Say hello to the Apple Store of craft beer bars

It’s a balmy Thursday afternoon and we’re zigzagging down the white-walled corridors of Chijmes, with only one thing on our minds: to find the newly opened Almost Famous Craft Beer Bar. It’s been described by friends as ‘the Apple Store of bars’, which should make it easy to spot inside this preserved, colonial-era heritage enclave. After a series of wrong turns through Japanese restaurants, we pound to a halt in front of smooth granite, glass and metal. This must be it.

The 700 sq ft space sits alongside its fellow glass-walled dining concepts Hvala and Glasshouse, but definitely commands more attention. A single monochromatic colour palette throughout the bar brings to mind a gallery space or high fashion studio—which is exactly what founder Kenny Lee, 25, was going for.

“The whole operation started out with trying to create a gallery-like craft beer bar; stepping out from the norm,” said Lee. The former barista, who graduated in Fine Art from LASALLE, was first inspired by alternative store aesthetics on his trips to Japan. Tired of his design practice, he had been toying with the idea of opening a bar for a year. After four to five years dabbling in the local design and coffee industries, he decided to marry all his interests in one place.

“And since craft beer is related to coffee—in terms of aroma, body, taste; it’s also about the brew, and about the craft—I moved to that,” he explained. “It’s also easier to train people (in); a barista takes about a good six months to train, and a barista’s pay isn’t that good in Singapore.”

With that, he approached three trusted acquaintances, all below the age of 30, to open Almost Famous.

Inside, the furniture looks deceptively simple, but was all customised down to a T. The coasters, menu boards and plates were painstakingly designed to achieve the perfect weight and feel, while Lee personally drew up the steel chairs and tables before having them custom-made in Thailand. Even the walls and empty space figured into his design plans, to accommodate the obtrusive pillars in Chijmes’ strict heritage conservation guidelines.

“The whole reason behind it was to eliminate as many distractions as possible—to make people focus on the subject of beer,” said Lee, on the bar’s minimal aesthetic. “We added plants to soften the space, but the colour choice was to mimic the look of malts and barley used in craft beer.” At the bar counter, a neat row of taps line the wall.

Almost Famous

Another big design feature is the adjustable lighting, which can be dimmed or raised to aid and flatter photography—another detail Lee picked up in Japan, from fashion stores like Saint Laurent and Dries van Noten. There, staff adjusted lighting so their customers would “look good at all times”.

It’s also one way to reach out to ladies and other non-beer drinkers. Playing to the notion that beer is typically regarded as a “man’s drink”, Lee felt that craft beer bars in Singapore seemed to fit one single look: dark, rowdy and unapproachable.

“For a lady who drinks alone, she won’t feel comfortable walking into a craft beer bar that looks like that,” he said. “I have female friends who do drink alone, at a cocktail bar—not because they want to drink a cocktail, but because it is quieter. That’s why I approached the craft beer bar like this; because of the brightness, ladies will be more willing to enter the space.”

Getting them through the door is half the battle won. The second hurdle is to do craft beer justice—Lee shared that he’s had people tell him they don’t like craft beer, partly because “they were introduced to the wrong kind of craft beer”.

Available on the drinks menu, then, are 16 rotating taps of regional and international craft beers. Ranging from fruity Indian Pale Ales to hoppier lagers, a pint averages $14 to $16. Roughly half the taps are dedicated to Asian breweries that span Saigon (Pasteur Street Brewing Company) to Singapore (Brewlander).

“I wanted to curate as many Asian breweries at the bar as possible. The direction is to take pride in Asia breweries, and give them as much support as they need,” said Lee.

It ties in with the bar’s tongue-in-cheek name. Lee explained that “almost” wants to emphasise progression and constant improvement in an industry as competitive as the nightlife industry. The fame part takes less precedence.

Citing established bars Freehouse and American Taproom as the “big players” in the industry, he stressed that Almost Famous hopes to fit in simply as a middle player, to introduce craft beer to the more commercial beer-drinking crowd, and even push them over to the big boys should they want something more.

“We’re not (brewing) any beer ourselves; we’re just giving space to a player, to do justice to their craft—they are the people who are famous. We’re just helping them.”

Beyond beer, Lee also hopes to eventually utilise his new venture as a platform for emerging artists and entrepreneurs of all disciplines in Singapore—the “almost famous”, to debut their designs, works and products. The clean aesthetic will serve as a blank slate to host openings and launches, while the movable furniture and adjustable lighting can accommodate events of various natures.

“Almost Famous doesn’t want to stop at being a craft beer bar; we hope to branch out to design, to a cafe, to fashion—to reach out to what I believe is really a third-wave business idea,” said Lee.

“Let us be known as a curator of all craft; we want to curate people who are good at their craft.”

Almost Famous Craft Beer Bar is located at #01-06 Chijmes, 30 Victoria Street, and is open from 3pm-12am daily. More information here