“The thing most people don’t know,” he says, “is that people used to come here to die.”
Goh is referring to nearby Sago Lane, which was called “Death Alley” in the first half of the 20th century because of its many funeral parlours and coffin shops, and the grim custom of some Chinese citizens going to these so-called death houses when they were about to die.
The government outlawed such places in 1961, and many of the area’s funerary traders had long vanished by the time much of Sago Lane was levelled to make way for the labyrinthine Chinatown Complex, whose exterior is brightly adorned with incandescent Chinese paper lanterns strung in zigzags above the busy street below.
Home to hundreds of food stalls and sundries shops, the structure is one of Singapore’s older hawker centres, or open-air food courts. The government built more than 100 of them from 1971 to 1986 while authorities, citing waste-management and public-health issues, enticed the island’s tens of thousands of food vendors from the streets to these facilities with multiple stalls and promises of low rent.
It was the affordable Chinatown Complex rent, minimal start-up cost and the chance to pair beers with all these local foods that in 2011 inspired Goh, 40, to open the Good Beer Co., Singapore’s first hawker stall specialising in craft brews. Offering a choice of about 60 imported bottles, the stall proved so successful that in January 2014 Goh partnered with a fellow beer merchant, Meng Chao, 47, to set up another stall, Smith Street Taps, right next door.
While Good Beer Co. deals in bottled beers, Smith Street Taps began as the first Singapore stall hawking craft on tap.
Now up to 11 taps from its initial seven, Smith Street Taps fast became the de facto centre of Singapore’s nascent craft beer scene, going through its 20- to 30-litre kegs within two or three days.
At Smith Street Taps, many local importers introduce overseas breweries to Singapore via tap takeovers, when a range of beers from a single brewery flow from most taps. Siren Craft Brew (Berkshire, Britain), Baird Beer (Numazu, Japan) and Modern Times Beer (San Diego, California) are among those that have been featured at such periodic events.
Aside from its world-class tap list and compelling, non-traditional setting, Smith Street Taps succeeds by selling premium beers at prices far lower than those found at brick-and-mortar competitors. They can do so, in part, because their overhead is much lower.
Of course, now that the pair has kick-started this craft beer hawker phenomenon, the model has caught on. At Chinatown Complex, for instance, the brothers Patrick Lim, 61, and Steven Lim, 63, opened OnTap a few stalls from Smith Street Taps in late 2014. The approach is similar, though the Lims pour only OnTap’s own beers and ciders, brewed in small batches less than 10 miles away in central Singapore. OnTap now manages stalls in the Chomp Chomp and Sun Court hawker centres, too.
As far as Chao is concerned, upstarts like OnTap are not necessarily competition – they are a sign of progress. “It’s still about growing the market and just getting more people drinking good beers,” he said.