Singapore Beer

Let’s call this part one of a series on Southeast Asian beers.

Back in Bolivia, the concept of a sampler flight hasn’t quite caught on just yet. Then again, neither have brewery tours or the notion of breweries as destinations, or institutions that somehow contribute to or reflect the culture of the place they reside.

A week after leaving Bolivia, I was sitting down to my first sampler flight in the three and half years since I’d left the US, albeit this time in the strange, vaguely unsettling city-state that is Singapore. Brewerkz Restaurant and Microbrewery is one of numerous small-time outfits in the vibrant Singapore beer scene, operating a few other spots around the city.

To put this in a bit of context, we had arrived in Singapore almost directly from Bolivia (apart from a quick half-week visit in the US) and met up with my parents for a couple weeks of Southeast Asia travel before heading onward with them to China.

Two icons of architecture among many in Singapore.

Two icons of architecture among many.

As I said, Singapore is a very interesting beast in its own right, and couldn’t have felt much different from Bolivia. You’ll see minimal advertising in Singapore–no massive billboards, hardly anything posted on public transit, and even the storefront signs are dramatically pruned. The exception to this are the abundant PSAs featuring hokey slogans warning of the dangers of ID theft and “rioting,” which is vaguely defined and can include basically any non-pre-approved political gathering. Huh. On the other hand, protesting is practically a national pastime in Bolivia and advertising regulations seem to existent most prominently in La Paz, where the municipality plasters public fines onto signage that juts out above the street.

The vast majority of residential housing in Singapore is 20+ storey apartment buildings arranged very deliberately, grouped together in islands divided by vast tracts of open green space. It’s beautiful, a marvel of urban planning, and its cleanliness lives up to the legendary status Singapore has attained for its anal hygiene laws. Everything feels as though it has a assigned, planned and established place it belongs.

This pretty well sums up the overall sentiment.

But it also leaves you with a weird feeling that you’ve been dropped into a modern Downton Abbey set where there must be something pretty sad going on beneath the stairs. In other words, the wealth of nations is too often built on the backs of the poor, who in Singapore are pretty well invisible to the passing eye.

Don't riot in Singapore because it only achieves caning and imprisonment.

Don’t riot in Singapore because it only achieves caning and imprisonment.

If you look deeper, there are indeed some pretty upsetting things going on. This is especially true with imported labor, to the tune of New York and its nail salons. For example, maids–often Filipinas–are brought in under a special visa that prohibits them from having a significant other, getting pregnant, having family there, etc., and will get them deported if they lose their job. Likewise, imported laborers in the construction industries come from elsewhere in the region, such as India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, etc., and work under similar restrictions. I realize this is not a new story–I lived in Saudi Arabia as a child where it’s nearly a mirror image and probably worse when it comes to workers’ rights, but it doesn’t excuse turning a blind eye. Granted, we were only there for four days, so this was a fleeting glance at best–better to spare the holy judgment and try to see the positives.

Singapore is an incredibly easy city to be in, navigate and enjoy. Signs are in English, Tamil, and Malay. The island is deceptively large, and it can quite literally take hours to circumnavigate it on the MRT (again, because of size rather than efficiency).

And, of course, the beer is excellent.

The first flight in three years, at Brewerkz.

The first flight in three years, at Brewerkz.

At Brewerkz we worked our way through the Pilsner (5.0%), Wheat (a hefeweizen at 5.0%), IPA (6.0%), Golden Ale (4.5%), XIPA (a 7.5% take on the IPA), Hopback Ale (cask conditioned bitter at 4.5%), and Mad Honey Bee Ale (brewed with Thai wildflower honey, 6.0%). Of those, really only the Pilsner and Hopback stood out, the former for its notable hoppiness overlaying the crisp malt and the latter for the welcome tartness that lit up the orange marmalade flavors and made it stand out against everything else. There’s a clear North American influence on Brewerkz’s offerings, and their website even acknowledges as much while describing the founders, “who initially modeled it after similar concepts in the USA and Canada.”

But pervading the entire time, sitting next to a canal on an island in Southeast Asia, a couple degrees north of the equator, drinking some very decent beers of styles I’ve not had access to for the past three years, it came with an unexpected sense of melancholy. Because here I was drinking a beer at its source and while being so far physically removed from North America, without the physical context to remind me where I was I’m not sure anyone could tell that these beers were anything but brewed in North America. Not only stylistically speaking, but ingredient-wise as well: the marketing boasts of malts and hops all imported from abroad.

Let’s be fair: Singapore basically imports absolutely everything. So it’s not like they can source locally for much more than the water (and even then the bulk of it comes from Malaysia). Likewise, Brewerkz is obviously an American-style brewpub catering to American tastes in a community that has a lot of Americans. So on the one hand, my attitude could be a great compliment, if the goal has always been to replicate the American beer experience as closely as possible.

However, my disappointment–fair or not–is the lack of anything distinctly Singaporean about the beer. It’s great beer; it just seems utterly disconnected from its geography. I think this reflects some of the observations lately regarding London from Boak and Bailey, where people are noting the explosion of breweries there that basically just replicate American styles and approaches to the point where you’d never actually know it’s from London.

Obviously, there’s a place for places like Brewerkz where tastes and demand exists for those styles of beer (I think of Brewcraft in Bolivia as addressing a similar market). Heck, if someone had been brewing even something so obviously other as a hefeweizen or IPA when I was back in Santa Cruz, I’d have undoubtedly been a faithful customer. But I do think that striving to connect beer to its place of production in more than just dumping in some token “local” ingredients for novelty’s sake is a worthwhile aspiration.

And that was the downer for me. Sure, I enjoyed Brewerkz’s beers. But it lacked that extra element of place and story to connect it to the physical experience of being in Singapore. It whisked my mouth away to San Diego, perhaps, but I was hoping it would somehow clarify or enhance a physical sense of being in a place so foreign to what I know. We can so easily travel from one place to another today, that it’s almost vulgar to consider it a journey. (I suspect this is why my mother dreams so frequently of taking a trip on a freighter–on a ship you cannot escape the sacrifice of time required to cross a long distance, and it would be a nice coda to echo the three weeks she spent as a young girl on a dramatic TransPacific crossing.)

So, in the midst of so many opportunities to see so much, I find myself looking for chances for embodiment in a place, and food and drink often can be those things. I didn’t find that corporeal moment in Singapore.

Singapore: very concerned with cleanliness. Probably not Sandor Katz's favorite place ever.

Singapore: very concerned with cleanliness. Probably not Sandor Katz’s favorite place ever.