'Suppmeisters' rally to offer beer's best

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 March, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 March, 2000, 12:00am

Beer connoisseurs are an eccentric breed who discuss the flavours, quality and alcoholic content of traditionally brewed ales with such earnest conviction that the uninitiated might easily suspect they have had a few too many and are making it all up.

Wine-lovers who talk about bouquets that resemble 'Marmite' or 'lavender and salmon' are absurd enough, but we have been conditioned to begrudgingly acknowledge their sense of taste (sorry, palate) must be infinitely more fine-tuned than our own.

But beer? Isn't it an alcoholic inducement to nonsense conversations in pubs with someone called Ron? Evidently not. For the discerning drinker, not any old pint will do.

The beers that most of us drink, namely lagers that are mass-produced in breweries bearing a close resemblance to oil refineries, are despised as bland, pale imitations of the real thing.

When a connoisseur refers to Camra he is not talking about taking photographs but the revered 'Campaign for Real Ale', a movement dedicated to saving the world from chemically enhanced brews and promoting the authentic stuff.

Camra was founded in Britain when traditional breweries were being driven into extinction by monolithic lager-makers intent on monopolising the industry and has proved remarkably successful in rescuing the 'real ale' tradition.

Micro-breweries are mounting a similar last line of defence in North America.

In Hong Kong, however, the tradition never really existed and awareness of 'real ale' is minimal. The market is dominated by lager.

To art consultant and gallery owner John Jarman and Dave Osborne, a graphic designer, this is both sacrilege and a business opportunity.

Their intriguingly named new venture, the Oriental Brewing & Bicycle Repair Company, intends to put the local beer world to rights.

'It all started because we had both been bemoaning the fact that we couldn't get good beer in Hong Kong. We just wanted a decent pint,' said Mr Jarman, who describes himself as 'suppmeister' on his business card.

The Oriental Brewing & Bicycle Repair Company was officially founded 18 months ago by Messrs Jarman and Osborne. Dedicated beer-lovers, they were not impressed with the choice of brews offered here.

The Asian market, according to Mr Jarman, is flooded with 'skimpy brews that masquerade as beers'.

He accepts the climate suits lighter beverages such as lager, but insists: 'The examples commercially available lack flavour because they are not brewed with the same rich and quality range of ingredients as authentic ale. They're bland and only have a 'bite' when served ice cold.' So bland, in fact, that he even holds them responsible for a waning enthusiasm for beer-drinking and the growing popularity of wine.

With the duo's stated ambition to make ale the beverage of choice throughout Asia, they first set about securing a licence to import alcohol and a warehouse in Ap Lei Chau. Both have been simple to organise.

'That's the beauty of Hong Kong,' Mr Jarman said.

For supply, they chose a flagship beer called Traquair House Ale, which is claimed to be brewed in the oldest inhabited house in Scotland according to a recipe dating back to 1738 that was tippled by Bonnie Prince Charlie.

'I tried it and decided it was so good I had to bring some in,' said Mr Jarman. Connoisseurs agree and rank it as a 'world classic'.

Not to be outdone with historic antecedents, another brew on the inventory is the legendary Fuller's London Pride, with a pedigree going back 325 years.

Distribution rights were also landed from The Hook Norton Brewery, W.H. Brakspear & Sons, St Peter's Brewery and George Gale & Co.

Marketing is double-edged. They are pushing Fuller's London Pride to bars, restaurants, shops and supermarkets or 'wherever beer is sold because it's more of a supping beer'.

Pricier brews such as Traquair are being targeted at top hotels and restaurants, from the Mandarin Oriental's Chinnery Bar to The Peninsula, Grand Hyatt and Harry Ramsden's fish and chip shop.

'Beer has long been perceived as a poor man's drink,' said Mr Jarman. 'But if you go to Felix, a bottle of Carlsberg or San Miguel doesn't really sit on the same social level as a glass of wine or a cocktail. But fine ale does.

'Beer's an older drink than wine, dating back 3,000 years to the ancient Egyptians, so there's no reason why it should not be treated with the same respect.' Direct sales to the public are promoted by beer tastings at the warehouse on weekend afternoons.

These tastings extend to pubs and are entertaining affairs, with patrons sipping samples then writing comments on each in 'tasting notes'.

Like wine-tastings, you only get a splash in every cup, but after experiencing one of these at The Duke of York pub in Sai Kung, I can promise they still do the job.

At the end, you know you have had a drink.

Mr Jarman believes the Hong Kong public is slowly learning to appreciate the taste of fine ale.

The business was launched with two thousand bottles of Traquair and encouragingly sold out quickly.

'We decided if we could do it with one, we could bring in others,' he said. Now 20,000 bottles a time are being imported by the container load.

In the future they are even considering opening specialist 'olde worlde shoppes . . . comfortable retail outlets with ales, books, historical prints and such like; friendly, intelligent places to discuss, sample and select ales.' They have not given up their 'day jobs' yet.

'But it may well come to that,' said Mr Jarman. 'We have a full-time salesman now and are looking to take someone else on.

'We have about 30 regular outlets, including a lot of pubs, and are definitely making progress.

'There's not a lot of profit in beer, so you need to generate big volumes which require a lot of investment, but who knows what the future might bring?' If all else fails, they can always fall back on bicycle repairing, presumably.