Inside Penicillin, Hong Kong’s first closed-loop bar concept

Photo: Penicillin

Sustainability has been a major buzzword in the food and beverage industry for quite some time now, but more often than not it’s chefs and fine-dining institutions that are leading the charge against single-use plastics, food wastage, excess energy usage and even toxic building materials. With the opening of Penicillin in October last year, however, that may be about to change.

“If restaurants can do it, why can’t we?” asks co-founder Agung Prabowo. “It would be impossible to be 100% eco-friendly, but we’re trying to start a new movement where bar owners, managers and staff are more aware of their impact on the environment.”

Indeed, if anyone can kick off such a movement, it’s the stalwarts of Hong Kong’s beverage scene. Prabowo, winner of the Industry Icon Award 2020 voted on by Asia’s 50 Best Bars Academy, and partner Roman Ghale are also co-founders of Soho cocktail bar The Old Man, sister bar The Sea and the brand-new Dead&. The Old Man was crowned Asia’s Best Bar in 2019, dropping to the No. 2 spot in 2020.

With Penicillin, the duo – along with wives Katy Ghale and Laura Prabowo – are taking on their biggest challenge yet. Just as the antibiotic for which it’s named revolutionised medical history, the bar aims to revolutionise Hong Kong’s food and beverage landscape.

Photo: Penicillin

Continuing the theme of alcohol as medicine, Penicillin’s rustic interior includes a lab and fermentation room in a nod to the scientific approach to cocktail making the staff have adopted. And it doesn’t stop there. The décor also features sustainable alternatives in an attempt to reduce the bar’s carbon footprint: LED lights are installed above the bar and opposite are light fixtures made from recycled street signs of days past, bringing the added charm of Hong Kong history to the establishment. The table we’re sitting at is made of wood from trees that were blown down during Typhoon Mangkhut, while staff uniforms are made from recycled cotton and all receipts are sent via e-mail.

Despite their extensive experience in the food and beverage industry, Ghale and Prabowo have found developing a closed-loop (otherwise known as low-waste) bar concept challenging. “Would using the big, black bin bags be easier than the sustainable alternative? Yes. But this is a commitment we’ve made,” Ghale says. “It’s all a work in progress. Every day we’re trialling new things, new flavours. We have to keep learning.”

And they’re not letting the events of the past year stop them either. “The pandemic has actually helped us,” Laura says. “People haven’t been able to leave the country. They’re bored and they’re looking for new things.”

And a farm-to-bar concept is certainly new. From making bottle labels from recycled paper to whipping up their own soap for the bathrooms, the crew at Penicillin are pioneering ways to make the most of their purchases as well as creating as little waste as possible.

Photo: Penicillin

Sustainability has become a key driver for profitable growth, with most F&B industry stakeholders aware of the continuing tide change towards sustainable products and practices. However, most remain unaware of the motivations, values and preferences underpinning the trend. The Penicillin team are hoping ingredients with sustainable and ethical supply chains will become more popular as consumers take a greater interest in products’ full life cycles.

“I think there’s a lot of green-washing going on in the industry at the moment because sustainability is very ‘in’,” Ghale explains. “But we don’t want to be the people that just say, ‘Oh, I didn’t use a plastic straw today.’ We want to build longterm solutions.”

“Running a sustainable bar is almost like being married. You have to work hard and compromise; it’s a lifestyle.”

Agung Prabowo

And they’re not alone in the fight. Penicillin has set up an initiative in collaboration with EcoSpirits and Green Steps Group, a tree-planting charity in Laura’s native Borneo. For every One Penicillin, One Tree cocktail sold, a Mallotus muticus tree is planted in Kalimantan National Park, home to the world’s largest population of orangutans. These incredible upper canopy trees eliminate an astounding 4,400kg of CO2 in their lifetimes.

“It’s all about awareness,” Prabowo says. “You say to a friend, ‘Let’s go have a drink and by doing that, we’re also gonna plant some trees.’ Communication, word of mouth is the greatest tool.”

Many customers, however, may still choose a drink more for its perceived health benefits than its environmental friendliness. But on that front, Penicillin has you covered too. Repurposing ingredients in the lab and fermentation room into various iterations is the name of the game. The organic ferments are bursting with live bacteria, enzymes, vitamins and minerals.

“We’re always experimenting,” Prabowo says. “If we want a future in this industry, we have to keep working to make it sustainable.”

See also: The best bottled cocktails in Hong Kong to toast the New Year

In this Story: #PRINT / #dining