The details are fuzzy on when imported brews first rained down on our shores, but one thing’s for certain – a cold, sweaty mug of beer doesn’t discriminate between starched tablecloths and the hard melamine slabs of our kopitiam tables.
With discerning palates hankering for thoughtful nosh, the beer world has also tuned in. Although no strict code binds craft beer makers, most geeks effuse about edgy experimentation, honesty in beer making and pleasant flavour surprises on the palate.
The city’s first stalls, Charlie’s Corner at the back of Changi Village Hawker Centre, and a now-shuttered spot at Bukit Timah Market & Food Centre, were low-key spots catering to expats craving Belgian blondes and German pilsners from back home.
Then came Daniel Goh, a technology PR practitioner, who, in between jobs, realised his dream of serving good beer with good local food – you can say the rest is, yes, hop-story. Widely regarded as the pioneer of a new wave of hawker bars in Singapore, he wanted to introduce exotic brews from the UK, US, Japan, Denmark, Belgium and Germany to the masses at his stall, The Good Beer Company.
“It was really quite difficult in the beginning – many people didn’t understand craft beer, and why they had to pay twice the price for a beer half the size,” says Goh. But word got around and, slowly, his farflung corner of Chinatown Complex grew to become a buzzy hangout with city folk of all stripes sharing seats and beer-buying tips.
“We love how in our queue, you could have a student, a banker, a housewife and father with two children standing in line,” says Goh. “Sometimes (the customer demographic) is so diverse, it shocks you to have a 70-year-old uncle coming up to say, ‘Wah! This Belgian tripel is damn good.’”
What would Daniel Goh have with his craft beers?
Goh subsequently joined forces with fellow bottle shop owner, Kuok Meng Chao, to open Smith Street Taps, a few stalls adjacent to The Good Beer Company. Its opening in early 2014 wasn’t significant only in the novelty factor – it also demonstrated to local craft beer distributors the city’s thirst for beer on tap, and kick-started supply lines for fresher craft beer on keg for today’s thriving draft-bar openings like Freehouse, Draft & Craft and Nickeldime Drafthouse.
Kuok and Goh’s proof of concept has gone on to spawn similar joints like the now-defunct Beer is Food at Golden Mile Food Centre, and a more recent opening, 3rd Culture Brewing Co at Maxwell Food Centre. The latter opened in June 2016, spurring a minor kerfuffle on social media about hipsters gentrifying heritage dining spaces, once word got out about the inflated rental its owners were paying.
But co-owner Manbeer Singh muses that it sparked necessary conversations about the future of Singapore’s hawker centres. “In a way, it’s slightly irritating that people claim hawker centres for particular types of food. Especially in this day and age, when many young hawkers are bringing interesting stuff to hawker centres.”
Still, 2016’s local craft beer mini-boom has these disarmingly casual beer joints to thank. What started as a brainwave to get hawker bevvies up to speed with current drinking trends, has earned the city hip alternatives to the blander, clean-flavoured lagers of the ruddy-faced hawker set. To that, we say yum seng.