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story | Alysha Chandra, Contributing Reporter
photo | Saksham Mehrotra
At 7.30 am, when most of the Yale-NUS campus is still, a labour of love plays out in the Saga College office. A cooler is filled with ice. A cart is wheeled to the courtyard, a coffee bean grinder calibrated. Dish towels are folded and cups are laid out. Brewhouse opens for business.
Soon, the pre-lecture crowd trickles in, slowly breaking this silence. Laughter and “good mornings” mix and meld with the screaming of the milk steamer as names and orders are joyously yelled out. Amongst this crowd almost every morning, is Nicholas Quek ’21 whose favourite Brewhouse drink is the dirty iced spice. “I’ve always wondered how Brewhouse began,” he says.
To get a look behind the scenes at one of Yale-NUS’s most-loved student initiatives, I spoke to the Brewhouse co-founders Jessica Chang ’19 (commonly known as Fred) and Xinlei Lee ’19 (commonly known as Macca).
Fred shows up to our interview wearing a sweater that says ‘Coffee, Please’ and carrying a tote bag that says ‘Better Latte Than Never’. She insists that these choices were not intentional.
I wonder if the Brewhouse co-founder’s passion for coffee is so consuming that it has become a part of her subconscious. It would make sense. Fred said, “Brewhouse has been life-changing. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done.”
Brewhouse has surpassed all expectations that Fred and Macca had for it. Macca is studying abroad in Paris now, but he tells me through online correspondence that the both of them laugh when they think of their old plan to open once or twice a week, serving around 50 cups a week.
Now, Brewhouse opens every weekday and serves an average of 100 cups a day. That scale comes with an intense level of responsibility for the founders. Macca says, “Brewhouse is basically like an overload module that we signed ourselves up for, for the rest of our time here.”
Brewhouse began from a joke they shared. In their freshpeople year, Macca and Fred were on the way to Mongolia for their Week 7 Learning Across Boundaries (LAB) when they began lamenting the lack of good coffee in Yale-NUS. This led to an argument about what constituted good coffee. According to Macca, Fred dropped the line “you can’t argue with me about this, I’m a trained barista”, to which he responded that he too was a trained barista.
When I asked Fred about this, she said, “Once we put our barista egos away, we thought: we could do something about this! We could, I don’t know, make a coffee shop!” While they laughed about it at that time, they spent their winter break that year writing up a detailed proposal outlining their plans for what would become Brewhouse.
Fred credits Rector Sarah Weiss and Senior Manager of Operations Zoe Peters (who has since left the College) for helping them start up with funding from Saga and the Dean of Students office respectively. It took a challenging 16 months of planning before Brewhouse officially opened on March 20, 2017.
Macca says, “Those were probably some of the most gruelling months of my life”.
Fred describes running into the same roadblocks repeatedly. “When the ninth supplier (of espresso machines) tells you they’re out of stock even after promising stock two weeks ago, do you give up, change the model, or call another one?”
Beyond lessons in business management and leadership, Fred has drawn connections between Brewhouse and her Ancient Greek Political Philosophy lessons. Fred had a paper on Plato’s The Republic due on Brewhouse’s opening weekend in March earlier this year. With the grand opening occupying her mind, she wrote her paper on how the structure of Brewhouse was similar to that of Plato’s ideal city in terms of the specialisation of tasks, leadership and money.
Initially, Fred thought that Plato’s framework opposed the principles of modern economics and game theory. Later, she found that running Brewhouse in a way that Plato would have approved of created a ‘kickass team’. She said, “I was like ‘oh my god, this worked, Economics is broken!’ It was the most interesting place, intellectually, that I’ve been.”
Full disclosure: I’ve been part of this ‘kickass team’ for a few weeks now. Macca trained me to become a barista, during which I learned to pull shots while enduring an hour-long diatribe on the evils of Starbucks. I’ve seen just how committed everyone in Brewhouse is to making this ship sail: people step up when anyone needs their shift covered, and the experienced baristas are always patient and welcoming when training the freshpeople.
Maintaining this culture of selflessness is important to Macca and Fred. Looking forward, Macca says, “we wanted to build a culture of service and coffee appreciation that people would constantly want to be part of year after year.”
The founders wish to leave behind a legacy. Macca tells me, “We’re trying to find a system that will keep Brewhouse around for as long as the school itself and for the community to become so invested in our existence that they would expect to keep us throughout the years.” With both Fred and Macca on study abroad next semester (Macca is on a year abroad), the current co-manager Khwa Zhong Xuan ’20 will be taking over the daily managing of Brewhouse.
Nevertheless, Fred and Macca will still be keeping an eye out for their project from abroad. Even while he is overseas, Macca says that he still follows the Slack (messaging app) conversations that the team have. “I’m always constantly reading to see what’s going on back home and sometimes having a good laugh and many many heartwarming moments where people just take the initiative to do something completely not required of them,” said Macca.