These Co-Founders Created Hong Kong's First Sustainable Bar, Penicillin

By Generation T

The co-founders of The Old Man Hong Kong, which was named Asia's Best Bar in 2019, have now created the city's first sustainable bar, Penicillin. They share here what it takes to be sustainable and future-ready in the F&B industry

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Cover  The co-founders of Penicillin

Since their Hong Kong-based bar The Old Man took the top spot on the Asia’s 50 Best Bars list in 2019, co-founders Agung Prabowo and Roman Ghale decided it was time to take on a new challenge: creating the city's first sustainable bar.

The task soon became a family affair, with the duo's respective partners Laura Prabowo and Katy Ghale stepping in to take the reins of the new bar. Penicillin opened its doors in late 2020.

“Penicillin was inspired by the farm-to-bar movement that’s taking the culinary world by storm,” says Agung, who is a 2020 Gen.T honouree. “It champions a closed-loop model of production. With a focus on either locally sourced or upcycled food and drink ingredients, we innovate on the true flavours of Hong Kong for our bar menu while keeping our carbon footprint to the minimum.”

Here, we speak to the four co-founders to find out more about the creation of Penicillin and what it means to be sustainable in F&B today.

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What made you all decide to start Penicillin together?
Agung Prabowo and Roman Ghale We didn’t want to look back after 10 years and feel a sense of regret that we didn’t try anything new. Life is too short and it would be boring to not have any challenges. That’s why we and our partners, Laura and Katy, decided to open a new bar with a completely different concept to see how far we can reach.

Laura Prabowo and Katy Ghale We all have children and didn’t want to do something for ourselves. We wanted to do something that was for the good of our kids and their futures, and this sparked the idea to create a sustainable bar.

How did the name "Penicillin" come about?
Roman and Laura We named it after the group of mould-derived antibiotics discovered by the Scottish physician and microbiologist Alexander Fleming in the 1940’s—penicillin was truly one of the greatest breakthroughs in modern therapeutics. Its chance discovery and introduction gave way to effective treatments for all kinds of deadly infections, changing the course of medicine.

Like the inspiring story behind the discovery of penicillin, Penicillin bar undertakes scientific research, experimentation and multiple trials and errors to achieve sustainability breakthroughs in the waste-heavy food & beverage industry. This is seen in our setting up of The Penicillin Lab and The Fermentation Chamber.

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Above  The tables at Penicillin have been crafted from foraged local wood (Photo: Courtesy of Penicillin)
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Above  A Far End cocktail consists of tea rum, taro cordial, egg and crystallised honey, and local citrus (Photo: Courtesy of Penicillin)

What does it mean to be a sustainable bar?
Laura We have a cocktail called "One Penicillin, One Tree", which was created in collaboration with ecoSpirits, a zero-waste spirits packaging solution with which we donate US$3 towards a reforestation programme whenever a customer purchases the cocktail. The trees planted through this collaboration are geo-tagged with the name of the venue and planted in the endangered Kalimantan rainforest in Borneo, where Laura’s ancestors are from. We also attach a QR code on our menu so customers can see what they are contributing while enjoying their drink.

Roman We try to recycle and upcycle everything we can, and this includes our leftover coffee grounds and seeds. We make use of the materials left from our daily operation like what was left from the fermentation process (herbs, seeds and coffee grounds) and paper packages from suppliers, for example, and we create recycled paper that we use to make bottle labels, to avoid printing and paper waste. It's also an interesting way to show our customers the composition of our drinks.

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Aside from being sustainable, you’re also working to become the first “scrap-less” bar in Hong Kong. What does that mean?
Agung Our ultimate mission is to have a bar that produces minimal waste at the end of the night. Our team is really dedicated and put endless hours of creativity towards finding ways to recycle and upcycle common waste or kitchen by-products. They also experiment with self-brewing, fermenting, growing and re-using ingredients for our cocktails too. Ingredients including botanicals are all sourced locally, which is important to us as it minimises transport distance, reduces our energy use and keeps our carbon footprint low.

What were some of the biggest challenges and opportunities you faced when trying to make Penicillin sustainable?
Roman The biggest challenge with creating a sustainable bar has got to be maintaining self-discipline. Hong Kong is an international hub where it’s relatively easy to get anything you want, so we had to be really disciplined when sourcing and choosing our suppliers and ingredients such that we produce as little waste as possible.

Laura For opportunities, we’re really lucky that there are always people who are willing to take the time to educate us and share with us what they’ve learnt about sustainability. Some of them introduced us to other zero-waste, upcycling and recycling programmes that in turn have provided us with even more opportunities.

You opened Penicillin during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the city has seen numerous lockdowns. How has this experience been?
Katy It definitely hasn’t been easy, but we need to stay positive and keep believing that after such hard times, things will get better. We tried to work out ways to make it work during the lockdowns, so we came up with the idea of making takeaway bottled cocktails and joined Deliveroo so that people can enjoy our food and drinks in their own homes.

How can other F&B players be more sustainable?
Agung & Roman There are many ways to be more sustainable and the choice is always theirs. Firstly, one important principle to have is discipline—you need to know that it will require time and work to be more sustainable. Secondly, take every chance you can to lower your carbon footprint, especially in your daily operations. Thirdly, look at the big picture too. Every tiny force brought together can create a big impact, so it's important to keep trying to do whatever you can for the future generation, no matter how small.

See more Gen.T honourees from the Food & Beverage category of the Gen.T List 2020

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