When we last checked in on Young Master Brewery a little more than a year ago, the Hong Kong craft brewery was in the midst of something resembling a period of transition, one begat by a series of significant investments (and wins). A few years removed from its 2013 debut, YMB was still settling into a new, bigger brewhouse in Wong Chuk Hang, and its barrel-aging program—headlined by the acquisition of a foeder, a first for any Asian brewery—was in its nascent stages. The second F&B venue in which founder Rohit Dugar had an ownership stake, Second Draft, had just earned “Best New Restaurant” honors in Hong Kong Tatler magazine, too.
Today the brewery’s transition continues, but it looks and feels a little different. There are new beers, of course, but also more venues, broader horizons and, from our view, greater ambitions.
The barrels have been uncorked and spawned such brews as Hak Mo Sheung, an imperial stout aged in bourbon and, in one batch, brandy barrels. The foeder has sent forth the Days of Being Wild series, which features a sour ale thus far either dry-hopped after its primary fermentation, or pitched into chardonnay or brandy barrels for a second round of fermentation. Increased brewing capacity has led to more non-barreled beers, as well, like Another One (session IPA), Mott Street Milkshake (New England IPA), and Eastern Heretic (IPA), among others.
And in Hong Kong’s increasingly cool Kennedy Town suburb, on the far west end of Hong Kong Island, YMB launched in mid-2017 its third co-branded venue, Alvy’s, a casual pizzeria and beer bar with 13 taps.
The biggest change at Young Master Brewery, however, may be that it’s no longer solely stomping on home turf. When we met with Dugar for pints at The Globe in early 2017, we were curious as to whether we might see the brewery overseas any time soon. It seemed like the next, natural step in the brewery’s aggressive expansion. “We would export, but we’d do it selectively,” Dugar said at the time. “For the near term, we don’t want to export to a place in which we wouldn’t have time to spend. It’s easy to send beer, but we want something more long-lasting.”
True to his word, Dugar has put his “boots on the ground or bust” view of exporting to work in Singapore, where Young Master Brewery now self-distributes its full beer range and partnered with American chef Vinny Lauria to launch The Guild Singapore, a buzzy restaurant slash taproom and the brewery’s first venture abroad. It takes over a heritage space in Chinatown that was previously occupied by The Study and its yawner of a sister cocktail bar The Library. (We hope this signals an official end to the era of silly “secret password” bars.)
Dugar lived and went to college in Singapore, so given the familiarity (and smooth shipping logisitics from Hong Kong) it’s no surprise that YMB chose the republic for its first satellite location. Still, the brewery has plenty of new company with which to contend.
Soft launched in May, The Guild is part of a wave of major beer-oriented openings in 2018 that will test the elasticity and capacity of Singapore’s growing, though still modest craft beer market. Chief among the newcomers is the 32-tap beer bar American Taproom, which landed in April, and Little Creatures Singapore, the massive brewpub that arrived in late May. Mikkeller Bar, which moved out of its previous shipping container venue, had at the time of publication still not announced its relaunch plans, too.
Kingson Kok, Director of Business and Development Operations at Young Master Brewery, says that like at the brewery’s three Hong Kong venues, he hopes that The Guild Singapore in some ways works like a marketing tool for the brewery’s beers, reaching not just everyday consumers but also those managing the booze programs elsewhere on the island.
“There’s only so much ‘push’ you can do to get the word out there. We’d rather focus on the ‘pull’ where we have a good place serving our beers,” he says. “We actually do get a lot of emails in Hong Kong from people who say that they tried our beers at Second Draft or Alvy’s, are thinking about opening a restaurant, and want to get our beers on tap.”
By placing as much focus on the kitchen as they do the taps, there’s a greater chance of reaching outside Singapore’s small bubble of beer enthusiasts and into the broader nightlife scene, too. “Our challenge was to set up a hybrid of a taproom and restaurant,” Kok says. “We don’t offer the traditional pub grub-type thing; it’s more of a restaurant setting menu, with a good craft beer offering. It’s a little bit of both to try and find the right balance.”
Chef Lauria, originally from the US state of New Hampshire, comes to Singapore following stints at Hong Kong restaurants Linguini Fini, Stone Nullah Tavern, and Posto Pubblico. “He loves our beer, and we love his food, but we never really got a chance to work together in Hong Kong,” Kok says. “He likes to play with local produce and flavors, and we try to be as sustainable as we can.”
To that end, Lauria sources a number of locally produced ingredients for his rather interesting fusion menu, which is no small task since Singapore imports more than 90% of its food. Frogs used in General Tso’s frog legs ($14) and “marrow” bruschetta ($22) come from a frog farm in the far-west Kranji farming community. Sea Farmers in Pulau Ubin provide fresh oysters ($6/$7 per), while Kin Yan and Quan Fa farms grow the organic produce used in such dishes as tang-o (greens with fermented chili; $9) and a tasty local mushroom salad ($12) tossed with four different varietals.
We recommend the addictive salt & vinegar fries ($8), served in a sticky Chinese-style black vinegar sauce; the grilled sweet & spicy bacon ($28), which is basically a smokey char siu; and the mac n’ cheese ($18), in which Lauria ups the inherent richness even further with house-cured egg yolk. At first glance we thought the menu looked a little over-ambitious, but the flavors are on point and Lauria’s kitchen certainly stands on its own accord.
As for the beer, there are 19 taps (plus one for a house gin and tonic) and plans for a “brewer’s reserve” that includes a handful of Young Master Brewery’s fancier brews in 750ml bottles. When we visited, YMB beers flowed from 10 of the 19 taps, including the exceptional Lone Voice in the Wilderness (a dank, 6.5% dry-hopped Brett ale) and Days of Being Wild (7.5%), this one the dried cherries version in the foeder-aged sour series; the latter sadly ran dry as staff poured our glass. The other taps featured brews from fellow Hong Kong craft brewery Heroes Beer Co, Singapore’s own Brewlander, and such omnipresent exporters as Stone, 8 Wired, and Mikkeller.
Served in 200ml, 330ml, and 450ml glasses, beers range from $8 to $30; 330ml glasses of YMB brews are $13 – $17. That’s about par for the course for most craft bars in Singapore, where even macrobeers like Tiger and Heineken generally aren’t cheap in bars. “It’s hard to play around with the price point because tax is so high here; I mean, it’s really high,” Kok says. “Compared to Hong Kong, the price comparison for a commercial beer to a craft beer in Singapore is not that wide of a gap; you might pay a few dollars more. In Hong Kong, though, it’s a huge gap because of the low tax levels there.”
Young Master Brewery isn’t stopping with Singapore.
After passing a litmus test in Bangkok earlier this year, the brewery seems destined for more happy returns to Thailand in some form or another. First comes China, however. Though plans (and permits) were not yet finalized when we went to press, YMB is set to next open sometime in July or August a Guild-like venue across the bay from Hong Kong in Shenzhen, giving it a foothold and home base in the world’s biggest beer market.
The transition continues.
The Guild Singapore is located at 55 Keong Saik Rd, #01-01. +65 6224 1262. Open Wednesday to Sunday 6pm – 12am; closed Monday and Tuesday.
Disclosure: Management at The Guild comped one round of beers when we visited. While that hasn’t influenced this story, we believe in the old-fashioned thing called transparency.