Craft beer (well, craft everything) has become a staple in Filipino inuman sessions in recent years. I like joking that craft beer has sped up my homeland’s ongoing “hipsterization”, but it also gives us more options that don’t involve the big breweries.

And making craft beer isn’t as easy as it sounds. I asked two craft beer-makers — Pauly del Rosario of Fat Pauly’s in Iligan, and Ryan Garcia of Xavierbier (now Baguio Craft Brewery) in Baguio — for brewing basics and trade lessons.

The Art of the Craft Beer

Two takes on small-scale, independent beer-brewing

by KC Calpo

Light. Pale. Red Horse. Colt. Gold Eagle. Manila Beer. All fixtures at the table for the unofficial Philippine pastime, all produced by two big breweries. These used to be all you need for a good night, along with some pulutan, the rest of the barkada, and maybe hours’ worth of intense videoke singing.

These days, a quick look at the next table would often yield imported beer bottles from countries like Belgium, Germany, Ireland, and the U.K. — a far cry from the Budweisers and Coronas you grew up with.  But there’s also a relatively new trend: you’ll see some patrons knocking back their liquid amber from bottles with names you haven’t heard of… until now.

Those, ladies and gents, are craft beers. The easiest definition is that they’re beers produced and distributed in limited batches by microbrewers. Compared to commercial beer-makers, these microbrewers follow traditional brewing processes and have more freedom to experiment with beer styles and ingredients. There’s also added emphasis on the quality of the produced alcohol, as opposed to quantity.

With more microbreweries being set up all over the country and their products landing in more watering holes and beer gardens, we got to thinking about what it takes to join the local beer game. We’ve asked Pauly del Rosario of Fat Pauly’s Hand-Crafted Ales and Lagers and Ryan Garcia of Xavierbier to give 2nd Opinion about how their breweries began, and what you need to know if you want to join this party.

Brew beginnings

Fat Pauly’s and Xavierbier are as young as the local craft-beer industry itself, with only five years and one year of operations, respectively. 

Del Rosario’s transformation into a self-described beer geek started in 2009 at Makati watering hole Beers Paradise.

Beers Paradise closed in the mid-’10s. Coffee shop and events venue Commune now occupies its old spot in Barangay Poblacion, Makati City.

After downing “really expensive and rare” beers, del Rosario did research on those beers’ histories, then moved on to the overall beer culture, which includes proper glassware and food pairings.

The next step: brewing his own beer batches. After a series of trials (and errors) in 2010, del Rosario perfected his first beer, the Iligan Single Hop Origin Pale Ale. That same year, he began selling his craft beers outside his brother’s convenience store.

Unlike del Rosario’s two-man setup, Xavierbier began and grew as a group effort. Its roots are in Seattle, Washington, USA, where co-founders Ryan Garcia and Chris Ordas met in 2011 and talked about doing business in the Philippines. It took a few more years (plus a stopover in Edmonton, Canada) to get a team together, then it was on to Baguio City in 2014 to put up their microbrewery and taproom along Marcos Highway.

Both Garcia and del Rosario cited their love of beer as the driving force behind their businesses. “I just want to make interesting beers and introduce them to people who are willing to try out some sort of alternative to their usual fizzy yellow beverage,” said del Rosario. Garcia noted that he and his first business partner Ordas “wanted to share something that we were passionate about back in Seattle.”

New tricks

This passion can be seen in their varying craft beer styles and interesting ingredients — markedly different from the standard ice-cold bar fare. Xavierbier has used Baguio strawberries, Benguet coffee beans, kiwi, bacon, raspberries, and wild honey in its brews; while Fat Pauly’s has included putyukan honey and water from the Timoga Springs in its products. Del Rosario also gets brewing inspiration from his childhood memories, giving his beer recipes a personal touch.

Craft-beer making lets brewers experiment and fuel their passion, but ultimately, it leans heavily on market feedback. Fat Pauly’s tests different styles, and makes them a recurring or permanent offering based on demand. Xavierbier had a different strategy when it began operations, going for “sweet, easy-to-drink” beers to capture public interest. After receiving drinkers’ feedback, it plans to produce and sell more hoppy beers, adding to its more than 25 beer styles and current production rate of two new craft brews per month.

The challenges

Aside from getting into microbrewing early on, Fat Pauly’s and Xavierbier are two of the growing number of microbreweries not based in Mega Manila. It’s a welcome development, in my opinion, and a clear sign of a maturing national beer scene.

When asked about marketing and distributing craft beer in Iligan, del Rosario frankly answered “What Iligan?” His beers are made and sold at the Suka Pinakurat Pasalubong Shop (a.k.a. the family business), but he markets his wares outside his city: in Manila and places like Cebu, Davao, and Cagayan de Oro.

Things are more optimistic up north in Baguio, a city Garcia and his partners chose for its cold climate, lower infestation rate, captive market, and better rental rates. Xavierbier’s brewpub, The Tasting Room, has also become a must-see for Baguio locals and visitors alike.

But it’s not just about location, location, location. Given that they started making their beers before the trend took off (and before local suppliers like Juan Brew and countless gastropubs set up shop), they also faced difficulties in other aspects. Del Rosario got his brewing kits and supplies online, and YouTube served as his main educator and mentor. Even now, he said he and his brother Peppo are the only people doing small-scale brewing in Iligan.

Xavierbier has also encountered supplies-related problems. The company had its beer-making equipment fabricated overseas. It also needs to import the ingredients they need for beer production, then have these ingredients shipped to Baguio, plus send the finished product to Manila and other cities.

And then there’s the boom in demand for craft beer; along with growing support for all things hand-crafted, artisanal, locally produced, and limited-edition. It’s a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless. According to Garcia, “we’ve come to a point where our current production simply can’t keep up with the demand,” adding that their inventory is quickly snapped up by Xavierbier’s on-site sales.

Size matters, money talks

Passion, ingenuity, acumen, and dedication all lead to highly interesting microbrews and a more educated and discerning market. But how much money would you need to put in it?

Garcia noted that “[the] investment required depends a lot on how big you want your brewery to be, whether you will want a taproom to go with it, where you will be located, etc. But expect to spend millions just to set up your brewery.”

Del Rosario added that if you’re doing it all on your own or with a small support staff, all you’d need are a few specialized equipment that can be made or acquired locally, and a steady supply of raw materials.

Is it a profitable venture? It is, said Garcia, if you hire experienced brewers, have a strong administrative system, and take care of the logistics and permits beforehand — prepare for close to a year of permit processing. Having contingency plans for problems such as malfunctioning equipment and blackouts is also necessary.

Pro tip

For aspiring microbrewers and new craft-beer drinkers alike, del Rosario had this to say:

There is a world of craft beers, and beers in general, waiting to be explored. So don’t limit yourself to what you know and what you think is good, because it is unfair to judge or undermine the unexplored!

Oh, look. It’s Beer O’Clock. A few Ilayas, Gojiras, Idas, and Zigzaggers sound nice right about now. ⦾