Chapel Road is quite possibly the most picturesque street in Singapore. While admiring its colourful foliage and delicately preserved shophouses, you might notice Kim Wong watering her plants, tending to her pets or going about other chores.
Might you have guessed that this hospitable lady, soft-spoken and blessed with a kind smile, is one of the region’s most decorated beer brewers?
In an industry distinguished by off-kilter dressing, provocative hairstyles and hipster tattoos, this slender and unostentatious brewer lets her concoctions speak for her.
A love affair, with beer
When Kim finished school in the 1990s, she joined the less-exciting industry of bookkeeping.
“You know, the accounting department goes to work early and stays late. We would watch colleagues in other departments go home early. I did not enjoy my job,” recalls Kim.
One thing that both Kim and her husband, Tang, enjoy immensely is beer.
“The first time I met my (would-be) husband, there were a few of us sitting around a table, and he and I were seated at the far corners. His eyes lit up when I ordered a beer. Few women drank beer in those days. I like things that taste bitter. Growing up, although my mother didn’t allow me to drink alcohol, I would secretly drink the rice wine that she used in Taoist rituals,” Kim divulges with a laugh.
“When my husband and I paktor (went on dates during courtship), we would go to Cold Storage to check out the unusual beers. Back then, supermarkets had very few rare and ‘different’ beers. He was the one who encouraged me to quit my job and do the things that I love,” she discloses.
Tang and Kim decided to pursue their shared passion and open a café in 1996 that served craft beer. Kim also enjoys cooking and baking, which their cafe enabled her to do for customers from all walks of life. They aptly named it Dreams, which was located in Marina Square.
Singaporeans’ growing curiosity about non-mainstream beers attracted Brewerkz to set up shop in Singapore in 1997. As fate would have it, Brewerkz’s brewmaster Scott Robertson walked into Dreams one day, and Kim and Tang’s lives, along with Singapore’s craft beer landscape, were changed forever by this chance meeting.
“Scott walked in because his girlfriend was drawn in by the music playing in our café. That’s when Scott noticed that we were selling unconventional beers like Belgian Trappist beer and American ales.”
After talking to them and noticing their passion for good brews, Scott offered Tang an industrial attachment with a brewing business, and Kim attended it later on too. As Scott would take home leave once a year, back to the United States for about a month, he offered Kim a full-time job at Brewerkz and she would stand in for him during his absences.
“Scott taught my husband and I how to brew and he didn’t hold back any secrets of the trade. He openly and readily accepted our input and allowed me to experiment with different ingredients and processes. He made me realise that being a female brewer isn’t that big of a deal, and I also learned to not expect different treatment because of my gender.”
Kim spent 20 years in Brewerkz honing her craft and creating beers that clinched prestigious awards around the world. After Brewerkz, she continued cutting her teeth with several brewing companies, from Ipoh to Birmingham.
The secret to brewing excellent beer
The key to good beer is consistency, reckons Kim, along with respecting the intricacies of the process, understanding what different types of beer should taste like, and getting to know what kinds of beer target markets like.
“Using poor quality yeast will give you bad beer. I keep the yeast ‘happy’,” she opines, referring to how she strives to ensure that the yeast is respiring and fermenting well.
“Besides using ingredients of a good grade, you also need to care a lot for the beer. When you want a certain style, a lot of thought is involved. I match different hops to the styles of beer that I want to achieve. I also have to constantly regulate the temperature, fermentation and colour – not many people can accept beer that doesn’t have the colour of beer – and even the gravity.”
A brand of her own
In December 2020, despite pandemic-induced market volatility, Kim founded Specific Gravity Beverage Co with Devin Otto Kimble, the former boss of Brewerkz and Hong Kong Brewery.
“Devin is a real people developer and I am very proud and honoured to be working with him on this new venture,” remarks Kim, who credits Devin for sending her on many training courses and conferences around the world.
Keeping assets light and overheads low, Specific Gravity produces its beer using the facilities of other beer brands. Specific Gravity Beverage Co derives part of its name from Kim’s precise manipulation of the gravity inside vats of beer. Above all, she divulges, she and her co-founders wanted a name that spells “SG”, which Singaporeans can be proud of.
Previously a prolific medal collector with Brewerkz, Kim recently entered her first competition under Specific Gravity Beverage Co. She and her company won four awards at the Australian International Beer Awards in May 2021.
“These wins are a validation of my processes and recipes,” reveals the female brewmaster, who used to be asked questions like ‘can you carry heavy stuff?’ And ‘how come you drink beer and are still so skinny?’
Swathed in patterns inspired by Peranakan tiles, Kim’s beers are infused with her wholehearted devotion to the craft and are priced at an accessible range. “We’re not going to become rich, but we make enough to survive,” Kim modestly remarks, disclosing that her chief concern is to create great beers.
Specific Gravity beers are currently sold at several bars and restaurants across Singapore (which are conveniently pinned on the map of Specific Gravity’s website), via online retailers and can be bought directly from the brand’s website too. Kim and partners are currently talking to other supermarket chains, but she shares that she is very happy with her current retail partners like Culina, Little Farms, Swiss Butchery and Beer Force.
“There’s lots of room for the local craft beer scene to grow and a lot for beer drinkers to learn and discover,” she observes. “More Singaporeans are getting into newer craft beer styles like hazy IPAs and session IPAs. However, seasoned craft beer drinkers tend to return to classic styles of beer, which says a lot about classic beer styles, as these have lasted the test of time.”
Besides focusing on perfecting basic brews, Kim also has a penchant for bottle-conditioning her beers, which is to produce carbon dioxide inside a beer through fermentation, rather than pumping the gas in. This technique, which is similar to the way champagne is made, endows Specific Gravity with champagne-like bubbling and is not utilised by many other breweries. This bubbling, along with an intentional and suspended sedimentation that makes her beverages semi-translucent, has become the visual calling card that distinguishes Specific Gravity beers.
Many local craft beer aficionados are already waxing lyrical about Specific Gravity beers’ enticing top notes and sophisticated bottom notes, but not many of them are aware that this proudly Singaporean beer is crafted by a humble lady who simply wants to share her passion and talent.
The three biggest influencers of Kim’s life: “My husband Tang, my business partner Devin Kimble and ex-Brewerkz Brewmaster Scott Robertson.”
Specific Gravity Beverage Co’s beers are sold via the brand’s website, through various online retailers, and the locations of its physical retail partners are pinned on a map on its website.
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