As brewmaster of Singapore's Archipelago Brewery, archipelagobrewery.com, Allen is tasked with identifying which Asian herbs and spices can be added to beer to help the beverage complement the region's fiery cuisines. "Beer's effervescence and carbonation cleanse palates better than wine," Allen says. With the addition of new natural flavors, the theory goes, beer-and-food pairings will be even more pleasing.
The idea of specialized brews is not new, of course. Handcrafted microbrews have been big business in the U.S. and Europe for some time, drawing on centuries-old brewing traditions and targeting legions of aficionados. But microbrewing is still virtually nonexistent in Asia, where the market is dominated by mass-produced lagers. "Part of this job is not just to brew beers but also to educate," says Andrea Teo, Archipelago's managing director. "There was a survey here and Singaporeans associate beer with four words: 'fresh,' 'cold,' 'local' and 'imported.'"
The idea of combining Asian flavors with boutique brewing techniques was Teo's brainchild. A former TV producer, Teo was hired by regional beverage giant Asia Pacific Breweries in 2002 to launch new products. Instead, she began by injecting life into one of its oldest brands. Founded in Singapore in 1931 by German brewers Beck's, the Archipelago Brewery was considered an enemy asset and seized by the British during World War II. In the postwar years, its output shrank to just one product, ABC Stout. Teo's epiphany came about while staring at the word Archipelago on an ABC Stout label during a promotional event. "I thought, what a great name: Archipelago somehow resonated with spices and islands ... What if we make a spiced beer with indigenous local spices?" She further reckoned that Singaporeansoften affluent and adventurous dinerscould be persuaded to pay a few dollars extra for a novel-tasting designer tipple.
Enter the Hawaiian-born Fal Allen, bringing with him two decades of brewing experience in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California. He thought he had a grasp of the basics of Asian fooduntil he arrived in Singapore. "There's a lot of stuff that I've seen versions of, but you come here and you see eight versions of it," he says, marveling at the mango varieties on display at Singapore's Pasir Pajang wholesale market.
Allen scoured Pasir Pajang for weeks before beginning his experiments, and found himself hand chopping kilos of coriander and ginger. Some initially promising ingredientssuch as kaffir limeproduced undrinkable beer. But months of trial and error paid off, and you can now sample the results at the Archipelago pub near Boat Quay. At over $6 a pint, the new brews are dearer than standard lager, but they're undeniably tastier and more interesting. True to Teo's vision, they feature ingredients like tamarind, palm sugar, ginger, lemongrass and even wolfberries, which are normally used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Look for more unusual flavors to comeincluding a concoction Allen is working on that contains padan leaf. Strolling the streets of Singapore, this relentless experimenter characteristically finds his eye drawn to the fiery colors of a stall displaying various types of chili. "Chili beer," Allen muses. "That could work." You get the sense that he's only half-joking.