Entrepreneur

This S'porean Teochew Family Is Brewing Up A Storm With Craft Beer - Taps Up To 6,000 Pints Monthly

  • The 1925 Brewing Co. is the brainchild of brothers Ivan and E.K Yeo and their uncle, Yeo King Joey.
  • Specialising in craft brews inspired by their family and Teochew heritage, they started their business when the craft beer industry in Singapore was still nascent.
  • Now, they’ve grown so big that they recently opened a brewing facility in Mandai to cater to the growing demand for their beers.

After his design business “failed phenomenally” in 2012, co-founder and head chef of The 1925 Brewing Co. Ivan Yeo found solace in food – by cooking it at home, and at F&B establishments that his brother, Yeo E.K, brought him to.

Listing The Black Swan on Cecil Street and Maggie Joan’s on Amoy Street as some of his favourites, Ivan clarified that these outings weren’t fuelled by intentions of opening a restaurant themselves.

“We just wanted to know why some restaurants were good and others were not. It’s just our nature to be curious!”

E.K (L) and Ivan (R) in their younger days, with their grandfather’s yellow van. One of their brews is named after the vehicle!

In fact, he can’t pinpoint the exact moment when the idea to start a microbrewery and restaurant blossomed.

“My brother and I had the idea of having our own place incepted in our minds for a while now, but then everyone wants that, and the motivations are different when you actually want to run an F&B place for business,” he admitted.

“[But] if I had to really define the moment, I think it was when I discovered that craft beer would be our unique selling angle.”

At The 1925 Brewing Co., Ivan takes the reins for the ‘F’ aspect of their F&B establishment, but the ‘B’ (which in this case, stands for ‘Beer’) is handled by his brother, who does beverage design, and their uncle Yeo King Joey, who does all the brewing.

(L-R) Ivan, Uncle Joey, and E.K

Uncle Joey, an aeronautical engineer by day and brewer by night, picked up the skill from his colleague about 12 years ago, and “has never stopped since”.

“During [weekly family] potluck dinners, [Uncle Joey] would be the person bringing in all these funny beers, and we drank so much of it but never really took notice since they go down so well,” quipped Ivan.

Back then, we also didn’t know what craft beer was and what it will become despite all the waves it was creating in other parts of the world.

However, one major gap in Singapore’s F&B scene the brothers identified during their food adventures was “a space where [customers] could hang out like bar, but [not need to] chow down on fried stuff all day long”.

“Back then in Singapore, most of the places that offered good food and beer weren’t casual enough for us to really let loose, and the places that allowed us to let loose offered mostly fried food that came from a packet.”

The idea of starting a gastropub immediately came to mind – “the idea was to serve good food to go with beers, almost like a upscale zi char concept”.

Two things held them back, though – first, their limited capital meant that they “could never afford a really good chef”, and secondly, Ivan “could never be Gordon Ramsay in a day” even though he was a decent-enough homecook.

Having started cooking since he was 6, Ivan was never culinary trained, but loved whipping up dishes nonetheless.

Image Credit: The 1925 Brewing Co.

I developed the love for cooking when I realised that I could express my love in a very tangible way. Probably that way of thinking is old school, but my parents did say that ‘love reaches the heart fastest through the stomach’.

“Most of the dishes that I cooked were homely dishes but with a twist of my own as I tend to have a richer palate.”

The Yeo family’s weekly gatherings became his experimentation ground, but the ‘guinea pigs’ were also his harshest critics, and he recalled the stress when realising that the dish he brought was “the only one left untouched”.

“[However,] I learnt how to cook with the intended diners’ palate from [these incidents].”

It was also during one of these potluck dinner gatherings that the concept for The 1925 Brewing Co. was incepted.

I was chugging a stout that Uncle Joey brewed, and when he was sharing enthusiastically about his beer, it struck me: ‘Let’s build a restaurant around a brewery.’

Inspired By 1925, Established In 2013

More than it being a family-run business, it is also a family-inspired business, with its name coming the birth year of Ivan and E.K’s grandfather.

“My grandfather was a proud local hawker that earned his living as a dry goods hawker, and being Teochew, he and my grandmother, peddled mostly dried goods used in Teochew cooking.”

Ivan and E.K’s grandparents / Image Credit: The 1925 Brewing Co.

We felt it was a very appropriate tribute since we were firstly proud local Teochews and wanted to do business based on my grandfather’s proud and honest ethics of ensuring his customers are always getting the best and the most authentic of ingredients.

They registered their business in 2013 and started operations in May 2014, at 369 Jalan Besar Road.

“The microbrewery sat behind the bar, right in the midst of the restaurant, so that people are reminded that we are firstly a brewery.”

A Brewery With No Beer To Sell?

Image Credit: The 1925 Brewing Co.

Here’s an interesting fact: while they were open for business as a microbrewery and restaurant, they didn’t have a brewing license, which meant that they could only sell cocktails or imported beers.

“There were tongues wagging of course, mocking the fact that a brewery has no beer [of their own] to sell,” he recalled.

Their lack of a license was mostly due to the struggles they faced clinching one in the first place.

5 years ago, the legislation governing the beer brewing industry was very grey and extremely stringent. The other licenses for entertainment, liquor, food and hygiene etcetera seemed so overwhelming and sometimes, appeared to contradict each other.

“We had to raise at least $600,000 to get the whole business going.”

Fortunately, winning over customers wasn’t as big of a challenge for them, and Ivan shared that “business was already booming” in the first month, in spite of them not having their own brews.

“We remained that way for another 5 months before we got the license and then business rocketed.”

The Yeo brothers

In spite of this win, they still needed to grapple with “snide remarks” from the local craft beer community, as their drinks were relatively more affordable than others in the market.

[Most of them commented that] we are most probably ‘fly by night’ or ‘trying to cash in on the craft beer scene’.

“We were also accused of trying to crash the craft beer prices. [But] we just felt that craft beer should be made affordable so that it can be enjoyed by more people. After all, drinking and dining culture should be inclusive, not exclusive.”

Their award-winning dark IPA Xiao Hei (‘Little Black’), which was their grandmother’s nickname for E.K

Priding themselves as “the only true blue Singaporean microbrewery designing beer profiles specifically for the SEA market”, they brand their beers with labels that are inspired by their family and heritage.

We saw it as a way to create a ‘caricature’ of the fondest memories we had of our family story, which can be then shared with not only the younger ones in our family, but also an anchor point for many of those, like us, who had similar stories in Singapore.

Head Chef By Circumstance

Despite him being a competent homecook, Ivan became the head vhef of The 1925 Brewing Co. solely due to circumstance.

“After both my head chef and sous-chef left to pursue their own business, I [became] the head chef. I learnt everything that I needed to know from my kitchen team and re-did all the recipes and cooking in my way.”

Teochew Braised Duck Wings / Image Credit: The 1925 Brewing Co.

Thankfully, his take on the dishes received even more positive reviews.

When asked about where he gets inspiration for the dishes, Ivan revealed that he just takes what they themselves enjoy as a starting point.

“Once I have that, I would then begin looking at the various ways I can prepare it, and adding my own personal touches to give the product a character.”

All this while, we have been designing product profiles that stem from our local flavours, and tastes profiles that would reach the heart. But lately, we have started to streamline it further, by looking into our roots as Teochews to give the products even more depth.

“It [actually] took us four years to pursue a modern Teochew cuisine concept at our second outlet which we opened at 261 Joo Chiat Road (in November 2017).”

Image Credit: The 1925 Brewing Co.

“I felt that I have garnered enough trust and confidence as a chef, appearing on many TV shows and competitions, that people would trust that the food quality is now assured.”

In 2018, Ivan used this concept in their foray onto the world stage, and was even featured at a food festival in Jakarta.

He also got to cook shoulder-to-shoulder with classic French chefs at the Food&HotelAsia event, at One Michelin star restaurant Song of India, and worked with two other top chefs to create a new cuisine unique to Singapore in August.

Taps Almost 6,000 Pints Of Beer On Good Months

Just like their Uncle, E.K is currently still holding on to his day job as an auditor, but spends time after work helping out in aspects like finance and looking out for dining trends.

E.K and Ivan Yeo

“Lately, he has also picked up brewing and started creating his own styles and flavours,” beamed Ivan.

He added that he’s also glad that in spite of “reading and hearing many stories of how family relations can fall apart because of business”, the trio have retained “quite a tight relationship”.

Another aspect he’s grateful for is “how much the brand has grown over the five years despite all the naysayers”.

“The nature of our conversations are changing as well, with more people advocating our brand,” he quipped.

The 1925 Brewing Co. at Beerfest Asia 2016

On good months, they tap “almost 5,000 to 6,000 pints”, which works out to be around 2,500 to 3,000 litres.

Opening 3 More Outlets, Expanding To Bangkok In 2019

Image Credit: The 1925 Brewing Co.

The 1925 Brewing Co. has since gone beyond a microbrewery-restaurant, and they’ve set up an umbrella company that governs various aspects of the business.

“The brewery and the F&B arm are now different entities that serve very different functions. We have also acquired a local distribution firm to manage all our beer imports and exports.”

To increase their production capacity for the brewery to cater to demand in the SEA market, they opened a facility in Mandai that currently acts as their central beer production plant.

Their central brewery in Mandai

They are also planning to open 3 new F&B-centric outlets in Singapore this year, alongside their first foray overseas via an outlet in Bangkok, Thailand.

Ending off the interview, I asked Ivan what his favourite go-to drink was.

“No prizes for this, beer. And to be specific, Asahi beer!”

I’d like to thank Ivan for his time!

The 1925 Brewing Co.
261 Joo Chiat Rd
Singapore 427515

 

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