Toni Marie Despojo, a 27-year-old Filippina, has seen her passion for craft beer pave the way in her home-country’s market since launching her own micro-brewery, The Cebruery, in early 2015. INTERVIEW WITH MARISSA CARRUTHERS
How was the Cebruery born? Initially I had the idea after my then-fiancé [Taylor Hendricks] and I visited Cebu in the Philippines for our wedding in February, 2014. We were both based in Cambodia, and I thought of having a craft beer business, seeing as both of us love it. He is a chemical engineer with a concentration on bio-chemical engineering, has been brewing for 10 years, and started a craft brewery back in the States as well – so yeast is his best friend. We brewed test batches when we got back to Cambodia, and also jump-started our online presence – creating a website, blog, social media accounts; the whole shebang. In September 2014, we moved back to the Philippines, where I’m from, and that’s when the real work started – getting our permits done, importing our raw materials, and having our equipment fabricated both locally and abroad.
What is craft beer? Craft beer is an adherence to a tradition that dates back thousands of years. Today, we use old techniques combined with modern ways, as well as experiment with non-traditional ingredients, to create innovative products. Another great thing about craft beer is it never uses adjunct ingredients, such as sugar substitutes, artificial flavouring, additives and extracts.
How competitive is the craft beer market in the Philippines? My husband has always been a craft beer geek. As for myself, I only discovered it recently while travelling. It’s something that the two of us are very passionate about. In the Philippines, there are around 10 microbreweries now. However, since there are hundreds of different beer styles and we all make different tasting brews, there’s really no competition. Instead we view it as a really great opportunity to educate our market about what craft beer is really about.
What makes your beers unique? Every beer is unique. Two people can brew the same recipe but still create a different-tasting beer. The majority of Asian countries have never been exposed to a wide variety of beer styles. Most macro-breweries produce nothing but pale lagers, and so we try and produce as many varieties as we can. We have 21 now, four of which form our core beer series – each variety originates from countries that have significant beer traditions. Our blonde ale uses a German Kolsch recipe; we have a Belgian dubbel, a Robust porter that originated in Britain and an American pale ale. The other 17 varieties are rotating, limited releases to ensure we have something for everyone.
How do you create the different flavours? Beer is made with four basic ingredients – malted barley, hops, yeast and water. There are hundreds of types of barley, hops, yeast strains and even different mineral concentrations in the water. Adding non-traditional ingredients as well gives us a lot of room for experimentation in terms of flavours and varieties. I’ve always loved dark, malty beer, and so I would have to say, the Fat Bottomed Girl Wee Heavy Scotch Ale is my favourite. It’s our first seasonal brew. It’s dark with a lot of butterscotch, pumpernickel and molasses notes. It’s 8.8 percent, so it packs quite a punch.
What unusual ingredients do you use in your beers? We’ve tried brewing with locally grown and roasted, cold press Arabica coffee, freshly scraped Madagascar vanilla beans, and toasted American oak soaked in Maker’s Mark bourbon, and, as a finishing touch, adding a Grade A Canadian maple syrup to our Breakfast Porter. For our Golden Lady, we’re brewing it with hibiscus and Bougainvillea flowers for added colour and floral notes.
How have your products been received? We started the brewery at the perfect time. Craft beer had already piqued the interest of locals, and the expat community and tourists were looking for beer that reminded them of home. It’s an exciting time for craft beer in general in the Philippines right now. It’s only been four months since we started commercial production, and we’re already at 15 different establishments across the country. That’s quite an achievement considering logistics are pretty tough as we’re all on separate islands. We will be expanding in the next few months and tripling our original capacity to cater to more accounts.
What are your plans for the future? We’re all about educating our consumers about healthier alternatives to recreation, and for us that’s craft beer. Besides expanding our reach to more consumers, I want to put emphasis on educating them and giving them a more worldly view on beer – that it’s not just a vessel to get drunk, but it’s something to be enjoyed and savoured like wine. This can be done through craft beer workshops or seminars, tasting events, beer and food pairing events, and the like.
So beer pairs well with certain foods? Yes, we all know how wine pairs well with cheese and other food, but most people don’t know you can actually pair a wider variety of food with beer. Because it’s less acidic, it’s more forgiving than wine. My favourite would have to be pairing our Chocolate Hills Porter with chocolate desserts. I’m not much of a sweet tooth, but this pairing is absolutely mouth-watering.
Traditionally, brewing is seen as a ‘man’s game’. do you agree, and has this presented any challenges? Yes, and it’s funny because originally brewing was either done by Catholic monks or “ale wives”. In Scotland in the 1500s, they had around 150 brewers, all of whom were women. In London, at about the same time, they had 290 brewers and 60 percent were women. How it became a ‘man’s game’ I really do not know, but at present it does pose a challenge for me. People often jump to the conclusion that the business is solely my husband’s and he had the idea of starting it, all because he’s the man and Caucasian, and beer is for men. We’re a two-man/woman team, and so, aside from helping with production and managing the PR and marketing side, I do sales as well. I’ve also met a few people who were quite sceptical about the product because the company is owned by a Filipino woman, “what does she know about beer”? It’s sexist, quite frankly.
Craft beer has been called an art form. do you agree? It is, definitely. Brewing, although a bit more technical, like any art form starts with an idea or concept. Then, like painting, we start with a blank canvas of base malts and throw in different specialty malts and mix and match with different hop varieties and yeast strains to achieve that certain idea we have.