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This brewing icon isn't above helping a start-up brand

Where other brands might fabricate their purpose, Danilo Ablen has found his, and beyond that, an even more compelling brand story.

One is new and niche; its brand history is measured in months rather than years. The other is iconic and famous not only in the Philippines but worldwide.

When the team behind startup beverage brand Oh GK!  met up with one of San Miguel Brewery’s senior brewmasters, they didn’t quite know what to expect. Ablen, Oh GK!’s 23-year-old founder, created the product largely because of need. Having lived in shanties for more than half of his life, exposure to life-threatening illness was constant. Two sisters of Ablen’s sisters died at a very young age, and Oh GK! was inspired by an uncle who was also sick at the time. “When you’re poor, you don’t have access to medicine,” he says. “You turn to herbs and natural remedies.”

Oh GK! stands for the drink’s main ingredients, Oregano, honey, ginger, and kalamansi, and unlike many lifestyle drinks that harp on taste, Oh GK! markets itself as an antibacterial drink and an immune system booster—not the sexiest of USPs, but to Danilo, the most accurate.

Where other brands might fabricate their purpose, Ablen has found his, and beyond that, an even more compelling brand story. When he talks about the origins of his product and Oh GK!’s brand promise, you know that it finds its roots in actual loss and heartbreak.

Emiliano Macapugay is a 31-year-old veteran of San Miguel Brewery, Southeast Asia’s oldest brewery and the flagship business of San Miguel Corporation. A chemical engineer with a post-graduate degree from the University of the Philippines, Macapugay has been a brewmaster for the last ten years and was formerly dean of San Miguel’s brewing school. He loves to teach and is particularly invested in the R&D function. San Miguel Flavored Beer’s Lychee variant is among his successful roll-outs—a hit among entry drinkers and the brewery’s newest product.

“Before meeting Danilo, I was given a briefer about him, and Oh, GK! I didn’t quite know what to expect.”

In Danilo Ablen (left), Emil Macapugay found grit and confidence that belied Ablen's 23 years. In Macapugay, Ablen found a mentor who was so generous to share the knowledge he had acquired from over 30 years of service at San Miguel Brewery.

From the outset, Macapugay remembers being impressed by Ablen. “For someone so young, he struck me as driven and confident. I’ve met many young people in the workplace, and very few have the same seriousness and determination that he has.”

A meeting that was supposed to take at most half an hour turned out to be a convivial afternoon-long consultation.  Ablen and his team were eager to seek a brewmaster’s wisdom, asking him questions on shelf stability, pasteurization, standardizing taste and other attributes like mouthfeel, aroma, and appearance.

Part of the team that developed Cali and Bionade, a nonalcoholic functional drink that SMB used to carry in the early 2000s, Macapugay is familiar with formulating nonalcoholic beverages and gently walked Ablen and his partners through a series of questions, starting with the sourcing and handling of raw materials. Throughout their conversation, they began to see the journey to grow their product in an entirely new light. While it was not quite back to the drawing board, Macapugay opened up to them the importance of standardization of processes, the need for precision, and other practical matters they had not yet considered, like making the key ingredients more prominent in the label design and listing all ingredients in a more detailed fashion.

“We are looking to scale from a few batches of Oh GK! a week to produce our drink in the thousands. But to do so, we need to professionalize and standardize our processes and invest. We’re not there yet,” Ablen says, “But it’s so helpful to have been able to pick the brain of a brewmaster who represents one of our country’s best-known, best-loved brands.”

Macapugay, for his part, was deeply impressed by the team’s openness to learning. “Other kids might have seen these speed bumps as dispiriting, but they were eager to listen and improve. It was a joy to see.”

Having said their goodbyes and promising to meet again (which they did just three days later), Ablen couldn’t believe he had just been given a consultation that other more prominent brands might have had to pay for. “We’re such a tiny brand compared to San Miguel, yet Mr. Macapugay sat down with us and was so generous with his time and advice. We won’t soon forget how San Miguel made us feel—valued and important.”

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