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Unforgettable Beers & Unpretentious Peers: We Talked To Orh Gao Taproom’s Charlie Phua

"I’m reminded that many people still haven't experienced their ‘aha moment’ with drinks yet. If we could help them find such experiences at Orh Gao Taproom, that's what they would always remember Orh Gao Taproom for."

 

Follow Orh Gao Taproom: Instagram | Facebook | Official Website

Visit Orh Gao Taproom: Orh Gao Taproom Craft Beer Bar, 10 Jln Serene, #01-03 Serene Centre, Singapore 258748

Also check out their sister joint, Yeast SideInstagram | Facebook | Official Website

 


One day a while back, I slid into the Instagram DM of Charlie Phua, the co-owner of Orh Gao Taproom. I asked if he would be free for a chat. Orh Gao Taproom recently celebrated its 4th Anniversary since it was opened in 2019. Given the constant positive buzz from the local craft beer community, it’s safe to say that Orh Gao Taproom is one of the most popular craft beer drinking spots in Singapore. And I'd love to meet the people behind this joint - whom I've heard nice things about.

With his other co-owners, Charlie also manages Yeast Side which has an outlet a 5-minute drive away in King Albert Park. That’s a sourdough bakery/pizzeria which also has craft beers, cocktails and natural wines all on tap.

 

Despite his obviously busy schedule, Charlie responded to my DM almost immediately, asking to meet at his bar on a Monday afternoon. I needed no enticement to come down on a Monday, but still he added “Will a dram of 2007 TECA Long Pond be enough to drag your butt to Orh Gao? 😉

How could I say no?

 

Orh Gao Taproom is one of the main reasons people travel to visit Serene Centre, an otherwise quiet mall built in the 1980s, that sits at the heart of an affluent neighbourhood (Source: Straits Times)

 

This was how I found my butt at an old school Killiney Kopitiam at Serene Centre the following Monday. Serene Centre is a charming old mall that holds many memories for millennial Singaporeans, many of whom (including myself) have spent our school-going teenage days here. Back then, it’s one of the top (only) destinations for innocent ice cream parlour dates. For the rebellious, this is often where they hung out if they’d skipped Chemistry classes.

 

The Long Pond TECA ultra-high ester Jamaican Rum that Charlie enticed me with.

 

Orh Gao Taproom functions as a taproom from 4pm, but doubles as a traditional cafe in the day. “Over here, we run a Killiney Kopitiam by day, and by night we’d convert into a craft beer taproom,” explained Charlie, in between bites from his hastily assembled nasi lemak while he answers urgent emails on his MacBook. He was having his first meal of the day. 

And if you're wondering, yes, they do serve their beers even during breakfast hours! You could technically grab an Imperial Stout along with a traditional Singaporean breakfast of eggs and toast. It's 5 pm somewhere in the world!

 

Kinda like Batman, the space operates as an unassuming traditional Hainanese style kopitiam in the day, but converts into a spiffy taproom after 4pm. 

 

In the meantime, let me enlighten you if you are jiak kantang (i.e. you only understand King’s English). The term "Orh Gao" translates to "Black Dog" in Hokkien. This term was used in the good old days by locals trying to order Guinness Stout or other black beers. Everything about Orh Gao Taproom speaks to the partners’ vision of creating a modern watering hole that still captures an authentic, laid-back local spirit. They even serve Peranakan dishes that exude a sense of heritage – sure to go very well with the demographic from its casually bougie neighbourhood. But I then learnt that this unique concept took the Orh Gao team some time to refine. 

 

(Source: Mei Shan Chua)

An Ultra-Local Taproom

What immediately sets Orh Gao apart from other taprooms is its talented culinary team that whips up very solid local, Southeast Asian dishes (Source: Orh Gao Taproom) 

 

“Over the years we've had many concepts come and go. When Orh Gao first started, we had steak and burgers. But the menu slowly transitioned to include more Asian foods that we realised were a hit. Returning to our roots and being very local – I think this was a great realignment,” Charlie recalled thoughtfully.

Some of their most popular dishes today are the Pari Bakar (grilled sambal stingray), Sambal Curry Mussels and Fish Tacos with sambal mayonnaise – all of which have some degree of Southeast Asian culinary influence. Another authentic dish they once served was the Tempoyak – an Indonesian/Malaysian spicy fermented durian. And of course, these hearty dishes are accompanied by a selection of local and international brews – 12 on tap and more in the display chiller.

 

(Source: Colin Chan)

 

Many of their international brews are well represented here through local distributors, though one may find a couple familiar as they have a sister company, Wet Goods (a distribution co-run by the fun-loving Keola Ho whom we’ve interviewed here!). But it’s important to Charlie that great local breweries are represented here too. And so every year, it is a tradition for Charlie’s team to work with breweries to create anniversary collaboration brews. Last year, Orh Gao collaborated with Alive Brewing to create a Triple Dry Hopped DIPA for the taproom’s 3rd Anniversary. This year, Charlie worked with Casey Choo of That Singapore Beer Project, to create a Lychee Pineapple Kiam Sng Di Gose.

  

Casey Choo (That Singapore Beer Project) collaborated with Orh Gao to create a variation of their iconic Sour Plum Gose (Source: Orh Gao Taproom)

 

“Kiam Sng Di [salted sour plum] is such a local flavour, while pineapples and lychees are also great tropical, Southeast Asian flavours and fruits,” said Charlie. Sure enough, this beer has very distinctive notes of sour plum (known as “kiam sng di” in Hokkien), a nostalgic nod to a ubiquitous snack that featured in the childhoods of many Singaporeans.

 


Collaborating with Orh Gao and visual artist Tobyato, Alive Brewing crafted their first Sour - the Collected Fiction Bearry Sour (Source: Alive Brewing)

 

These are certainly well-regarded brewers in their own right. But over time, Orh Gao has organically grown a rather vibrant community of regulars who are craft beer enthusiasts. The platform and audience that Orh Gao offers local craft brewers is significant and very valuable.

The craft beer geek in Charlie is also quite proud of how local brewers have been stretching themselves and going to places they haven’t been. “What people don't know is that we actually got Alive Brewing to brew their first Sour. That was a collaboration with Alive and Tobyato [a local artist]. And that's what we want to keep doing. We want to push the local craft beer scene forward,” Charlie says, with a lot of hope. 

"Orh Gao Taproom is your local. As your local, we will take care of you – whether it’s to bring you along on this craft beer journey, or just sometimes offer a listening ear if you need someone to talk to."

Picking A Beer For You at Orh Gao

Charlie and I discussed food-and-beer pairings at length. His responses sounded as learned as a sommelier. The most popular dishes on Orh Gao’s food menu are spicy. Charlie observed that an old adage was to pair spicy foods with malty and herbaceous English IPAs. However, with the rise in popularity of American-style beers, a drinker now has many more options to choose from. New England IPAs (or “Hazy IPAs”) are great companions to spicy food. Their creamy texture helps to kill off the heat, while their tropical fruity notes help to accentuate the aromas of spices.

 

Pairing Imperial Stouts with Beef Rendang at Orh Gao is now on my bucket list (Source: Daphne Ng/Gabrielle G)

 

But if we’re looking at a really rich, heavy dish, like a Beef Rendang, then Charlie definitely recommends an equally heavy Imperial Stout. “We want to match body for body, intensity for intensity,” explained Charlie. “But it’s also possible go to the far end and contrast that with a light, easy-drinking Fruit Sour, because the acidity can cut through the richness, hence it’ll feel less jelak.”

The perfect beer depends on the mood and occasion, reflected Charlie. “Am I sitting inside or outside? Am I sitting at the patio and is it a hot day? What was my mood before this? Did I have a shitty day or am I in a mood to celebrate?” 

There are plenty of beer options, with 12 craft beers on tap here of various styles. There is also a fridge with a variety of canned beers from international breweries. Mainstays are generally a Lager, a straightforward West Coast-style IPA, 2 Stouts and 2 Sours. Charlie would frequently bring in other interesting styles that would appeal to different preferences. Whitbier might be popular with guests who began drinking at Brotzeit or Paulaner Brauhaus. At the moment, Orh Gao has on tap 2 New England IPAs (aka Hazy IPAs), a Belgian Tripel (Strong Ale) and an English Extra Special Bitter (ESB). After this round, Charlie plans to bring in a hoppy Double or Triple IPA and 2 Imperial Stouts.

 

Young Master's Mandarin Hazy IPA which I enjoyed at Orh Gao.

 

When I visited Orh Gao in May, the award-winning brews from Hong Kong’s Young Master Ales were on tap. I had myself a Barrel Aged Wild Ale with Cherries, a Barrel Aged Belgian Quad and a Mandarin Orange Hazy IPA (read our reviews here!).

“The idea is to have something for everyone, whether you're an old school [Tiger] beer drinker or you're a craft beer drinker looking to explore further. We’ll always have something for you, and that's how I select the beers.” The perfect beer depends on the mood and occassion, reflected Charlie. “Am I sitting inside or outside? Am I sitting at the patio and is it a hot day? What was my mood before this? Did I have a shitty day or am I in a mood to celebrate?”

Helping You Find Your Elusive ‘Aha Moment’

Every drinker has a different preference, whether they realise it or not. So when new drinkers ask for recommendations, Charlie or his team would ask a series questions to figure out what sort of beer is suitable for them. “What sort of flavour profile are you going for? Do you want something light and easy to drink? Sweet or sour? Something bitter, not so bitter, or fruity even? This is how I would guide new drinkers. At the same time, we are also catering to their taste preferences. I would say over 90 percent of the time they're usually happy what they get.”

 

Guests at Orh Gao are invariably a good-looking, blissfully happy bunch (Source: Orh Gao)

 

Beyond the usual beer styles, Orh Gao occasionally brings in limited quantities of unusual brews and expose guests to experimental and daring styles – just for the fun of it. Examples include German Smoked Beers, or beers with very high alcohol content that are up to 17% ABV. “We’re really hoping to help them experience that ‘aha moment’,” said Charlie.

By ‘aha moment’, Charlie was referring to the sudden insight, or transformative tasting experience, where a casual drinker learns something new about themselves at the taproom. Perhaps this is their first time tasting a well-made IPA. Or perhaps they realise that they really like Belgian Strong Ale. These religious experiences convert newcomers into hardcore drinks enthusiasts.

Guests are still in good hands even if they are “all beered out” in Charlie’s words. “For example, if I see someone eating a Pari Bakar, I might recommend them to try a nigori sake (cloudy sake). It’s a little cloudy, softer in taste and more full-bodied. It helps to kill the fire.” As mentioned earlier, pairing the right alcohol with the right foods can really enhance, complement or even transform the taste experience of both the drink and the dish.

“Through the right food pairings, you might realize that this sake actually has some very fruity notes that you wouldn't otherwise have noticed. I’m reminded that many people still haven't experienced their ‘aha moment’ with drinks yet. If we could help them find such experiences at Orh Gao Taproom, that's what they would always remember Orh Gao Taproom for.”

 

The regulars at Orh Gao certainly make themselves very much at home (Source: Orh Gao Taproom)

 

Charlie is filled with passion and appreciation for craft drinks. Telling me about how he fell into this “rabbit hole” and became a drinks geek, he said “Great flavours draw you in. Later on you learn about the stories behind these drinks and the romanticism of them. Finally, you realise that it's really about the great people across the world who revolve around these drinks – whether it’s a craft beer, whisky, sake, wine, what have you. That's how I got into all this.”

The growing pool of newcomers who have been converted into hardcore enthusiasts at Orh Gao tells us that Charlie has been doing something right. Over the years, he has gone on to develop genuine friendships with some of his guests. One of Orh Gao’s regulars by the nickname of “Yaoks” has become a good friend of Charlie’s, and the buddies even go rock climbing together. Charlie recalls witnessing Yaoks’ journey of beer discovery, and how Yaoks went from being a casual drinker to someone who now craves variety, from Sour Beers to Imperial Stouts.

A Community Beyond Beers

Chooby Pizza's first pop-up trial concept at Orh Gao led to the success that the pizzeria enjoys now (Source: Orh Gao Taproom) 

 

On some level, they see their repeat customers as extended family. “You are always welcome here because Orh Gao Taproom is your local. As your local, we will take care of you – whether it’s to bring you along on this craft beer journey, or just sometimes offer a listening ear if you need someone to talk to. They go hand-in-hand, really.”

Their constant support of the wider F&B community gives this space a sense of freshness, liveliness and makes it always feel so happening. Orh Gao frequently hosts pop-up restaurant concepts for aspiring restauranteurs. An example is a Neapolitan pizzeria concept Chooby Pizza, whose founders first tested waters in a pop-up store at Orh Gao. It is now Chooby Pizza’s third year of operation and Charlie is elated to see the success of these young restauranteurs.  

 

(Source: 808 Eating House)

  

The team has also gone on to work on bigger and more elaborate F&B collaborations. Orh Gao has an upcoming four-hands dinner with 808 Eating House – a Southeast Asian inspired casual dining restaurant run by Chef Eugene Chee who’s had experiences at multiple Michelin-starred restaurants. Over at Yeast Side, this year, their Farrer Park outlet would soon celebrate its anniversary in a collaboration with restaurant Artichoke; founded by the award-winning unorthodox Chef Bjorn Shen.

 

Chef Bjorn Shen, the founder of the Middle Eastern-inspired Artichoke restaurant (Source: General Assembly)

 

Outside of the realm of food and drink, Orh Gao organises plenty of events for local artists to showcase their work. “Stand-up Saturdays” happen once a month or so at Orh Gao, where aspiring comics are given a mic and a stage to an already tipsy audience. With the amount of beers being consumed here, these comics probably couldn’t find a more mirthful audience in the country.

 

A comic who seems to be doing some successful crowd work at Orh Gao (Source: Orh Gao Taproom) 

 

There are also the occasional music events where guests could enjoy craft beers while local DJs or musicians put up a show.  

 

(Source: Orh Gao Taproom)  

 

Offbeat showcases are a thing too, and quite frankly it sometimes seems like just anything goes! Last year’s National Day party at Orh Gao featured pop-up bar and restaurant concepts, along with a tattoo showcase and even an Indian head-massage service.

“We try to really push the boundaries by doing a mix of interesting things… as long as it’s within reason,” smirks Charlie.  

 

Here’s the boss receiving an Indian head massage and haircut from Muffyn Liu from Swrl.co (Source: Instagram, @swrl.co)

 

Showing up for local artists and creative businesses, even when they didn’t have to, is a nice gesture from Orh Gao. It also attests to the communitarian kampung spirit that Orh Gao prides itself for. “We're always keen on supporting up-and-coming folks because every artist or small business has been through growing pains. You need the support of others. Look at our collaboration with Bjorn Shen from Artichoke [for Yeast Side's Anniversary]. Why would [Bjorn] want to come and work with us? But he's a great guy and he wants to, and we are so appreciative of him. Likewise, we want give back to people whenever we can.”

Such humble words. No wonder everyone in the scene is so fond of these guys.

A Man of Culture

I usually end my interviews with some general travel itinerary or dining recommendations. But Charlie, being a man of culture and eclectic tastes, is able to offer solid recommendations of his favourites from many categories.

 

 

When it comes to travelling, Japan is Charlie’s top destination for its whisky, sake, cocktail bars and craft breweries. He admires the craft of Japanese beer makers (or shokunin) who tend to remain very faithful to style. They would precisely follow Belgian or German brewing techniques, and could create great exemplars of traditional European beers. However, he gushes over his favourite experimental breweries: “One of them is definitely Shiga Kogen – they do Barrel-aged IPAs using Ichiro Malt Barrels! Their releases are insane and on a different level. Other great Japanese breweries are Anglo-Japanese Brewing – they do great sour beers, Outsider Brewing and Minoh have great beers too. You have to go around, man. So many great beers all over Japan!”

 

 

A big spirits lover himself, Charlie frequents The Swan Song, The Single Cask and The Writing Club for his whisky and rum fix. He recommends The Skewer Bar at Geylang for no frills skewers and a decent sake selection. And with an eye on the booming natural wine scene, Charlie recommends checking out the bottles at Wine Mouth, or rubbing shoulders with the younger crowd at bars like Nothing Fancy and Wild Card.

 

Yang Ming Seafood Bishan serves customers in a cool open-air courtyard (Source: 100 Chinese Restaurants)

 

His favourite dining spot is ultimately very down-to-earth. He recommends Yang Ming Seafood which is nestled in the residential heartland of Bishan Singapore, and serves Chinese stir-fry dishes while guests are welcome to “BYOB” (bring your own bottles).

My Thoughts 

So why's everyone all about Orh Gao Taproom? I mean, it's easy to come up with some obvious reasons. There's a nice selection of beers for whenever you're thirsty for a pint. There's its Southeast Asian dishes that would impress even my nainai (grandma). There's also its spunky yet inclusive energy, that welcomes you whether you're wearing Birkenstocks or Crocs.

But the heart and soul of Orh Gao? Definitely its community. They've got collaborations going on left, right and center - breweries, restaurants, comedians, you name it. This has grown into not just a place to grab a drink, but a town hall of sorts for creatives, foodies and beer geeks alike. 

 

 

And let's not forget the main person, Charlie. This guy's not just the boss here; he's like everyone's best mate. He's the epitome of Orh Gao's ethos to genuinely connect with anyone coming in for a pint. Grab a dish of some Asian comfort food, a pint of comfort drink and a chat with one of these guys or girls behind the bar – it's the ultimate way to unwind on a Friday night.

Once you've been here, you'll totally get it. It's not just a bar, it's an experience, and boy, is it a good one.

@CharsiuCharlie [Not affiliated to Orh Gao's Charlie]


Follow Orh Gao Taproom: Instagram | Facebook | Official Website

Visit Orh Gao Taproom: Orh Gao Taproom Craft Beer Bar, 10 Jln Serene, #01-03 Serene Centre, Singapore 258748

Also check out their sister joint, Yeast SideInstagram | Facebook | Official Website