Interviews are not something that John Wei likes. Before we even meet, he admits that he’s “uneasy” and isn’t too fond of interviews, “like (Manchester United footballer) Paul Scholes.” He adds, before punctuating with what I assume was a self-deprecating laugh; it’s hard to tell on a text message. The 35-year-old is the head brewer of Brewlander, a homegrown craft beer label that has launched to much acclaim. Named for Wei’s online moniker during his homebrewing days, he gypsy-brews out of Kingdom Breweries in Cambodia, going down there personally every three out of six weeks. Barely a few questions into our conversation, he tells me how badly the interview is going—it’s not. Perhaps Wei is most comfortable behind the scenes, with his brews. As soon as we start talking shop proper, he launches into a passionate recount and explanation of his brew life.
PRIDE (SAISON BIER, 5.5% ABV)
While in the U.K. for his honeymoon in 2008, Wei had his first taste of an English cask-conditioned ale in Cornwall (a place that he’s quick to point out isn’t technically England), a tipple that forever changed his expectations of what a beer could be. Back in Singapore, he emailed the brewers asking to buy some for personal consumption, but was rejected as the producers did not ship overseas for fear of breakages. Not long after, a friend who had just returned to Singapore from Los Angeles introduced to him the idea of homebrewing, having witnessed the phenomenon in America. That such an endeavour was even possible came as a revelation to Wei.
“Next thing I knew, I was on Google, and I found suppliers in Singapore selling homebrew equipment and some very basic ingredients,” Wei shares. He immediately bought his first kit, and went straight into brewing. “My first batch was made from an extract kit—the beer didn’t taste good, but I just did that first run to know whether it could be done.”
Wei needed to prove to himself that beer can be made at home, and from the second batch onwards he dove straight into the deep end of the pool with allgrain brewing. While an extract kit basically contains a beer concentrate that you just need to ferment, all-grain brewing meant about a dozen more variables like malting and mashing for Wei to consider. He admits, “I skipped all the beginner and intermediate levels, and the first two years were met with varying degrees of success and failure. There were not a lot of resources back then about home brewing. More than half the things you find online are old wives’ tales, things that have been proven to not affect the quality of the beers. There was a lot of trial and error—brewing the same beer over and over, then dumping it until I got it right. I wasn’t just an avid home brewer, I was obsessed.”
LOVE (WILD IPA, 6.5% ABV)
“I’m going to sound really cheesy here, but I’d have to say that I didn’t choose Love, Love chose me,” shares Wei. We’re not talking about his romantic experiences, but Brewlander’s Love Wild IPA, a juicy-as-hell tipple with lush tropical notes that’s been fermented with wild yeast. Unpasteurised and unfiltered, the Love Wild IPA tastes brilliantly alive, with a silky mouthfeel and long, clean finish. It was a beer that Wei struggled a lot with.
Unlike most craft brewers in Singapore, Brewlander took the road less travelled by deciding to debut with more uncommon beer styles like a Saison and a wild IPA—despite urgings from many well-meaning friends in the industry who advised them to stick to safer styles of beer. Wei recounts, “The night before the brew day I almost had cold feet, how would we explain to vendors or consumers what a wild IPA was?”
COURAGE (DOUBLE IPA, 8.2% ABV)
Despite his misgivings, Wei went ahead with the brew. When the beer arrived in March this year, all 2400L sold out within three weeks. It went on to win Best of Singapore at the Asian Beer Awards 2017. Wei believes that it all paid off because he stuck to his guns, proving that Brewlander is about crafting bold flavours and pushing the limits. “It’s bloody expensive to brew, with the amount of ingredients (the beer uses plenty of Citra, Mosiac and Hallertau Blanc hops with Extra Pale Maris Otter malts) that go into it. Fermentation for this beer isn’t easy: when you’re dealing with wild yeast, it has a temperament of its own.”
Brewlander might be his first commercial venture, but Wei has already established a reputation in the industry for getting his brews right. With nine years of incessant brewing under his belt, Wei’s now confident that he knows all the parameters for creating a beer, down to the effects of ingredients and brew timings. For him, new beers usually start with the end result in mind, a mental inventory of the ingredients available, and 10 minutes of conceptualising on a piece of paper. “A lot of the Brewlander beers that you see, like the porter, Respect, we got them right on the first try,” he shares. Other labels under the Brewlander brand include the Pride, a Saison, which was one of the beer styles that Wei nailed almost instantly; and Courage, a double IPA that’s very drinkable despite coming in at 115 IBUs (International Bittering Units) and a high ABV.
HOPE (SUMMER ALE, 4.5% ABV)
Despite the brewery’s success, Wei feels that they’ve barely started. “Some people might say that the craft beer market in Singapore is getting a bit saturated, but I think it’s really a very exciting time.” He estimates that craft brews barely account for 1% of the beer sales in Singapore, with plenty more room to grow. The main hurdle is getting people to change their perceptions of beer as a cheap alcoholic beverage. Craft beers inevitably get compared to commercial lagers that are priced much lower. He admits that “people are prepared to pay more for wine or spirits because there’s a celebratory aspect to these drinks.”
Wei, however, is confident that people will come to recognise that craft beers do provide a better experience compared to commercial brews. He recounts that when he was younger, he “would just whack” the three-for-$10 durians and not care about the quality. “When your tastebuds get more educated, you’ll start wanting the mao shan wangs or jing fengs, and it becomes more about the flavour and not the quantity,” he explains.
Wei believes that the way forward is for the craft beer people to work together to champion the drink, mentioning that it’s “not just building the ship, which is [their] brand, but also building the tide. Because a rising tide lifts the ships, and it’s great for the whole industry.” Meanwhile, Wei continues brewing. He recently worked on Grace, a Kölsch infused with Lychee Red Tea that’s exclusive to Chinese restaurant Si Chuan Dou Hua. Brewlander also released three new styles of beer in May this year: Respect, a porter; Peace, an American wheat ale brewed with New Yeast; and Joy, a refreshing session IPA.
Eventually, Wei would like to have his own brewery —something that’s already in the pipeline. For him, gypsy brewing was a practical decision at the start. It was to gauge the size of the brewery that would be needed based on the volume of demand, while giving him time to finance and build the place.
At this moment, Brewlander still has to respect what its host brewery allows for, and having his own brewery would mean Wei can experiment with even more beer styles and make more of the “cutting-edge beers” that he had been doing as homebrews. Wei shares, “at the end of the day, we are still a Singaporean brand, and we are proud to fly the Singapore flag. Most of the beers you see from us were birthed in the kitchen of a HDB flat and it’ll be great if we can brew here too.”
This story first appeared in SALT Oct/Nov 2017 issue, which can be downloaded here.