When we last met John Wei, he was busy whispering to yeast in Cambodia. These days, the 36-year-old brewer behind Brewlander has some “local” strains to keep him busy.
Unknown to many, the homegrown craft beer favorite recently started brewing out of a microbrewery in the heart of Jurong Food Hub. But you won’t find Brewlander’s bestsellers Love and Respect here. For the last three months, Wei and his lean team (just one other hand) have been producing an all-new line of beers—and calling it The Fringe Project.
Here, the focus is on crazy, unconventional beers that go beyond even Brewlander’s current reputation for bold flavors. The idea came when Wei felt that keeping up with the demand for Brewlander’s bestsellers was eating into the creativity that sparked the brand in the first place.
“We got just too busy trying to meet the demand of those few beers that it didn’t really allow us an outlet to brew new beers as often as I want,” he said. “A lot of it is also because I’m a brewer, I don’t like to stay stagnant; I like to create something new—I mean, that’s the whole idea of homebrewing, even before (Brewlander).”
Brewlander’s new space as part of The General Brewing Co.
The Fringe Project was hence created with the local craft aficionados in mind. Just three months old, it’s become Wei’s pet project for the simple fact that he gets to do literally whatever he wants.
“The mainstream guys, for a lot of them it’s probably still their first time experiencing Brewlander’s beers; they’re probably still trying out Love for the first time, Hope for the first time. But the more craft beer-centric people are a different crowd altogether—it’s very much fueled by what’s new, what’s creative, what’s exciting.”
“The idea is to keep innovating and creating beers; to do beers that are a little more cutting-edge, a little more living on the edge—hence ‘The Fringe’ right?” he teased.
A home in Jurong
Inside the dingy warehouse in Jurong Food Hub, malt is milled, drained, and spun into liquid gold. The General Brewing Co. is the company that owns the space; Brewlander is just the main customer tending to the shiny vessels. There is a milling room, mash tun, boiler, heat exchanger, fermenter tanks, and two bright tanks. It’s a steely, dull-looking set-up, boring to most and out-of-place even in its industrial setting; but to Wei it’s a “playground” for endless innovation.
Because there are only four fermenter tanks (each one used for a different flavor of beer), the batches are small—producing enough to fill only 11 to 15 kegs at a time. But that’s the point, says Wei, adding that the supporting bars have been quick to snap up at least two to three each time he launches a new beer. This way, he gets to experiment and play without the repercussion of being left with excess unsold stock. “The idea is to do it small-scale, where we get to make sure that (the beers are) drank fresh,” he added.
At this microbrewery, processes are more manual and less about pushing buttons. Wei has to personally stir the mix of malt and starch to prevent them from clumping together inside the mash tun.
Wei’s personal favorite brand of malt from the UK; he will use no other.
Unlike with Brewlander’s recognizable bottles, no bottling is done at the microbrewery. The beers are tapped when ready and put into kegs to be sent to bars.
To date, The Fringe Project has released five beers, launching at various outlets that Wei said have supported Brewlander in one way or another.
The very first was the Hibiscus Grisette—a light, refreshing beer infused with hibiscus flowers that was launched at Smith Street Taps. It was 100 percent fermented with Brett (short for Brettanomyces), a wild yeast most brewers typically stay away from. “It’s actually an infection; it makes the beer funky and at times sour, and not the good kind of sour,” said Wei. “But for our brewhouse, from the first beer I said let’s be different and use Brett.”
Then there was #2 and #3—a double dry hop IPA Wei describes as “really over-the-top hoppy”, and a Soursop & Peach Berliner Weisse, a wild sour beer historically from Berlin that he added fruits to.
While the first three beers are pretty much all tapped out, you can still find #4 and #5 rotating on taps at certain bars—like the former, Beware the Seagulls at Good Luck Beerhouse. The quirkily named beer is Wei’s take on an English cask-conditioned ale, made with a premium malt and tweaked to be extra hoppy. It takes its name from Brewlander’s lesser-known origin story: Wei first started homebrewing because of a life-changing beer he had on a trip to Cornwall, where everywhere along the coast locals would warn “beware the seagulls”.
“It’s just an homage to Cornwall, and to the place that really started my homebrewing,” he added. “Without that there wouldn’t be Brewlander.”
Local pride for local craft
Next up, The Fringe Project has exciting collaborations planned. #6, #7 and #8 will see the beer label work together with other local craft brands in the F&B industry—and be released just in time for August.
The first is a coffee beer with Home Ground Coffee Roasters—though, switching things up a bit, Wei will be adding the roasts into a pilsner rather than the conventional choice of a stout. With roots reaching back into 1842, pilsners are known to be a classic and hence unforgiving style. But Wei is unruffled: “What we want to do is provide a neutral, blank piece of paper for the coffee to shine—and celebrate what these guys are doing, the craft they’re putting into their coffee roasting.” Hence they’ve chosen to go with a roast called Vanta, an aromatic fruity blend intended to bring to mind single-origin coffees.
After coffee, there’s chocolate. The second collaboration spotlights Fossa Chocolate; founder Jay Chua is a personal friend of Wei’s, who actually started out as a homebrewer himself. For #7, Chua will be lending his expertise in cacao nibs and their origins to attain a specific flavor for the beer. Wei’s working recipe is for a porter with the cacao nibs, vanilla—and coconut, for a rich lemak aftertaste.
Works in progress: the base pilsner and base stout for #6 and #8 respectively.
And rounding up the trio is a collaboration sure to titillate avid fans of the local booze scene. Wei has teamed up with none other than mixologist Vijay of Native Bar for #8. And no, it’s not a beer cocktail; it’s a cocktail beer.
Their first brainstorming session included a paiseh ping-pong, with each artisan insisting the other take the lead in the recipe. With formalities out of the way, they’ve since decided on a sour-based beer incorporating a local berry; both Wei and Vijay will forage for the prized ingredient together. The beer itself is still very much a work-in-progress.
“It’s just supporting fellow local businesses,” said Wei. “We don’t ask (Home Ground) for free coffee; I’ve never said eh give me free coffee so I can feature you. We understand how difficult it can be as a small craft guy in a very difficult market, and we just want to support their businesses as well.”
All three beers remain unnamed, and their launch locations are still undecided. With no strict schedule in place, Wei said they will likely be launching in the next two to three weeks, though interested fans can stay up-to-date with Brewlander’s social media channels.
A brewmaster and his toys
With The Fringe Project, Wei has lesser time than ever; his monthly trips to the brewery in Cambodia for Brewlander’s main line remain as frequent. Still, the company is already looking to get a bigger space they can call their own in Singapore, in the hopes that they can bring the Cambodia operations back home once and for all. Till then though, it’s shuttling back and forth between Jurong and Phnom Penh for Wei.
“But this is what I signed up for,” he said, turning another valve on one of his precious toys. “So cannot complain.”
Keep up with Brewlander and The Fringe Project here.