Tapping a liquid asset
TASTE it, urges David Haines. 'We only brewed it last night.' In the Aberdeen warehouse that the newly established South China Brewing Company calls home, Haines casts bloodshot eyes over the test tube of golden liquid that will, in 12 days' time when the process is complete, become Hong Kong's first couture beer.
Haines has been working 14-hour days to perfect his beer. The launch of his Crooked Island ale tomorrow is the first of two births he expects this year. The second happens around October 25 - with the arrival of the Haines' first child. 'New company, new kid,' he says. And all just as he turns 30. 'The timing,' he adds, 'is perfect.' Haines says Crooked Island ale is the beer equivalent of fresh baked bread.
'You'll smell the hops,' he promises as he walks around a brewery filled with 15 ceiling-high shining metal vats. And you'll taste the heightened flavour of the light and crisp drink he describes as a cross between a pale ale and a lager.
Boutique beer, Haines says, is a speciality product Hong Kong is more than ready for. As the local beer market becomes more sophisticated, he says, there is a taste and a willingness to pay extra for something special - evidenced by the way premium labels ring up increasing sales.
Crooked Island ale and other beers that will come on line as the company expands, will not be pasteurised.
There will be no preservatives, but Haines promises that quality will not be compromised because of exposure to Hong Kong's heat. 'Beer's worst enemies are heat and light,' he notes, but says these won't be hurdles because his brews will be delivered by refrigerated trucks.
Close tabs will be kept on distribution 'so that people are drinking the beer as fresh as possible'. His target shelf life is less than 45 days. Crooked Island will be distributed through larger pubs, restaurants and hotels. As the bright blue, yellow and red Crooked Island labels appear on bar counters, competitors will monitor his progress carefully.
Although Haines is Hong Kong's microbrewing pioneer, the idea of designer beers is not new to the local food and beverage scene.
Still, it took an unusual set of circumstances to translate mere talk into real froth.
The idea first came to him about 18 months ago, Haines says, as he was sitting in a pub, pint in hand. He grabbed a pen off the waitress and began sketching the outline on a beer mat. By the time his wife arrived, he was well on his way.
For the next four months, Haines, a psychologist, split his time between counselling clients at his private practice in Central and researching the beer market.
But it wasn't until his father-in-law sent him three golf clubs through an acquaintance in the United States that the project took off. That person turned out to be Peter Bordeaux, president of Sanzerac, one of the largest independent producers and marketers of distilled spirits in the United States.
Along with his clubs, he collected from Bordeaux all the financing he needed for the venture - more than US$1 million (HK$7.7 million).
'We were having dinner in a restaurant and we started talking about beer,' Haines explains. 'He called me at 5.30 the next morning and asked me to get a business plan together.' Groggy but game, the would-be brewer replied straight away: 'Of course.' Bordeaux put together the consortium of investors that included Mexican industrialist Fredrico Cabo, who owns a tequila distillery and an alcohol distribution company, and the American beverage investment firm BPW Ltd.
Over the next six months, Haines wound down the psychology practice he had built up over two years and started running the gauntlet of government licensing regulations, locating expert help on equipment and layout, and finding a site.
Then there was the matter of finding a name for the brew - something with local flavour and cachet. Haines took out his map of Hong Kong. Rejecting Lamma and Lantau, he moved north until he found an island right at the top of the New Territories near the China border. 'There is actually a Crooked Island. Really.' Although a novice at brewing, Haines grew up in Colorado, one of the microbrewing strongholds in the United States, where the industry grew by almost 50 per cent last year, producing more than 2.5 million barrels.
Similarly, he believes the Pacific Rim market, although minuscule in comparison, has enormous potential.
He plans to set up eight to 10 microbreweries in the region within five years. Hot spots at the moment are Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand and Australia. There could even be a chain of brew pubs further down the line.
For the moment, Haines has set the production target for a maximum of 5,200 barrels a year, although there is capacity for expansion.
Meanwhile, South China Brewing, which holds the first brewing licence Hong Kong has issued in about 20 years, has big merchandising plans.
In addition to a line of clothing, Haines is arranging visitor tours of the microbrewery two or three times a week. 'We're going the whole nine yards,' he says.
Yet there is still a sense of unreality about the venture - even Haines can't quite believe it's all happening. 'I came here doing one thing and I landed up doing another. I guess it's a typical Hong Kong story. I just never thought it would happen to me.'