Craft beer: Something's brewing

31 Mar 2017 by Business Traveller Asia Pacific
Beer flight TAP Mongkok, Hong Kong

Just a few years ago, craft beer was decidedly niche in Hong Kong. Today, more than 20 local breweries jostle for shelf space behind the bar, and the market shows no signs of slowing. Local brewers continuously extend their repertoire, and foreign brewers are also setting up in the city – the latest being hip Japanese beer Hitachino Nest, which opened its only overseas production facility in Fo Tan last year.

It seems craft beer has gone mainstream: it’s stocked in many of the city’s hotels and restaurants and visible on supermarket shelves. Even Cathay Pacific (CX) is getting in on the act with its newly launched craft beer Betsy. Named after CX’s first aircraft, a 1940s Douglas DC-3, it is the first ale developed to be drunk at altitude and is crafted from dragon eye fruit, Hong Kong honey and UK-sourced Fuggle hops. The result is an earthy, full-bodied brew with floral notes and a fruity aroma.

Developed following feedback from a tasting panel of judges including the founder and chairman of the Hong Kong Craft Beer Association, as well as Marco Polo Club members and CX staff, Betsy has initially been made available to first and business class passengers travelling between Hong Kong and Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester until April 30. The craft beer can also be sampled at the airline’s lounges in Hong Kong and Heathrow and at several Swire-owned restaurants in Hong Kong such as Mr & Mrs Fox and Plat du Jour.

Why did CX decide to develop a craft beer? “In recent years we’ve upgraded our fleet, seat design, lounge experience and in-flight menu partnership. So we thought, ‘what more can we do?’ We had regular brainstorming sessions internally and came up with [the idea to develop our own] beer, the third most drunk beverage after water and tea on earth,” says Priscilla Chok, CX marketing manager social and content. “We went for hand-crafted ale because of the quality of ingredients, production process with a lot of attention from the brew master due to its smaller quantity of production, and the bottle providing a better environment for the chemical reaction without worrying the metal from a can would distort the flavours.”

Putting Hong Kong beer on the map

When Jonathan So set up craft ale festival Beertopia in 2012, it had less than 100 beers and around 1,500 guests. In its fifth incarnation last November, it attracted more than 14,000 people at its new location on the Central Harbourfront, where attendees could sample 14 different local beers. The festival even hosted the Hong Kong Beer Championship, with more than 20 local breweries taking part.

Originally from Toronto, So also lived in New York and believes Hong Kong’s craft beer scene can learn plenty from the US. “In New York, they have local beer in the convenience store and people are pretty serious about it… there are niche craft beer festivals that host just Belgian beers, or only sour ales. This could happen in Hong Kong, but the craft beer scene is under three years old, so there’s a long way to go.”

Arguably the biggest craft beer success story in Hong Kong is Gweilo – the name is slang for foreigner in Cantonese – which is available in local supermarkets in addition to the city’s hotels, restaurants and bars including craft beer pub The Globe, Le Meridien Cyberport and eatery The Flying Pig. The brewery produces a pale ale, an IPA and a wheat beer and plans to introduce a pilsner, stout and double IPA to its range by the end of the year.

Launched in July 2015 by Ian and Emily Jebbitt and Joseph Gould, the company’s founders say they wanted to produce English-style session beers with a tropical twist. “We want to be approachable as craft beer can be a bit snobby – some is even drunk from wine glasses. Ours are not too strong and are good everyday beers,” says Jebbitt, who has just given up his job as a trademark lawyer to concentrate on growing the business across Asia.

Its IPA is the team’s “dream beer” according to Jebbitt – they spent six months tasting hops from around the world to get the flavour profile, before opting for South Pacific and US hops and European malt. Meanwhile, its wheat beer, Wit, launched as a summer beer last year offering notes of mango and kaffir lime, has proven so popular that it’s being produced year-round. Then there’s its citrusy pale ale, which recently won a bronze medal in London at the International Beer awards. “We want to enter foreign awards and do collaborations [with other breweries] so people get to know us and we can generate interest in the brand,” says Jebbitt.

Gweilo is hoping to replicate its success overseas, and there has been plenty of interest from mainland China, Singapore, Taiwan, Australia, Thailand, the Philippines and the UK. “In ten years’ time, I’d love to be the most widely distributed craft beer in Asia and put Hong Kong on the map for being a beer producing country,” Jebbitt says. The Gweilo team is also focused on opening its own bar, he adds.

Local haunts

Established in 2014, The Ale Project (TAP) Mongkok offers a revolving range of local and international beers on tap from its location on a quiet backstreet of this busy shopping district. Its clientele is about 60-70 per cent local, with the rest a mix of expats and international visitors. It has just opened a second location, Second Draft in Tin Hau, where its three featured beers are served at different temperatures to enhance their flavours – a first for Hong Kong. “If beer gets too cold the flavour gets locked in, like wine,” says general manager James Ling. “Beer commercials are misleading as they show beers being served ice cold, or even with icy pieces on top. We want to educate people that it depends on the beer, that the flavour can [often] be enhanced if served warmer.”

Ling worked at the Globe pub in Central and interned for local brewer Young Master Ales, who helped set up TAP Mongkok. “At that time, there weren’t any craft beer bars on the Kowloon side, but we just thought we’d try it out. And now on this street, two other craft beer bars opened this March, and restaurants are starting to stock more craft beers,” he says.

Ling has been pleasantly surprised by the response so far. “Everyone is interested in trying it out, sampling different styles of beer. Half of our list is local… we have stocked beers from Young Master Ales, Hong Kong Beer Co, Moonzen and Lion Rock, among others. Local beer is very fresh,” he says, adding that popular pours include pale ales, IPAs and sour beers.

With the addition of the Kowloon Tap Room in Tsim Sha Tsui, which serves a solid selection of local beers including Moonzen and Mak’s, there’s now more of a craft beer presence in Kowloon. While most bar owners wouldn’t be happy to find out that there were new bars moving in on their territory, Ling seems unfazed. “I’m quite happy with that – we’ll become a beer street where people can go craft beer bar hopping. We have 16 taps, and it’s never enough.”

Overseas exports

One foreign craft beer brand that has sensed the potential of the Hong Kong market is Australia’s Little Creatures, which opened a large pub in Kennedy Town in western Hong Kong Island last summer. Its beers are also available on tap at the Grand Hyatt and the Phoenix bar in Mid-Levels. Head brewer Tom Champion says the decision to open its first overseas outlet in Hong Kong was based on the speed with which the craft beer scene is growing here.

Brewing once a week, its best seller is its signature pale ale, a refreshing hop-driven brew that works well in the Hong Kong climate. With roasted toffee, caramel and light citrus notes, its Rogers beer – which it is transporting from Australia to Hong Kong in refrigerated kegs – takes time to get traction, being an amber ale. “It’s significantly darker than the rest of our beers, and in the beer game, people drink with their eyes. But at 3.8 per cent, it’s a very sessionable beer with some hop character,” Champion says.

The brand just did a collaboration with Gweilo, creating a farmhouse beer made with kumquats to celebrate the Year of the Rooster. Champion says it got through a tank of ale that would usually last two weeks at an event that offered two hours of free flow to 200 guests who had signed up on Facebook. “We talk a lot at Little Creatures about collaborating with the craft beer community, because if we get together, all businesses benefit. We definitely want to do more collaborations, as that’s really in line with our philosophy to grow the craft beer market for everyone. We like to consider ourselves as cooperative rather than competitive.”

To pay testament to that, behind the bar at Little Creatures is the produce of another collaboration, The Boosh, which the brew house made with four other local brewers – Black Kite, Yardley Brothers, Kowloon Bay and Can Brew for the Hong Kong Craft Beer Association’s annual meeting this January.

And that, it seems, is what the craft beer scene is all about in Hong Kong: the art of collaboration, a coming together of brewers to produce even better ales. Which can only be a good thing if you’re seeking out great beer in the city.

beertopiahk.com; cathaypacific.com; gweilobeer.com; littlecreatures.hk; thealeproject.com

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