By Sherlyn Seah
When fourth-year student Rahul Immandira did his overseas internship at an American beer company, he was eager to impart what he had learnt to his two close friends.
Returning in August last year, he shared his knowledge with Heetesh Alwani and Abilash Subbaraman — and the trio started to brew beer for fun in their hall of residence, Binjai Hall.
After initial batches were successful, the three Renaissance Engineering Programme (REP) students let interested friends try their products. They also accepted voluntary donations in return for the beer.
Binjai Brew, their self-titled brand, was unexpectedly well-received.
But after their tenth batch in February and spending almost $2,500, they were asked to stop their brewing activities. They received notice that they were violating Singapore laws by brewing on NTU grounds and selling the beer.
Under Singapore law, individuals are allowed to home-brew beer as long as conditions in the Customs (Home-Brewing of Fermented Liquors) (Exemption) Order are fulfilled.
But Binjai Brew had violated two of these conditions.
First, the beer brewed had to be for personal use and not for sale. While the students said they did not intend to sell the beer for profit, exchange of money for the product was deemed a sale.
Second, the brewing had to be carried out at the home of the individual, which could be a HDB flat or private property.
Subbaraman said this was the main reason they had to close down. “We were on NTU property, which was considered a commercial site.”
Starting out small
As part of REP’s requirement to have their students pursue their third year of studies abroad, the three students, all 24, spent a year in California for their exchange and internship programmes.
This was when Immandira learnt the basics of beer-brewing at the Benoist-Casper Brewing Company, before proceeding to use what he had learnt to start Binjai Brew.
“While I was interning there, Abilash and Heetesh kept asking me how difficult it was to brew beer. But it’s actually quite easy. So we decided to try it back in Singapore for fun,” said Immandira.
Spending about $500 on the basic equipment, they bought a brewing pot, an induction heater and a fermenter.
They then brewed their first batch in hall and the end-product surpassed their expectations – encouraging them to create more batches.
Each batch of beer took three to four weeks to brew, and along the way the group worked on their recipe to improve its quality.
Demand drove the supply
As interest increased, Immandira, Subbaraman and Alwani started to work as if they were running a small-scale business.
It was estimated that their beer had been consumed by over 700 people.
They established the brand, created a logo and initiated publicity efforts – bottle labels were customisable for each customer and they gave out name cards for promotion.
Eventually, they started accepting money from their peers. Immandira explained that payment was made on a donation basis, with no enforcement.
“If they liked it, they could just pay whatever they felt it was worth, and in that way help to cover our costs. On average we received $3 or $4 for each bottle, which was definitely not enough for us to earn any profits,” said Alwani.
The trio also started an Instagram page to share with friends their brewing experiences.
It was because of the page that NTU Administration found out about Binjai Brew, said Subbaraman.
“The page made it look like we were running a business with actual operations. Once the school saw that, they said we had to stop.”
The Instagram page has since been terminated.
While disappointed with Binjai Brew’s closure, the three students did not regret their decision to spend thousands of dollars on the project.
“There’s nothing to regret. It was a good adventure. The costs were manageable because it was between three of us. And the gradual expenditure made it less painful to spend that money,” Alwani said.
Binjai Hall’s Faculty in Residence, Associate Professor Wang Hong believes that the trio should have done their homework before starting this project.
“The first thing they needed to do was to check the rules, and put up a proper application for whatever activities they wanted to do,” he said.
“They should have been careful before spending so much money on a project without proper licensing.”
While currently focused on their Final-Year Projects, the trio said that they are exploring options in the beer industry.
“In Singapore, to become a full-scale brewery, there are a lot of legal procedures you need to go through and you have to fork out a huge capital sum to get a license. But we found an intermediate step recently,” said Subbaraman.
They are looking towards licensed commercial brewers. At certain prices, these companies would brew beer for them using their recipes. They would then have to personally source for people interested in buying the beer products.
Immandira commented: “It doesn’t feel as nice and we won’t have the thrill of brewing the beer ourselves, but it is a step in between. That’s just the way the rules are here, so that’s what we have to do.”