It’s a place to see and be seen, but above all, it’s about one man’s farsightedness that has shaken and stirred the F&B industry across the Causeway. LeVeL33 has the best view in Singapore, yet a good portion of the visual feast wasn’t even there when Dr Martin Bem spotted its potential.
Helping him realise it are the likes of Hollywood actors, EPL footballers, F1 drivers and heads of state, including the late Lee Kuan Yew on his 88th birthday. The food, drink and view jostle for priority in the reviews, but as stunning as the world’s highest urban microbrewery-cum-restaurant is, its back story is even better.
“Nothing is impossible” is the motto that Bem, an Austrian-born F&B mogul with a PhD in economics, has imbued in his employees. But this project defied logic on two counts: sticking a brewery on the top floor of a skyscraper was merely crackpot; what he would pour into some of their glasses was a sin that connoisseurs consider cardinal.
Unique concepts create challenges that even the 55-year-old, who also has a master’s in marketing, hadn’t bargained for. Key to the whole enterprise was convincing the owners of the building that it wasn’t a stunt! “On the contrary,” he explains, “we told them it was something that would add value to their property.
“Going the extra mile in the presentation to the landlords, we engaged a designer — at great expense — to create a virtual walk through the restaurant for the space to transmit our vision more tangibly.”
“That was probably the proudest moment, when we managed to convince them about our concept. We had to get them on board that we were doing the first premium microbrewery — in the world actually,” Ben explains.
He would come to convincing customers later, but first he had to get the kit. Continuing what might be called a no-hop-unpicked strategy, he ordered the very best: custom-made brew tanks and copper kettles from Salm & Co in Vienna, one of Europe’s oldest manufacturers. There was just one problem.
“I knew the tanks wouldn’t fit into the lift when I signed the contract,” he admits, “but I thought we could use a helicopter. Then they told me it was a no-fly zone!”
Lesser men might have drowned their sorrows — or hired Tom Cruise. Even the indefatigable Bem admits: “I had no idea how to get them up. But I believe ‘where there is a will, we will find the way!’ And we found this fantastic local company that lifts heavy equipment on to the top of buildings with mobile cranes.”
Even then, there were some heart-in-mouth moments. Eight tonnes of the stuff had to come up and the crane was specially constructed in what is now the spick-and-span bar. Bank employees on the 32 floors below had a grandstand view. If they’d known the weight of the well-wrapped items being whisked by their windows, they would have claimed danger money.
There are times when people would do anything for a beer: this was just to make it. But why here? Thirty-three floors and 156m up, in Tower 1 of the Marina Bay Financial Centre with a side entrance to the lift? F&B research bots would have given it a wide berth. Ditto estate agents. The location? Inconvenient, inappropriate, insane. Even the view was under construction!
Bem says: “We must remember that the location was simply not on the map at the time. Taxi drivers didn’t know the address. So many people did not even know what was going on in Marina Bay back in 2010 and the shape it would assume later.”
Today’s glittering Manhattan was only a twinkle. But he admits: “I had several friends who told me I was crazy. Such a huge project and investment — at the time — in a completely uncharted and unknown location.”
You might say: Who on reclaimed earth would come up with such a project? Only someone with a sizeable bee in his bonnet and Bem’s was buzzing. “I had this very strong feeling that this was perfect for the concept I had in mind,” he says.
Having arrived in the city state in 1999, he founded the Ponte Group, which he’d built into a S$20 million enterprise on the back of the Brotzeit restaurant chain. Then he came up with a challenge in which the logistics were not even the hardest part.
In 2010 in many parts of the world, microbreweries still carried connotations of bathtub moonshine, dingy back streets and boy bands. Bem didn’t just want to change that, he wanted to turn it on its head. He explains: “My idea was to create an upmarket microbrewery with a nice list of boutique wines and excellent food.”
To some, it was “never the twain shall meet”, but Bem was convinced. “This iconic location and view just fitted my new concept perfectly. It’s not fine dining as there’s too much space for that, but what we call a restaurant of ‘relaxed excellence’.
The view is a unique selling point but the reason more than 70% of customers are regulars is because of delicacies such as freshly shucked oysters, heirloom tomato, white Pyrenees lamb and beer ice cream — there just had to be, didn’t there? — to take a sample of each course.”
“A concept like this did not exist worldwide — I did my research,” says Bem. “In reality, it was one I would personally love and what was actually missing in the market in my opinion. I love my beers and good wines as well as good food. Where else is it possible to enjoy such an offer?”
He didn’t stop there. Besides offering fine ales — blonde lager, IPA, house porter, wheat beer and stout — brewed metres away from the observation deck, he introduced even finer wines — from Mouton Rothschild no less and rare vintages from the Barossa Valley.
Then came his piece de resistance that was sacrilege to sommeliers: he wanted to mix two very different beverages and expected them to blend. It was not oil and water, but, in the eyes of certain drinkers, it was close.
It took months and stretched the imagination of brew master Gabriel Garcia before they got it right. Once again, no hop unpicked, no grape uncrushed, and which winemaker did he turn to share his hare-brained scheme? No less than Baron de Rothschild. The idea was to mix beer and champagne!
Explains Bem: “Their champagne makers were engaged to make the yeast work best for brewing a beer. The original idea was from me, but the difficult part to execute it and produce this unique beer in outstanding quality for years — that honour must absolutely go to our fantastic resident brew master Gabriel Garcia.
An Argentine, Garcia is a man after Bem’s heart, studying a new language so he could take the German brewing course. He says: “It’s an impossible goal to make a beer taste like champagne. It might take years and we might never reach it, but we’re getting closer.”
Called Brut, I was offered a glass. As a microbrewery man of back street vintage, I sipped with trepidation. It looked good with a decent head and tasted … well, like a glass half full of both beer and champagne. The brains behind it and the brew master had pulled it off — a delectable drink of substance with an 8.7% kick.
There were moments I could taste more of one and then more of the other, but that’s not to suggest it had just been mixed — the yeast had been fermenting for months and then again in the bottle. Nope, it was a drink of its own and, like all good ideas, has its copiers.
According to Bem: “There are several companies trying to do it, but I am not sure if there are others who go through the whole process of an additional fermentation in bottle like us. We mimic the same production process of champagne, including dosage, remuage and disgorgement.”
It’s the attention to detail that is LeVeL33’s secret ingredient. “Bring your ‘A’ game” is another of Dr Bem’s mantras and it seems as if that’s followed too. Tiara, the assistant business development manager who showed me around, says: “Even the ‘V’ in the name means something — it’s to signify the up and down skyline around us.”
Bem admits: “LeVeL33 must be my highlight so far! And when I attended the big Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, people in the industry in the US had heard of LeVeL33 in Singapore! That was a big compliment.
Almost as an idle afterthought, I ask if he’s thought of doing this elsewhere. A global franchise for microbreweries in famous tall buildings, for example?
“Actually,” comes the answer, “we are indeed in a very advanced stage of discussion for a LeVeL33 concept overseas in cooperation with a leading international hotel group. That would be another big nod for our concept and for me to bring this concept to another country. Unfortunately, at this point I cannot reveal — yet — with which partner and where.”
Next time you happen to be in a tall, iconic building somewhere, check out the catering: it could just have a microbrewery serving a strange drink with an 8.7% kick, and you’ll know where the idea came from. Nothing is impossible for a man who has a head for heights in the F&B industry.
This article first appeared on May 1, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.