Have beer, will travel

Part of our new SG Great Escapes 2017.



Expert beer drinker Dannon Har caught up with craft beer aficionado Brian Spencer who earlier this year launched the Singapore edition of The Beer Travelist Guide and found out what it means to travel in search for great brew.

How did the idea for Beer Travelist come about?

I’ve been fortunate to travel rather extensively, and it dawned on me that the way I’ve discovered the best bits of many cities has been by following the craft beer trail, which almost always leads to great bars and restaurants, friendly folks, cool neighborhoods, fun events, good music— basically good times.

Interesting people from all walks of life tend to gravitate towards proper beer bars and breweries, and I’ve learned that if you keep your eyes and ears open, and strike up conversations with random people, you can find so much more than just good beer at these places.

The other thing is that while there are a lot of insightful, well-written sites out there concerning craft beer, there are very, very few focused on the Asia Pacific region, and even fewer that prioritize high-quality, narrative-driven beer journalism framed through travel. I hope to develop Beer Travelist into the go-to resource in Asia for anybody who loves traveling and enjoys proper beers in fun places—and that’s just about everybody, right?

In a few words, how will you personally describe Beer Travelist?

Beer Travelist is independent, journalistic, honest, and pro-travel. We believe that good beer is for everybody, all the time, so we try to write with both dedicated beer enthusiasts and casual, craft-curious beer drinkers in mind.

As someone who travels for beer, or shall I say, with beer in mind, how has that shaped the way you travel?

Well, I do travel for beer on occasion, such as the time I went to Kuala Lumpur for the Better Beer Festival, and I’m not alone. Just as many people travel for music and arts festivals, more and more beer enthusiasts are also traveling specifically to attend notable beer fests. I’ve met a few people around Asia who  fly to Denmark for the Mikkeller Beer Celebration Copenhagen, for instance, and of course there are major events like The Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado, that attract people from all over the world.

Whenever I’m in a city like, say, Tokyo or Seoul—places that I know have craft beer—I always incorporate stops on the so-called beer trail into my plans. That’s part of the idea behind our Beer Travelist Guide to Singapore. It has all kinds of tips for exploring Singapore’s beer trail. We’ll update it every year, and plan to roll out similar guides for major cities across Asia Pacific.

You’ve relocated to Singapore from Bangkok, and before that, New York. As a beer enthusiast, has the beer scene here been up to your expectation?

There was little to no craft beer in Bangkok when I lived there for a while in 2008-09 and again in 2011, but as anybody who’s been there lately knows that sure has changed fast. Aside from those extended stints in BKK, I was in Brooklyn from 2001 until we moved to Singapore in 2012.

I clearly remember filling a growler at my local beer shop, Beer Street, just before moving here and the owner telling me about a new Japanese craft beer bar called JiBiru that he found online. I think he was trying to make me feel better about the beer prospects here because it looked grim from afar, especially then and compared to Brooklyn. It was basically JiBiru, Brewerkz, RedDot… that’s about it, and two of those three didn’t and don’t do much for me.

Like in Bangkok, the lay of the craft beer land here is far different and much better than it was five years ago. JiBiru is now an institution, and Singapore has one of the better overall beer scenes in Asia.

What are some of the craziest places your lust for the brew have taken you?

When I first moved here my wife and I used to pay $20- $25 each way by taxi to go drink beer at an industrial food production zone in middle-of-nowhere Admiralty. I’m not sure if you remember Jungle Beer, which closed a few years ago, but they used to host a monthly free-flow for like $40 at what was essentially a man cave at their brewery in FoodXchange. We couldn’t find the brewery the first time and were wandering around this deserted, desolate industrial park at night for quite some time before locating it. It felt like a bad horror movie, and in anywhere but Singapore it could have turned into one.

You knew this question was coming. From your personal experience, name me your top three bars/pubs/breweries in the world for beer.

You knew more than three answers were coming, right? I’ve had so many silly, epic nights at so many amazing places over the years: Great Leap Brewing’s original hutong taproom in Beijing, the Mikkeller Bar in Bangkok, Brooklyn Brewery (on Friday nights, before it became a thing), Proeflokaal Arendsnest in Amsterdam, and Modus Operandi Brewing Co., just north of Sydney, all come to mind.

As far as three personal favorites in which I’ve spent a lot of time on multiple occasions, though, I’ll say the beer barrel- shaped funhouse that is Tawandang Microbrewery on Rama III in Bangkok; the Earl of Essex in Islington, which is my local boozer during my annual two- to three-month spells in London; and Brouwerij Lane in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, which stole my heart with its bathroom covered in vintage Star Wars wallpaper.

Which few cities in the world will you say are the most up-and-coming for craft beer?

Thinking just about Asia, for me five cities to watch are Saigon, Bangkok, Seoul, Manila, and Taipei. These places are all already on their way up but, I think, have much more in store.

What are some of the weirdest, but oddly delicious, brews you have had?

Easy—the Smoked Salmon ale from Jackie’s Beernest in Shanghai, China. I know this sounds foul, but it smelled and tasted exactly like smoked salmon; god help me it was kind of tasty, though, a testament to Jackie’s brewing skills and creativity. There was also a cheese beer on tap that night, but I “didn’t get a chance” to try it. I spoke with this Australian guy who did taste it, though, and he said it was “cheesy but not in a bad way, mate.”

In April I took my dad to Grand Rapids, Michigan, for an overnight beer trip to celebrate his 60th birthday, and at The Mitten Brewing Company we tried a strange, very strong (10.5%) Finnish-style ale brewed with juniper berries and aged in aquavit barrels. Barrel-aging is all the rage in craft beer, with good reason, and yet that was the first time I’d ever seen an aquavit barrel used. The ale was... interesting, let’s leave it at that.

Not sure if you do, but if you were to pack a beer in your luggage to bring along with you in your travels, which will it be?

When I’m travelling I leave it up to the Beer Gods to bestow their fruits upon me, whether that be proper craft or the local indistinct lager. That said, I try to bring at least a few bottles/cans back home, and those are usually imperial stouts or wild sour ales since they’re particularly expensive in Singapore, age with grace, and tend to be goddamned delicious.

If I were visiting Singapore and looking for one beer to bring home—and there are still only a few local breweries bottling—it’d be Brewlander & Co’s Love, which brewmaster John Wei brews with wild Saccharomyces yeast and is one of the best new IPAs I’ve tried anywhere this year.