If you’re driving by the dodgy pubs along Joo Chiat Road with their gawdy neon signs, you’ll probably miss restaurant and bar 1925 (at unit 261) which is a well-hidden gem amongst the rows of sleazy joints that line the street.
Helmed by brothers Ivan and Eng Kuang, and their uncle Yeo King Joey who holds the prestigious title of ‘Brewmaster’, 1925 has acquired a cult following since it opened its doors in 2014 at its previous location in Jalan Besar, which was coincidentally right in the heart of another well-known local dodgy hotspot known for police raids.
Why the year 1925? As an ode to their grandfather who was born in that year, brothers Ivan and Eng Kuang decided to name the establishment after him. Some of their beers also have their own stories inspired by their grandfather’s influence.
For example, the ‘Yellow Van’, a pale ale with a refreshing citrusy flavour is named after their grandfather’s yellow van used to transport dry goods for his grocery store; and the gorgeous ‘Blk 622’ which is a black beauty with a bitter caramel finish was the number of their grandfather’s block in Ang Mo Kio. The number 622 was also named after the original alcohol percentage of the brew which was 6.2% but has now been reduced to make it more palatable. Owner and Chef Ivan Yeo also cheekily said that he is able to tell if his customers are local or foreigners when they ask for a ‘Blk 622’ with the mention of ‘block’ instead of ‘black’ as a clear indicator. Smart chap!
Craft beer made by locals for locals
While the craft beer scene has been brewing slowly (pun intended) in places like the US for some time already with brands like BrewDog and Dogfish Head Brewery becoming common household names, in Singapore many of the small independent breweries are still relatively unheard of with local beer brand Tiger dominating the market.
While craft beer aficionados are known for their critique on common beer brands as being too ‘mainstream’, Chef Ivan Yeo states very clearly that he is ‘no beer snob’.
“You don’t set up a pub for yourself, you set it up for people,” said Chef Ivan. And it’s this non-judgemental attitude he follows when dealing with customers, even when they do ask for strange requests like ice in their beer. “Who am I to judge?” he says as a matter of fact.
So how did the whole beer brewing story come about? It all started from a family tradition where family members had to bring a dish for potluck parties. Their uncle Yeo King Joey who had a passion for home beer brewing that started 12 years ago would bring his own concoctions to these potluck parties and test his ‘experiments’ on family members. Already knowing what each of them would be bringing to the potluck, he would brew certain beers that he knows would pair well with those dishes. On special occasions, he would brew ‘cinnamon’ infused beers over Christmas, and the rest as they say is history. Currently all of 1925’s beer is brewed at their microbrewery in Mandai compared to previously at their Jalan Besar outlet.
Chef Ivan’s venture into the culinary arts also started unintentionally when his head chef quit and he had to take over the kitchen. This literal baptism of fire has given him a profound respect for Chinese or zi char cuisine given the fact that many of these dishes have to be cooked to perfection in a matter of minutes over ‘big flames’, a feat he says Western chefs would not be able to do despite their advanced cooking techniques.
Chef Ivan admits that his menu has gone through many revisions, the first one starting with Italian dishes which he found made no sense given that he has no prior knowledge of Italian ingredients or dishes. At 1925’s last outlet in Jalan Besar they did serve some Western favourites such as burgers and pizzas but the current fare at Joo Chiat has removed that. Moving to the new outlet at Joo Chiat was also an opportunity to focus on contemporary cuisine that is deeply set in Chef Ivan’s Teochew and Peranakan roots. A dish that resonates with Chef Ivan’s philosophy is the ‘Mr. Loh Ba Loh Ba’, a braised pork belly local delight and the inclusion of dried sole fish for the rempah used in Chilli Crab Ravioli.
Some of the key ingredients used in many of his dishes are commonly used in many Teochew dishes such as copious amounts of vinegar and sole fish powder used in dishes like ‘bak chor mee’.
A marriage made in beer heaven…
Food pairing with beer, according to Chef Ivan, has been around for eons in Singapore right under our noses without us even realising it.
“If you actually observe the uncles at the coffeeshops and markets, you will see that there is a distinct pairing of beers with certain foods. For example, they know what kind of foods to eat with stout (braised duck wings!) and what to eat with beer,” said Chef Ivan.
From his experience in the kitchen, Chef Ivan distinguishes Western food from Asian food with the former’s taste ‘based on layers’ whereas the various ingredients and spices in Asian cuisine blend together in the cooking process to form more of a combination of different flavours into one single entity. That is why beer pairing with Asian food is more complex in nature according to Chef Ivan.
On 1925’s menu all the dishes have a distinct beer pairing and his staff are all trained to advise customers on their beer pairing decisions when they order their meal.
The move to the East Side of Singapore was a good opportunity for 1925 to ‘reset’ itself not just in terms of the menu but also the customer base.
“At Jalan Besar we would get a lot of the expat types coming in curious of what this place was about. While that was great, I like the idea of regulars coming in three times a week and me knowing what are their favourite dished,” said Chef Ivan as he waves good bye to another customer leaving. He goes on to say there’s even a ‘secret menu’ where he serves dishes based on his customer’s cravings. For example, there was one guest that wanted a middle eastern lamb dish so he whipped one up with but ‘teochewfied’ it with the ingredients he had.
Its this sense of camaraderie and closeness I feel Chef Ivan likes in Joo Chiat with the regulars as compared to the Jalan Besar outlet. He apparently loves the east side so much he has two more outlets opening up in Simei and Punggol this year.
Apart from that, beer lovers can also look forward to new brews made with Pu’er and Chrysanthemum tea which are sure to pair well with more local dishes.
I’m just loving 1925’s sense of adventure and experimental philosophy in a local F&B scene that is used to going the safe route. This is one Singapore brand I would love to see on the global beer map in time to come.
Do visit The 1925 Brewing Co at Joo Chiat at 261 Joo Chiat Road, Singapore 427515 and check them out online: