Three golden rules for drinking the amber nectar
THE first Mexican who stuffed a wedge of lime into his beer bottle has a lot to answer for. Rumour has it that he wanted to stop flies from diving into the beer, but now the slice of citrus is an essential accessory for drinkers of Hong Kong's trendy brews.
Corona and Sol have spearheaded the Mexican invasion. Some red-nosed critics have branded them as light, too pale and truly horrible.
But the biggest complaint might be that it's hard to suck your suds with a fruity plug in the bottle top.
For those who are keen to give it a go, there are certain points the drinker must remember.
Rule number one - never remove the lime from the bottle neck. To do so is uncool.
Rule number two - don't push the lime into the beer as it distorts the original taste, although some people say that this makes it better.
Rule number three - make sure you are seen drinking the stuff. After all, that is the whole point of the exercise. People don't buy it just for the taste.
Priced at $30 to $40 per bottle, depending on where you drink, Mexican beer is dearer than most local and imported beer and is, therefore, unofficially called the yuppies' beer. Imports have increased tenfold in the past five years.
So, for posers, out go the neighbourhood brew which keeps everyone merry on San Miguel Street, ''probably the world's best'' Danish Carlsberg, Heineken from Holland, and Grolsch with the flip-top cap.
But look down the sales lists at local pubs and bars and the most popular labels remain the well-established names.
At the Bull and Bear pub in Central, Mexican beer is fashionable but its customers (mainly Brits) prefer Guinness, Boddington's Bitter, San Miguel and Carlsberg.
''Mexican beer is for young drinkers, both men and women can drink from the bottle. But the older generation prefer to drink out of a glass, especially the ladies,'' said a staff member there.
At the English pub, Sol is among 20 brands served in cans, bottles and on draught. A Mexican brand costs $31, just like the other labels.
With imports from 19 countries and more than 30 different brands available on and off licensed premises, the territory offers a wide variety of beer to satisfy the biggest drinkers in town.
No official consumption figures exist, but beer giants such as San Miguel and Carlsberg commission independent survey bodies to conduct their market research.
According to several beverage industry sources, despite a slight drop in its market share in recent years, San Miguel is still the leading brand and accounts for about half of the market share. Next is Carlsberg which absorbs about a fifth of the market.
The Chinese brand Tsing Tao probably comes just slightly before Heineken in third place with 11 to 12 per cent of the market share, indicating that mainland labels can be as competitive as those from Europe.
The rest of the market is shared by Blue Girl, a Korean brew, Blue Ribbon which, like Budweiser, is an American brand, Guinness and Lowenbrau, each trying to outdo the other with aggressive advertising campaigns.
There is little doubt that the local market for imports is expanding. According to Government statistics, the value of imports has increased 80 per cent over the past three years from $247 million in 1990 to $443 million. This year it is already $380 million.
''There is certainly still room for growth in Hong Kong and the market is as competitive as ever,'' said one beer trade insider. For instance, there has been an influx of German beer such as Berliner Weisse, Erdinger, Warsteiner as well as a large volumeof American brews in recent years.
One member of the Beverage Manufacturers Association of Hong Kong, believes the fierce competition in the beer market is partly due to the fact that Hong Kong is a free port with no import duty on beer brewed abroad.
Bad news for the manufacturers, maybe, but good cheer for Hong Kong's drinkers.