There's something audacious brewing in the hawker centres that dot Singapore. Once a playground reserved for an increasingly ageing population of food owners, hawker centres are witnessing an exciting cultural revival as third-generation proprietors move in and take over the reins from retired parents or grandparents. Some set up shop as a response to burn-out in a highly competitive corporate world, acting against society's misplaced stereotype of hawker centres as places where the lowly-educated congregate, destined to live out the rest of their lives in perpetual backbreaking physical labour.
It makes a move such as that by Mikkeller in setting up shop at storied Chinatown Complex less an exercise in novelty, and more a case of "Why the hell not?". The speciality craft beer purveyor moved out of their swanky Purvis Street outfit and plunged straight into a world where affordability is king and customers are as price-sensitive as it gets.
In this interview, I speak to the General Manager of the World’s Smallest Mikkeller Bar, Sylvester Fedor, who shared his thoughts with me on the perceived impression by customers with this move into a hawker centre, and what makes the beer at Mikkeller better than most.
How do you describe what you do to someone you're meeting for the first time?
In a word, it’s either “drinking” or “everything”. Jokes aside, as General Manager of Mikkeller Singapore and SST Trading Co., I handle all aspects of the distributorship. It includes looking for new breweries to represent in Singapore, curating the beers to bring in, managing shipping and licensing, last-mile delivery to bars and consumers, sales and marketing, and social media management.
I also run our webshop while at the bar at Chinatown Complex, I run shifts and train the staff. Drinking, however, is at the heart of the job—be it at venues of our trade clients or with customers at Mikkeller. It helps to keep our finger on the pulse of Singapore’s craft beer scene and the beverage industry in general.
As a child, what did you aspire to be when you grew up?
Hospitality was always in my blood. My maternal grandfather was the manager of a Cantonese restaurant in Plaza Singapura, and I started working part-time at Cha Cha Cha in Holland V to earn pocket money to buy my first mobile phone at 14. Between conversations with my grandfather and time spent at work in my teenage years, I saw how food, drinks, and good hospitality created new and enjoyable experiences for people and made them happy.
And there’s been no looking back since; I entered the army at 17 and went on to do my Diploma in Hospitality from International College of Hotel Management in Adelaide, Australia. After that, I did a BSc in International Hospitality and Tourism Management at Oxford Brookes University in the UK.
Was the idea of opening the World’s Smallest Mikkeller Bar at a hawker centre in Chinatown borne out of necessity (cheaper rents, lower staffing costs) or convenience (easier access to customers who are already here to eat) and why?
The concept to have the bar in a historical location such as Chinatown Complex, surrounded by fantastic hawker food was pitched to the Mikellar headquarters in Denmark from the very beginning. It helps that our founder Mikkel Bjergsø also loves Asian street food, thus the appeal of opening the first hawker centre bar in the Mikkeller universe.
I think it’s a misconception that operating out of a hawker centre is cheap. People discount the fact that it’s more challenging to get staff and the tender process of getting a stall is often the hardest hurdle to overcome. How can younger generation hawkers offer food or drink at the same price when their rent is five times that of the uncle or auntie next door?
Of course, the lower start-up costs—relative to, say, a shophouse—with our refurbishment of what used to be Smith Street Taps & Friends has allowed us to focus on something we’re good at. That is, bringing good beer to the masses at lower prices and creating a non-hostile environment to enjoy craft beers.
It has also been fun introducing the existing uncles of Chinatown to Mikkeller beers. The most important thing for us, ultimately, is that our customers get to have a good night out, with great food and great beer.
What has been the biggest challenge that most people are unaware of in pivoting from Mikkeller's former home at Purvis Street to this hawker centre unit?
There have been comments by some people saying that we’ve “cheapened” the brand, with Mikkeller Bar Singapore now in a hawker centre. What they don’t understand is that every Mikkeller bar around the world provides a unique experience with a hint of Scandinavian tradition.
For example, Mikkeller Tokyo’s flagship is in nightlife hub Shibuya, surrounded by the many love motels, and serves traditional Danish open-faced sandwiches smørrebrød.
Mikkeller Taipei is located in a historic building with a distinctively Scandinavian design. They serve Lu Wei, Taiwanese-style spices and soy stewed, and Gua Bao (braised pork bun) on their food menu. This type of experience that starts from the neighbourhood and down to the design and food is what we were aiming for. We’ve only officially opened for a month, so it’ll take us some time to get the word out. We believe we’ve created an atmosphere where people come and have a good time exploring not just beer but also food.
With the rise in consumption, knowledge, and availability of craft beers in Singapore, what makes Mikkeller stand out from other purveyors of the scene?
In the craft beer world, Mikkeller had created a universe where endless possibilities exist with an experimental, exploratory, and educational approach to beer. Besides using hops, we also have barrel ageing (whisky, tequila, wine barrels) and spontaneous fermentation using ingredients like coffee, cherries, chillies, yuzu, chocolate, and so much more that makes drinking beer fun.
Some brews can use the same base but taste completely different when raw ingredients are tweaked. Case in point: the Mikkeller Water series where the same German-style pils recipe was used in creating beers with water from four different places—Denmark, Pacific, Czech Republic, and Burton on Trent in the UK. At Mikkeller Baghaven, the focus is on wild and spontaneous fermentation with native microflora aged in oak. It transforms the beers into products with incredible depth and complexity with different ingredients added.
When you look at the state of the F&B scene in Singapore today, what is the one thing that gives you hope?
With travel restrictions, people are increasingly more adventurous with their food and drink choices while in Singapore. If anything, I’m most surprised by and appreciative of the community spurred by Mikkeller, be it from those new to the craft beer scene, regulars in the running club or even the curious uncles of Chinatown complex coming by to ask and try the beers. Mikkeller Bar Singapore has sort of found its sweet spot when it comes to connecting with the audience, and the connections we make every day while at the bar or just on social media has been heartening.
As much as some have commented about the saturation in the dining scene—even the craft beer sector—there’s still so much to explore in the world of F&B. And with Singapore becoming a hub of sorts for new brands to launch or access the SEA market, it has become a treat for us. I mean, you can have rare beers from Hill Farmstead or a vertical tasting of barrel-aged Imperial stouts without having to trek halfway across the world—and in a hawker centre, too.
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