There’s a quiet revolution brewing in Hong Kong’s watering holes. Five years ago, patrons got tipsy exclusively on mainstream suds like Tsingtao and San Miguel, but now they’re increasingly likely to drink something more distinctive, such as Young Master, Gweilo, and Black Kite — all major players in Hong Kong’s nascent but promising craft beer scene.
Admittedly, Hong Kong is late to the game. A hefty 40-percent import tax on foreign wine and beer limited locals’ exposure to craft beer until the levy was lifted in 2008. And even now, astronomical rents continue to thwart the ambitions of would-be brewers, as do the logistical issues of working around Hong Kong’s prodigious summertime heat, which can soar to above 100°F and damage improperly stored beer. And yet, demand for indie brews is growing exponentially, and the market is following.
“There are 12 craft breweries here at the moment, and another three in the works, but there were really none a decade ago,” Toby Cooper recently told me. Cooper is the U.K.-born proprietor of the craft beer–focused pub The Globe and erstwhile president of the Craft Beer Association of Hong Kong. That organization has also grown at an impressive clip: CBAHK’s annual beer festival, Beertopia, drew only 200 enthusiasts at its inaugural gathering in 2012, but last year’s attracted more than 13,000.
Cooper believes that expats such as himself, who hail from craft beer–imbibing cultures, are a big force behind the change. But brewers’ smart use of local flavors like jasmine, chrysanthemum, osmanthus, Mandarin orange peel, and other Asian ingredients is also drawing native Hong Kongers.
“Locals appreciate local flavors,” explained Joey Chung, brand and event manager for the pint-sized craft beer emporium The Bottle Shop, which opened in 2013, and its on-tap counterpart, The Little Beer Room. “At the beginning, the clientele was like 70 percent foreigners, and 30 percent local people,” Chung told me. “Now it’s half and half.”
As more and more Hong Kongers fall for craft beers’ unique flavors, they’re also helping the market grow. “They’re voting with their feet and their wallets,” said Joseph Gould, co-owner of Gweilo Beer, which launched in 2014. “A lot of the bars and restaurants are saying, ‘OK! We need to sell craft beer,’” Gould said. “That’s the switch that we’re trying to encourage.”
Here are six of the best craft beers in Hong Kong:
Photo by Rachel Tepper Paley
Founded in 2013 by New Delhi native Rohit Dugar, Young Master Ales is admired for its quirky menu of unique seasonal and limited edition offerings, which are often inspired by local flavors. Some favorites are Cha Cha Soba ale, a delicate pale ale made with unmalted Chinese buckwheat and matcha powder, and In the Mood for Spring, an earthy, floral saison infused with jasmine, osmanthus, and chrysanthemum. There’s also Cha Chan Teng Gose, a sour top-fermented beer brewed with Chinese salted limes, and Mo’ Mo’ Wit, a wheat beer spiced with white turmeric, coriander, chamomile, chrysanthemum, and white pepper.
Black Kite Brewery
Named for a species of dark-feathered birds that swoop daringly between Hong Kong’s towering skyscrapers, Black Kite Brewery is one of the city’s newest additions. Launched by brothers David and Daniel Gallie in April of 2015, it’s already becoming popular for easy-drinking brews like a cloudy, banana-scented hefeweizen and a chocolaty porter with hints of caramel and coffee. The Gallies also make slightly funkier seasonals like Prosperous Primate Kumquat Ale, a spiced strong beer created for this spring’s Chinese New Year celebrations.
Gweilo, which means “ghost man” in Cantonese, is the traditional slang for “Westerner” in Hong Kong. Indeed, the founders of Gweilo beer are a couple of gweilos: Expats Emily Jebbitt and Joseph Gould first met in 2013 and quickly bonded over Hong Kong’s lack of craft drinking options. Before long, Jebbitt and Gould teamed up to found Gweilo (along with a third, silent partner). The brewery is known for a duo of offerings: a pale ale and an IPA, both English session-style beers. “The hops that we’ve selected for both of our beers were chosen for their tropical fruit characteristics,” Gould said. “They create a strong scent of mango, pineapple, stone fruit, and some citrus. Those flavors really match our location well.”
Hong Kong Beer Co.
Established way back in 1995, Hong Kong Beer Co. was technically the city’s first craft brewery, but it only began making notable beer in 2013 with help from veteran American brewmaster Simon Pesch (formerly of Pyramid Brewery in California). Hong Kong Beer Co.’s line of year-round draft and bottled beers include Big Wave Bay, an IPA with notes of citrus and tropical fruit, and White Pearl, a Belgian-inspired ale spiked with Mandarin orange peel, rose buds, and honey.
Kowloon Bay Brewery
Hong Kong–born Ging Van and U.K.-native Michael Bardill sprinted onto the Hong Kong craft beer scene just last year, pumping about 3,000 liters of brew a month straight out of the gate. Named for the bustling Kowloon Bay area, the brewery boasts five core beers and nine seasonals, which range from a caramel-forward American amber ale to an English Extra Special Bitter with a pronounced malt flavor. Kowloon Bay Brewery also has the distinction of being the first in Asia to brew a gluten-free IPA, much to the excitement of Hong Kong’s gluten-intolerant.
Photo by Jon Paley
Launched in 2013 by Michele and Laszlo Raphael, Moonzen Brewery zoomed into the spotlight at the 2014 Hong Kong International Beer Awards when its Thundergod Pale Ale—a hop-forward brew with notes of tropical fruit and citrus—snagged awards for Best Pale Ale and for Best Hong Kong–Produced Beer. The accolades continued to pile up a year later at the 2015 Asia Beer Cup, where Moonzen took home a bronze medal for its Jade Emperor IPA, a malty number heady with floral aromas. Eco-minded patrons also appreciate Moonzen’s sustainable practices, which include making compost from spent grain and recycling used bottles.
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