SINGAPORE: Ten months after they were told to stop brewing beer in their residential hall in Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Mr Rahul Immandira, Mr Abilash Subbaraman and Mr Heetesh Alwani have decided not to call it quits and are gearing up to bring their specialty beer brand to the market.
Binjai Brew – named after NTU’s Binjai Hall where the three engineering students started their beer-making journey last September – will hold a launch event on Saturday (Dec 29) to mark its months-long journey to becoming legitimate.
Earlier in February, the 25-year-olds were asked by the university to put a stop to their brewing activities in campus, which they were told fell foul of the regulations governing home-brewing of fermented liquors.
While they did as they were told, they never stopped thinking about how they could continue, recalled the trio in an interview with Channel NewsAsia earlier this week.
Now, by partnering a local contract brewer, three flavours perfected by the friends in their dormitory’s pantry, as well as an unused corner in a NTU chemistry lab, are ready to hit the market.
FROM DREAM TO DRINK
The journey to becoming beer makers started from a summer internship that Mr Immandira had at a small brewery in California last year. While he was not paid, the three-month stint opened him up to the world of craft beer.
“My main task was to find a better way to sanitise the tanks but my manager gave me the freedom to try out other tasks in the brewery, like running the equipment,” said the chemical engineering student. “That’s how I realised that there can be so many different styles (of beer) and they taste good.”
When he returned to Singapore, he roped in his close friends Mr Subbaraman and Mr Alwani to give beer-brewing a shot.
“Everyone in class was like ‘How did you get an internship at a brewery? Do you know how to make beer now?’ So I thought why not just try making something,” Mr Immandira continued with a grin.
In less than a week, the trio assembled the basic tools they needed, such as a 10-litre brewing pot and a beer fermenter, as well as ingredients like malted barley, hops and yeast from local home-brewing supply stores.
Their first attempt resulted in an “insanely alcoholic” brew after they misinterpreted the ratio of ingredients. “Let’s just say it’s good for parties but not good enough as a beer,” recalled Mr Immandira.
But they got better and began experimenting with different styles of beers by tweaking recipes they found online. Along the way, they also started improvising on their tools.
For instance, they built a cold box to better control the temperature during the fermentation process – a factor that will “make or break” a good brew, said Mr Subbaraman.
“For the first few batches, we’d bring it down to our classrooms to cool with the air con. But we obviously can’t do that all the time and we couldn’t control the temperature … So our cold box has a temperature probe connected to a microprocessor, which is in turn connected to WiFi for us to control the temperature online via Google Sheets.”
Slowly, beer-brewing became a much-needed “creative outlet” to let off stress as the trio, all in their fourth year of studies, went about their final-year projects.
“When we got together, we are just trying new things and even if messed up, it was OK,” said Mr Alwani. “It’s the freedom to get things wrong that was refreshing for us.”
By the time February got around – five months after they started – the three friends had brewed about 10 batches of beer on campus. With each batch ranging from 10 to 20 litres, the dormitory-brewed alcoholic beverage became shared among friends who gave the trio positive feedback.
“We were doing different kinds of ales and with that kind of volume, we can’t drink them all,” said Mr Immandira. “We let our friends try them and they thought it was something different from what’s available in the market.”
Then one day, they were called in for a meeting with a resident hall fellow and were told that they needed to stop their brewing activities.
In Singapore, individuals do not require a licence to home-brew beer and other fermented liquors as long as they meet a set of conditions. This includes the brewer being 18 years old and above, ensuring that the manufactured liquor is only for personal use, and the home-brewing is done in the brewer’s home, according to the Singapore Customs' website.
In the case of the NTU students, the brewing process was not done at home and money was also being offered by some of their friends for the beer.
While they admitted to feeling “disappointed”, the trio said they agreed with the university’s decision.
“We thought home-brewing could apply to hostels but in the end it was quite clear that it didn’t,” said Mr Subbaraman. “We understood where (NTU) was coming from so we stopped and packed up.”
They stressed, however, that they never intended to sell their beer.
According to Mr Immandira, some friends had insisted on paying them around S$3 to S$4 a bottle “but not everyone did”. Some of their beer was also made for a local charity event last November.
Sticking pieces of paper with their brand name “Binjai Brew” on to beer bottles with double-sided tape was also “done for fun”. “We thought we’d make the bottles look nicer so that we can take fun shots for Instagram.”
BREWING A BUSINESS
But just when they thought it was the end, their beer-brewing gig was reported by campus newspaper Nanyang Chronicle in April and the story was later picked up by the Straits Times.
“After that, many people reached out to us. We were really surprised and touched,” said Mr Immandira. These included partnership proposals from local breweries and words of encouragement from members of the public.
“This got us thinking if and how we should take this forward legally.”
One option would be to get a microbrewery license. But taken together with the rental of a brewery and relevant equipment, the staggering start-up cost gave the trio second thoughts.
According to Singapore Customs, a microbrewery is defined as a small-scale brewery that ferments or manufactures less than 1.8 million litres of ale, beer, stout or porter per year. The annual licence fee is S$8,400.
Eventually, they settled on contract brewing where they could engage a licensed brewer to make the beer based on their recipes. It was a faster and less-costly start-up model, the trio said.
The three friends have so far put in a five-figure sum from their savings.
As a start, three flavours – an India pale lager, an Altbier and a French Saison picked from their previous dormitory-made concoctions – will be rolled out. The first batch of about 3,000 cans will be available for sale at Saturday’s launch event, as well as on their website.
“Our approach is familiar beer that’s slightly different,” said Mr Alwani when asked to describe the brand. “There’ll be small surprises that will help a newcomer to craft beer to digest.”
The three friends said they will give themselves at least a year to make things work. Mr Subbaraman and Mr Alwani, who have graduated from NTU a few months ago, will be helming the business while Mr Immandira completes an internship in the United Kingdom.
If sales “gain enough traction”, they plan to apply for a microbrewery license – a goal that may not be out of reach with authorities mulling a tweak in the current licensing regime.
In response to Channel NewsAsia’s queries, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) said its Pro-Enterprise Panel (PEP) is working with Singapore Customs to reduce barriers to entry for microbreweries.
A tiered licensing approach is one initiative that authorities are considering as it could lower the entry barriers for small-scale start-ups and help encourage entrepreneurship in the long run, MTI said.
“As the craft beer industry continues to grow, the PEP will work with other agencies to review regulations (or) frameworks where possible to facilitate the entry of new ideas and products into the market, while meeting regulatory needs,” added the spokesperson.
But for now, the trio behind Binjai Brew are focused on making sure their first launch event takes off.
“What if no one turns up?” quipped Immandira, drawing laughter from his friends. “It’s quite sad if we have to drink the beer ourselves.”
Looking back, nonetheless, it has been a journey of “funny and useful realisations” for the three friends who are not even avid beer drinkers to start. But apart from learning how to appreciate the fermented beverage, all three agreed that they’ve gained valuable life lessons as well.
“For me, its learning about resilience, learning how to deal with rejections, and the ups and downs of trying to create a product,” said Mr Alwani.
Nodding, Mr Immandira added that their beer-brewing experience “with a scare in the middle” has forced them out of their comfort zones, such as attending an industry conference for craft brewers held in Manila.
“We are not particularly sociable people so the conference, to be honest, was very socially tiring,” he said.
“But we realised that if we put ourselves out there, it will increase the chances of finding something or someone that can help us make things work. In fact, that was where we met someone who later introduced us to the contract brewer that we are working with right now.”
Leading up to the launch event tomorrow, the three friends have been busy with the canning process of their beer.
Despite the long hours, they said it’s all worthwhile.
“Back when we were in school, we used to wake up at 7am to start brewing beer. To be honest, I don’t think we even wake up at 7am to go for our morning lectures sometimes,” quipped Mr Immandira.
“But when you find something that you like, you will put in the effort to make it work. You’ll probably never do the same if it’s just for the money so if you want to make something work, do what you like and it’ll be a lot easier.”
He added, with a smile: "I don't think we are feeling the pressure of starting out a business yet. I'll like to think we are just putting our beer in nicer cans now."