Brewing up a storm

Brewing up a storm

Now that alcohol prices have spiked due to a hike in liquor tax, take a leaf from these home-brewers' books.

Home-brewers in Singapore ferment and bottle their own liquor to save money, experiment with flavours and savour something they have made.

One of them is marketing executive Jay Chua, 25, who spends weekends holed up in his bedroom - brewing beer.

He places an 11-litre fermenter, part of a $180 home-brew kit, and a mini fridge next to his study table to churn out batches of India pale ale.

"Beer-making is a therapeutic process and it is a magical moment when you taste your creation for the first time," says Mr Chua, who now brews once a month after getting hooked on the hobby about two years ago, while seeking a low-cost option for craft beer.

The average cost of making his own beer at home is about $2 a bottle, compared with paying $8 to $15 - sometimes even more - for beer at a pub, for example, he says.

Experimenting with flavours, such as grapefruit, gula melaka and even pandan leaf, is part of the fun, he adds.

Home-brewers typically begin with a basic kit that costs about $180, including a fermenter, a long mixing spoon, starter ingredients such as yeast, sugar and malt, a thermometer, bottles and instructions - all available from local, specialised shops.

The brewing process takes about three weeks and liquor enthusiasts may toggle between beer types such as English bitter, lager, wheat beer, Mexican cerveza and ginger beer.

Other brewers, such as journalist Natasha Hong, 27, go a step further.

She has a $800 semi-professional set, which includes a mashtun, in which grains are mixed with hot water, and a kegerator, which chills and dispenses beer.

Hong and her partner, a 29-year-old physicist, started home-brewing 2 1/2 years ago. But their earlier home versions, made with just a fermenter and basic ingredients, tasted too "metallic".

"The taste was not as full-bodied as we had hoped, so we wanted to try a more advanced method at home," she says. Besides, there are bragging rights too.

"It is a fun thing to tell friends that we brew our own beer," says Ms Hong. They usually go on to ask how she does it and if it is possible for them to do it at home.

Under the Customs (Home-Brewing of Fermented Liquors) (Exemption) Order 2008, home-brewers are limited to a total of 30 litres of beer and fermentable liquors per household per month. The term "beer" includes ale, stout, porter, shandy and all other fermented liquors made from malt, cider and perry. Fermented liquors include wine and samshu. Such home-brewed liquor is for personal consumption only.

This has led to the mushrooming of home-brew fans, some of whom gather as part of the Singapore Craft Brew Club.

The 60-member club started in 2004 and registered the year after. From about 20 members when it first started, it now boasts more than 200 members on its Facebook page. It is headed by American software engineer Bill Brehm, 56.

Members meet twice a month at one another's homes or at craft breweries to chat about brewing or to exchange tips. They also travel to Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines to visit craft beer breweries.

"As a community, we make and share beer, and comment on whether one another's home-brew is good or bad," says Mr Brehm, a Singapore permanent resident.

"From there, we talk about how to improve flaws, which makes the brew better."

Home-brewers get their stock from two shops here: iBrew in Clementi and HomeBrew in Telok Blangah.

Both started as home businesses in 2004 and transited to brick-and-mortar shops in 2011.

Mr Neo Say Wee, 38, who runs HomeBrew, says he sells close to 10 home brew sets a month, up from monthly single-digit sales in 2004; while Mr Raymond Lee, 48, who owns iBrew, sells about eight kits a month, compared with about two a month in 2004.

Most of their business comes from selling ingredients for regular home-brew clients to brew beer, they say.

A 25 per cent hike in liquor tax was announced as part of the Budget in February. The hike in alcohol tax may be hurting drinkers' pockets, says Mr Lee.

"It is boosting home-brewing because some old customers who have gone dormant are now 'back to life' to buy ingredients to brew again," he says.

Saving money on beer is only a starting motivation, says Mr Lee, as it takes a passionate brewer to continue the process.

He explains: "Every first-time brewer would be familiar with this experience of eagerly watching the fermentation, gazing at the carbon dioxide bubbles and sniffing the faint beer smell - you can stay up all night to watch."

Home-brewing tips

1. Pick the coolest part of the house to place your home-brew kit. This could be a bomb shelter or a second bathroom, where your beer-in-progress would not be under direct sunlight.

2. The ideal temperature for fermentation is 20 deg C. Remove the racks in a mini fridge to store the fermenter for a week.

3. Use glass bottles rather than plastic ones. It is easier for air to get through plastic than glass. Air causes oxidation of the beer.

4. If you want to flavour your beer, steer clear of lactoserelated ingredients, such as milk, Milo or Ovaltine, as these cloud the beer. Your best bets to flavour beer are honey, fruit juice or tea.

Avoid adding fresh fruit, as tannins in them may make the beer too bitter.

5. Sanitise the brewing equipment and avoid contact with the beer while it is being brewed.

Commercial beer-brewing takes place in a closed system, where the beer is not exposed to air while it is being brewed.

To replicate this, some home-brewers switch off the fan and close the windows while brewing, as any airborne bacteria might contaminate the beer.

This article was published on April 4 in The Straits Times.

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