Seated at one of the precious few covetous tables on LeVeL33’s sky-high outdoor patio, the second of the twice-nightly Spectra laser light show beaming into the bay below her from the Marina Bay Sands megaplex, a twentysomething Singaporean woman cocks her head slightly this way and then that way, and then back the other way again, repeatedly, maniacally, tweaking almost imperceptibly the purse of her lips, and the angle of her outstretched arm, and the steel of her far-off gaze, as she snaps one, two, 100 slightly different selfies.
Her date nods approvingly every time she stops to show off her favorite shots; this cycle repeats at least five or six times. In all, during our most-recent visit to the “world’s highest urban craft brewery,” we estimate that the happy couple collectively takes approximately 1,731 selfies, all the while exchanging about 218 words.
The keyword in the previous sentence is “happy,” however, for the two do indeed seem to be enjoying themselves. In fact, on this clear and cool random Monday evening, when every table is taken outdoors and most of them are occupied indoors, everybody at LeVeL33 seems perfectly happy and almost everyone, including Les Couple du Selfies, is drinking the house beer, which brewmaster Gabriel Garcia brews onsite in 1,000- or 2,000-liter batches.
And though the eyes may deceive, this doesn’t exactly look like a craft beer crowd. At LeVeL33 it never does, actually, because while local and traveling beer enthusiasts do of course visit the brewpub with regularity, they are not the bread-and-butter clientele. Indeed, with dazzling city views like the ones promised here, it’s fair to say that beer isn’t the chief lure. To Garcia, that’s just fine.
“If you’re a pub crawler and really into beer, with 50 check-ins per week on Untappd and RateBeer, you might be disappointed, but we don’t focus on that kind of customer,” he says. “What we have to keep in mind is that we are here to serve our customers. We’re here to make them happy, not only with our beer but with the service, the food, the ambience, and even when they go to the toilet because if it’s dirty they aren’t going to be happy.”
“So, it’s the whole package—we don’t only sell beer.”
Located in one of three Marina Bay Financial Centre Towers in the CBD, LeVeL33 commands a curious position on the city’s lengthening beer totem.
Opened in 2011, it is one of Singapore’s most-established craft breweries and certainly its most upscale. (The kitchen offers such haute proteins as jumbo prawns in fresh Vadouvan curry spice at $40, coal-baked kangaroo loin at $37, and Welsh lamb for $40.) It is a fine place in which to wow out-of-towners, impress clients, and snap selfies with dates, and it is as busy as ever. Garcia says that in 2017 LeVeL33 moved about 90,000 liters of beer, and that he hopes to top the 100K plateau in 2018. Since he took over as brewmaster in 2012, Garcia estimates that the annual volume has increased by roughly 50%.
LeVeL33’s Argentinian brewer learned his trade at the prestigious Technical University of Munich, where he majored in Brewing Science and graduated with Master Brewer honors. After school he landed in Liguria, Italy, at Fabbrica Birra Busalla, which at 112 years young is one of the region’s oldest boutique breweries. While at Busalla, Garcia largely brewed traditional European-style beers—think wheats, lagers, and rauchbiers. There were somewhat more ambitious seasonals, too, like a chestnut ale (which Garcia now brews seasonally in Singapore), and Garcia claims to have developed what he believes was the first pale ale brewed commercially in Liguria.
While Italian craft brewing has exploded in recent years, keep in mind that when Garcia was at Busalla the now-global craft phenomenon was only trickling into places like Liguria and, indeed, many parts of Europe. It’s no surprise then that when Garcia accepted the position at LeVeL33, taking over for a German brewmaster, he imported the classic beer styles and recipes he personally knew (and liked) best. “My vision was sessionable, European, traditional lager beers,” he says.
Therein lies one hint as to why a segment of what we’ll call “Beer People”—a relatively small, but enthusiastic and knowledgeable crowd in Singapore—do not have LeVeL33 on the everyday radar. Though some beer tastes are changing and coming full circle with a rediscovery of and appreciation for well-made lagers, pilsners, and the like, traditional European-style lagers and ales generally don’t move the needle much for Beer People, as shown in global beer rankings.
So, there’s that. In a city where craft beer is a premium, though fairly abundant product, when Beer People go out for $15+ pints they’re often going somewhere with a wide variety of imports that includes IPAs, double IPAs, imperials, saisons, sours, and other styles not typically brewed at LeVeL33. (To be clear, an IPA is one of the brewpub’s five core beers.)
There’s the matter, fair or not, of reputation, as well.
When we told one trusted Singaporean beer evangelist that we recently visited LeVeL33, he asked us if the beers were any good, because he heard that they weren’t, but admitted that he’d never been there. Two others scoffed and said they didn’t care for the beer, but also that they hadn’t been to the place in years. Another rolled his eyes and said something about the, shall we say, non-traditional porter, which at LeVeL33 is a combination of the IPA and the stout; that is, the bartender dispenses some of each beer out of the taps and into one glass to “make” a porter.
Garcia has been at the helm for more than 5.5 years, but we guess that at least some of LeVeL33’s tarnished local legacy dates back to the brewpub’s early days under the previous brewmaster. At the risk of throwing him under the bus without a chance to retort, and then sanctifying Garcia, we do recall some quality control issues back then, which is another way of saying the beer wasn’t great. And when expensive beer isn’t great, the people who care and know about beer simply don’t go back.
We ask Garcia if he reads his beer reviews on RateBeer and other sites, and if so what he thinks about them. “I read them, of course, but for me it depends who is writing [the reviews]. If it’s someone who has a lot of experience looking for something that we consciously know we don’t offer, of course they’re going to be disappointed because it’s not hoppy enough or these kinds of things,” he says. “That doesn’t bother me because that’s not something we’re going to change. But if someone says there’s no flavor or something like that, then sure, I need to see what’s going on.”
All beer lies in the mouth of the imbiber, so we’re not here to make proclamations one way or the other about LeVeL33’s product. It’s hard to argue with the venue itself, which does feel like a brewery inside a restaurant, instead of the other way around, but that’s okay. It’s certainly not a cynical place, and Garcia is a qualified professional doing what he loves, and we respect that.
We will say that the beers taste cleaner than we remembered, and that everyone in our party of four was happy enough with what was in their glass, which in this case was the blonde lager (which accounts for roughly 35% of the brewpub’s beer volume), the wheat, and a dry-hopped IPA. Exciting? Not really. Perfectly fine, particularly as part of what Garcia calls “the whole package?” Sure.
To Garcia’s point about taking the long view of the place, much like how wine always seems to taste better at its vineyard, and beer at its brewery, home-field advantage is very much in play at a venue like this with that patio and those views. There’s nothing wrong with that.
For his part, Garcia stands proudly behind his beer and is, again, unapologetic about LeVeL33’s focus on the more everyday beer drinker. “Our approach is the right approach. At most breweries in Asia that have a venue and a restaurant, you’ll see that their core beers are kind of traditional and a little conservative. They don’t jump on 12-percent beers,” he says. “We’re happy with what we’re getting out, and it’s done in the way we want to have it. We don’t want to make any changes. Of course, I like to try new things, and we get that opportunity with the seasonals and now with some of these collaborations.”
To wit, one of Garcia’s most-recent seasonals, a bright, well-balanced American Pale Ale, was brewed with Cascade hops and had a far hoppier punch than LeVeL33’s typical offering. The Brewer’s Cask is a relatively new addition in which Garcia brews every week an experimental 20-liter batch of IPA and dry hops it with different hops each time. And a spate of recent and upcoming collaborations could be seen, too, as a long-overdue embrace of craft brewing’s cooperative and adventurous spirit.
In June, LeVeL33 teamed up with House Barons de Rothschild on Champagne Beer, a limited-edition ale brewed with yeast from the Champagne producer’s Blanc de Blancs Vintage 2008. A collaboration brew with Melbourne, Australia’s Two Birds Brewing is fermenting in Singapore, too, and should be ready by the time the Champagne Beer runs dry.
Finally, to celebrate this year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia, LeVeL33 joined five other Singapore craft breweries for (awkwardly named) “Singapore Brewers’ Craft Route Russia.” Hosted by Archipelago Brewery, the project saw each brewmaster develop a beer that represents a specific continent. Rye & Pint Brewery, for instance, drew Europe and brewed Crown of Europe, an imperial pilsner; LeVeL33’s South American Samba is a quinoa lager.
We’ll see whether these and other future overtures to the Beer People help win, or at least change, some of those particular hearts and minds. Either way, LeVeL33 is still packed with happy customers of a slightly different kind. They may not necessarily be effusing on RateBeer, but they’re doing it on Instagram—the endless wave of meticulously staged, reshot, and edited selfies prove it.
LeVeL33 is located at 8 Marina Blvd #33-01, Marina Bay Financial Centre Tower 1. +65 6834 3133. Open Monday to Thursday 11:30am – midnight, Friday and Saturday 11:30am – 2am, and Sunday 12pm – midnight.
Disclosure: Management at LeVeL33 comped one round of beers when we visited. While that hasn’t influenced this story, we believe in the old-fashioned thing called transparency.