House drinks are like reverse Russian roulette. Sometimes, you’ll score a good one, made with as much thought as a branded product. More often, you’re in for an average one, made with little input from the venue itself.
Shiki, the Lucas Group’s new house-beer range, sits firmly in the former camp.
Its journey started more than a decade ago. Before director Chris Lucas owned Chin Chin, Kong, Baby and Hawker Hall, he was making a name at The Botanical, an everyday pub he transformed into a fashionable food destination.
It was also the site of his first battle with the major breweries, which he says wanted him to sideline quality food in favour of selling more drinks. He ignored this idea, and the beer sales rose anyway, because of the pub’s popularity. “It’s always been difficult dealing with big breweries,” he says. “They’re not set up for our market. They never have been. It’s no different in the US, UK or anywhere else in the world.”
That tension continued at Chin Chin where the upbeat vibe and spicy food kept customers ordering round after round. They wanted something different to the beers at their local, but the restaurant was locked into contracts and couldn’t deliver. “It started to become more of a problem for us,” Lucas says. “And philosophically, it was becoming more of a problem for me.”
This isn’t an issue restaurants tend to have with food. Suppliers are generally excited to source an heirloom variety of a common vegetable, or track down an unusual cut of meat. The drinks industry is comparatively rigid. You choose from a fixed portfolio, and that’s it.
Two years ago, Lucas decided he’d had enough. He dreamed up Hawker Hall – an Asian beer hall with 18 independent, contract-free taps taps – and put the wheels in motion for a range of credible house beers.
The first step was to interview brewers, just as one would interview for chefs or wait staff. The respected Costa Nikias, owner of La Sirène, got the gig. He’s best known for creating complex, fruity, floral Belgian beers – something totally at odds with the clean, simple lagers that typically suit spicy Asian food. But according to Lucas, Nikias relished the chance to tackle styles outside the bounds of his own brand. “He grilled us just as much as we grilled him, to see how serious we were,” he says.
Given that Lucas once lived in Japan for three years, the brief was “to capture a bit of that magic”. “I think the Japanese do amazing beers,” he says. “I actually prefer them to European beers.”Shiki itself is Japanese for “formula”, and the stocky little bottles are meant to resemble pharmaceutical packaging, playing on the idea of a product made to near-scientific levels of precision. The flower-like logo on the bottle and cap is a mon – a sort of Japanese coat-of-arms designed using rotational symmetry. The three-point Mitsubishi logo is an example.
To start, eight of the Lucas Group’s key staff sat down and blind-tasted lagers and pale ales to work out what sort of flavours they liked. The results went to Nikias, who created a host of pilot brews. Every time a batch arrived at the office, it was tasted and sent back with more notes. One time, Nikias brewed the exact same beer – same malt, same hops – using three different yeasts.
After 17 iterations, the first of three beers was born. It’s a clean, German-style lager, using pilsner malt and Hallertau hops. The staff likes to pair it with Hawker Hall’s char kway teow, or stir-fried rice noodles.
The second beer, a pale ale, features the trendiest hop on the market – the passionfruit-y Galaxy. It’s a touch more complex, but won’t alienate anyone either.
The final beer in Shiki’s initial range is a wheat-y white ale. It’s quite similar to the white ale by Japanese brewery Hitachino Nest, but includes galangal leaves in addition to the usual coriander seed. Its earthy notes match beautifully with the spice-laden chicken tikka at Hawker Hall.
The galangal thing isn’t new ground for the Lucas Group. A couple of years back it brewed a one-off beer with 4 Pines in Sydney containing lemongrass and galangal. “We’ll do a lot more things with Asian spices – lemongrass, ginger, chilli,” Lucas says. “We’re creating all our beers around flavour profiles we think suit our food.”
Lucas and his team are already working on a cider. Eventually, he says they’d like the bottles to appear in other restaurants, too. Watch this mon.