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Sharing Stories over a Few Beers

The couple behind Pedro Brewcrafters talk about running one of the most familiar brands in the Philippine craft brew scene.

“I told them that my real dream was to make beer. And they were all, are you serious?”

This is what Jaime Fanlo said when he was starting his own brewery and it turned out he was very serious. He let go of his comfortable, lucrative job as a lawyer to properly become the head brewer of Pedro Brewcrafters: a passion project he shares with similarly committed business partners.

“I was working as corporate counsel for a big US multinational at the time,” Jaime recaps about the early days, “with a regional function so I was flying in and out. I was brewing on the weekends because we were already selling small batches of beer, and I was taking my coursework during the week in the evenings, and I was sleeping maybe… not at all. So yeah, it was crazy. But I don’t regret a moment of it.”

That was in 2015, after the Pedro Brewcrafters ball had already started rolling a year earlier thanks to a happily inebriated discussion with his wife Nadine and their business-partner-to-be Jill Borja. They had decided to turn their shared love of beer into a business, starting off with small 40-liter batches in Jill’s garage before taking the plunge with a proper pilot system and eventually full-on brewery equipment that could handle a thousand liters.

“The brewery sort of existed before we realized we needed somebody who actually knew what he was doing,” Nadine laughs. “It was all happening simultaneously. For sure, we were figuring things out as we went along. We just knew that we wanted a brewery, we figured we had all the numbers right, we thought we knew what we were doing, until the equipment was ready to be released from customs.

“That was kind of our wake-up call, like, this is really happening. The equipment is being delivered to the warehouse. And that’s when we knew: somebody had to quit their job, somebody had to know how to brew on a commercial level.”

Thanks to meeting prerequisite courses in biology, chemistry, and physics from his pre-law years to take proper training from the American Brewers Guild in Vermont, that someone turned out to be Jaime.

“It was part distance learning, part residency program in the US,” Jaime outlines. “So, you do the course work, you correspond with them online, go through their videos and exams. And then near the end of the program you go to the US and you work in their brewery for two weeks. You go through the final portions of the course there. They run you through packaging, carbonation, filtration, the actual brewing process, lab work, all of that.

“So, 2015. I finish the course, I fly back from the US with stellar grades, thinking I know everything, looking at my new brewhouse that I need to run myself. And then I do my first brew… and I dump it down the drain.”

Something had gone wrong in the brewing process, and it was a very rough start.

“It was just a mess,” Jaime admits. “I had to report to everyone that I lost almost a thousand dollars’ worth of material, plus the opportunity loss of a potential product.”

That initial experience didn’t kill their spirits, though.

“We picked up from there very quickly,” Jaime emphasizes. “It was really a process of learning by doing as we went. They teach you the theory in school, how everything works, but you’re learning on one system and then you have to go and learn another one. We really had to learn from scratch, and we had to fine-tune the system and get efficiency out of it as best we could.”

“That was kind of our wake-up call, like, this is really happening. The equipment is being delivered to the warehouse. And that’s when we knew: somebody had to quit their job, somebody had to know how to brew on a commercial level.”

Producing craft beer isn’t just about the beer, of course. It’s everything else, too.

“The level of stress we were going through back then at the beginning was intense,” Nadine recalls. “You’re trying to open a market, trying to promote your brand, build brand identity, you’re trying to learn how to brew consistently, you’re dealing with all your permits, all of that in an industry that was relatively new at the time.”

Pedro Brewcrafters started with a very lean team of four people. Extremely talented and dedicated people, but still just four people: brewing, bottling, packaging, distributing, marketing.

“During the holiday season of 2015, that’s when we got our shit together,” Nadine says. “By necessity, really. We got this huge order we weren’t expecting, and the four of us spent that entire holiday season in the brewery, taking shifts, just handling everything to make sure we could make that order.”

After that crucible, Pedro Brewcrafters was definitely in business.

Today, the Philippine craft beer industry is still growing.

“The market’s interesting because you have a lot of very passionate people trying to make beer,” Jaime enthuses. “But we all know each other, we all hang out, we all share stories. It’s funny because you can argue that right now there’s more passion from the people who make it than from the people who buy it.”

That’s not to say that overall interest in craft beer is poor. Nadine points out that it’s more a factor of needing to educate the public that craft beer can be appreciated and enjoyed, and that it is consequently worth spending on.

“Nobody’s at full capacity yet, but everyone’s trying to grow the market and everybody’s trying to work together to help,” Nadine says. “So, it’s interesting in the sense that while we’re competitors, we collaborate and interact in ways that I think other industries don’t really do.”

Collectively, all the craft brewers identify that public awareness is the priority, so much so that the Craft Beer Association of the Philippines spends most of its time pursuing that goal. “We put together events here and there to hopefully attract people who have never tried craft beer before,” Jaime says, “and have them experience all these different kinds of beers from different brewers.”

As appreciation grows, so does interest in the crafting process—after all, that’s why Jaime, Nadine, and Jill got Pedro Brewcrafters going. But is that something that just anyone can pursue? Can people follow in Jaime’s footsteps, for example, maybe drop their careers to pursue the craft beer dream?

“Some brewers are just getting by,” Jaime points out. “Nobody’s making a killing at this point. It takes a lot of passion, effort, and determination to keep going in this business. Just like the craft beer situation in other countries, over time you’ll start to see some mortality. You have to really think about it, if you want to get started.”

It’s not all gloom and doom, though. Quite the opposite, in fact, according to Nadine. Proof of that optimism can be found in the fact that Pedro Brewcrafters just recently opened its own tap house in Poblacion: the best means to correctly serve their craft beer to the public with no compromise in the quality of the experience.

“I don’t see myself throwing in the towel,” Nadine affirms. “None of us do. It might sound a bit grim sometimes, but that’s the nature of a growing market. There’s real potential here. We’re on the right track, and if we stay the course, the entire scene will continue to grow, and everyone benefits.”

“We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t love it,” Jaime concludes. “That’s what keeps us going. That’s a no-bullshit answer. I worked as a lawyer, I worked in a bank, I worked in a real estate company, ten years in the corporate sphere. But it doesn’t compare to coming up with a good beer and seeing people enjoying it, talking about it. Also, the people we deal with, it’s a nice community. We really do want to make it grow and at the same time make it profitable.”