with brewmasters, and trying to understand their brewing approaches and philosophies. That’s actually why we call ourselves ‘nomads’ because we move from place to place and try to seek out the best available, because there are over 300 microbreweries in Japan.”
Bottles from each of the five breweries were available at Beerfest, as well as four beers on draft from Tochigi-based brewery Nasu Kohgen. My favorite was easily the Ai, a perfumey, easy-drinking ale with a refreshing malty finish, and one that reputedly was once served in the Imperial Household of Japan in the Nasu Highlands. The brewery’s somewhat over-carbonated Scottish Ale wasn’t quite as successful; an Englishman taste-testing with me said “it reminds me of homebrewing when I was 13.”
Ng says he started Epicurean Nomads due to the lack of variety in a Singaporean marketplace dominated by Asia Pacific Breweries. “The craft beer available in Singapore, up until now, have all been supermarket beers, but you won’t find any of our beers anywhere else,” he says. “Singaporeans are so particular about their food and drink, and yet they don’t have options. For example, you go to a high-end Japanese restaurant and you’re paying S$500 per person for a meal–and the beer selection is Tiger and Kirin.”
With any luck, Epicurean Nomads will soon help rectify that calamitous situation.
+ Warm congratuations to Aditya Challa, brewer and director of upstart Singapore microbrewery Jungle Beer. It’s been just a few short years since Challa’s beers first hit the island, but the brewery continues to rack up one well-deserved award after another. This year they absolutely dominated the competition at Beerfest: A panel of 22 judges gave a gold medal to Jungle Beer’s English Pale Ale in the “International Pale Ale” category, while by the end of the night accolades for the brewery’s Kiasu Stout comprised a gold medal in the “Stout” category, win for “Best in Singapore”, and championship win for “Best in the World.”
“We spoke with the mushroom farm guys quite a bit to understand how mushroom extract is made, and it involved a lot of time—essentially we ended up soaking the mushrooms for four hours in boiling water,” said Challa. “We then got that extract, using that to mash in, so the mushroom is not a flavor that’s added in later. We have all the polysaccharides from the mushroom that are broken down from the extended period of hot temperature—they’re all in the beer and that’s what’s really important for it.”
+ One of my favorite new beers of the night was Matso’s Chili Beer, presented by Singaporean importers Jobber. Clear in color, almost like a lime or pear juice, this wheaty beer packed a serious kick of Thai chili pepper-style spice on its way down, though it still had enough nuance to the overall flavor to avoid being a gimmick. I was told it’s “probably the hottest beer in the world”, though with all the chili- and habanero-pepper beers I’m seeing as of late (Ballast Point Brewing’s Habanero Sculpin IPA, for example) this experimentation with spice seems to be a blossoming craft beer trend. Either way, Matso’s Chili is obviously an ideal pairing for Thai food; it also goes well mixed with a bottle of Matso’s Mango Beer — Matso calls these two beers together a “Chingo.”
+ In April, as part of a craft beer feature for Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, I briefly covered Bangkok-based craft beer importers Beervana, launched last October by a pair of expat Americans, and at Beerfest bumped into co-founder Aaron Grieser at the American craft beer stand from BeerStyle Distribution. While everyone at the festival seemed to thoroughly enjoy talking beer, Grieser was far and away the most enthusiastic of the bunch.
It’s easy to see why: Beervana is the first company bringing craft beers to Bangkok, and in less than a year they’ve made significant headway with a number of the city’s trendiest (and expat-iest) bars and restaurants. Since launching with beers from Rogue and Anderson Valley, Beervana’s expansion has included seven food & beer pairings–a “Wild Flavors Dinner” featured Eat Me chef Tim Butler carving up wild game caught in the Pacific Northwest–and a partnership with Singaporean microbrewery Brewerkz.
“We traveled around Southeast Asia looking for the best local craft brewer. We traveled, we drank, we did the hard due diligence of drinking in Laos and Cambodia and Vietnam and Thailand, and we kept coming back to Brewerkz—they’re the best local brewer down here,” said Grieser. “They’re doing a really good job, so we’re bringing their stuff up on draft and in bottles. We had a soft launch for them in February, just to sort of introduce them to the market, and now we’re launching them again in August.”
They’ll also be introducing Stateside draft beers in August, and have even been dabbling in Thailand’s completely untapped homebrewing market. Untapped because, you know, it’s against the law. “It’s illegal to homebrew there unless you have a license, so we went down to The Londoner and got their master brewer to do a live brewing session,” he said. “We had all the ingredients and equipment out and basically did a four-hour crash course on brewing. We didn’t brew, but we just taught everybody how to do it.”
+ Finally, I hope to see more of Lexington Brewery and Distilling Co., which according to its Beijing-based team at Beerfest is considering breaking into the Singapore market. (Just do it, guys.) This just-over-decade-old microbrewery located in Lexington, KY, brought five of its ales to the festival this year, the standouts being the Bourbon Barrel Stout (7.5% ABV) and Bourbon Barrel Ale (8.5% ABV). The residuals of bourbon are strong on both the nose and palate, and I loved the dark, roasty coffee aftertaste of the stout. Along with Matso’s Chili Beer these brews made the most lasting impression–and I’d personally opt for Lexington Brewery’s over Matso’s given the significantly higher bang-for-your-buck alcohol content.
The brewery’s beers are currently distributed in 15 US states, Canada, Ireland, and China.
** The “Cheese Sandwich Night” in question was one of the few occasions in recent memory where I did cross that line between drunken merrymaking and inebriated folly. Long story short, a much-anticipated night out in Brooklyn to catch Unsane at Union Pool ended up with a premature trigger of my internal “uh oh, now you’ve done it, better get home” alarm about four songs into the set. I exited stage left, somehow made it home, somehow slapped together a cheese sandwich, and made it about one bite in before passing out. My wife came home shortly afterwards to find my cat noticably disturbed and me on the bed, half snoring and half moaning, cheese sandwich on my pillow. My night didn’t end there; let’s just say there was a clean-up project the next morning.