From beer to eternity

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 August, 2011, 12:00am


Some long-time beer drinkers in the city feel that mainstream beverages such as Carlsberg, Heineken and San Miguel remain predominant outside of a few select outlets, and that's something they would certainly like to see changed.

Despite the buzz, Hongkongers drink only four litres each a year of wine and 21.9 litres of beer.

More ales, microbrews and a greater selection from the United States all rank high on the list of desirables that are hard to find at most venues.

'Although there's more variety than 20 years ago, Carlsberg and San Miguel still have a lock on the market,' says long-time Hong Kong beer drinker Peter Guy.

However, as Hong Kong's beer drinkers become more adventurous, bars are responding by offering a wider variety of brews. Importers are in on the game, too.

'There's an improvement compared to 25 years ago,' says Peter Riha, the CEO of Solar Max in Ap Lei Chau. Based in the city since 1985, the Austrian importer services more than 450 venues, offering beer from all over the world, including exotic locales such as Turkey, Nepal and Egypt. 'There are also bars that are willing to try something different,' he says. That's enabling him to bring in new products, such as The Kingdom Beer from Cambodia and two Nepalese beers.

Other premium brews available at venues across the territory include the Japanese Hitachino Nest Espresso Stout, Belgian beers De Koninck and Vedett Extra Blond and the Scottish whisky-flavoured beer BrewDog Paradox. And those who ask nicely at Tsim Sha Tsui's Tequila Jack's can find themselves drinking a special off-menu beer cocktail.

'I find that people do want to see new stuff,' says Annie Lim, owner of the Beer Bay in Central, located at Outlying Island Ferry Pier 3. 'People are looking for the unique taste of ale and want to see new flavours.'

The Beer Bay is just one example of a venue that was started from scratch specifically to cater to this growing market, which has an ingrained appeal with expat drinkers and has become of increasing interest to locals. Lim opened a shop in Discovery Bay seven years ago, with the help of her ex-husband who had an interest in importing British ales. When she sold out 200 cases in just three days, she knew she was onto something. A rent increase forced her out, but she moved to the present location and now offers more than 100 types of beer. 'Ales are popular because 80 per cent of our customers come from England,' she says. 'They know what they want and [they] demand quality.'

According to the British beer drinkers' group Campaign for Real Ale (Camra), there are now more than 800 microbreweries in Britain and they are opening at a rate of over 50 a year, proof if needed of Britons' dedication to quality beer.

Hong Kong's dedicated beer drinkers will know The Globe in Central as a venue for trying new, and less mainstream, beers. While many of the more than 100 beers on offer are from the world's well-known brewing countries, they are not always well-known brands from celebrated breweries. Customers have a choice between drinking the Hong Kong brewed Typhoon T8 or the unpasteurised summer ale Eastern Lightning on tap, or such beers as Spain's El Bulli creation Estrella Damm Inedit, Scotland's BrewDog 5AM Saint or Japan's Hitachino Nest Nipponia.

'People are becoming a lot more adventurous and many locals are trying them, too,' says owner Toby Cooper. To that end, he is bringing in three or four new items a month.

Drinking obscure beers is no longer just for nerds. Beer drinkers at the Causeway Bay venue Inn Side Out have more than 90 beers to choose from, including Brooklyn Lager, Black Sheep Ale, Wells Banana Bread Beer and Young's Double Chocolate Stout.

'Being into obscure beers in Britain can sometimes appear uncool and suggests that you're old and provincial; whereas here, for a young Cantonese person to know about microbrews suggests they're knowledgeable and cosmopolitan,' says John Robertson, founder of Grappa's. The company runs 18 restaurants and bars in Hong Kong.

Recognising this, the group tries to offer something different at each venue. At the Hop House Pub and Grub in Wan Chai, they have De Koninck and Vedett Extra Blond on tap. Tequila Jack's has six Mexican beers, in addition to the reputed hangover remedy Michelada, a cocktail, available by request, made with beer, tomato juice, lime juice and assorted sauces and spices.

Organic Honey Dew is on tap at the Hong Kong Brew House in Lan Kwai Fong. 'It's brewed with organic honey, which gives it a mild sweetness and makes it appealing to men and women and many who wouldn't normally be into beer,' says Robertson. 'It also makes a nice summer drink and can be enjoyed with ice and a wedge of lime.'

Those in the industry differ on why there aren't even more beers available. Licences were needed in the past, but today's open market means anyone can import from anywhere. But there are reasons why British beers seem easier to import than US beers. 'On our end we try to talk to the wholesaler in the UK or the brewery directly,' says Lim. 'You also have to keep in mind how much you are going to import because freightage can be very expensive. It's on a container basis.'

Drinkers are not only being offered new beers but presentations that are more fun. At the Cheung Po Tsai Restaurant and Bar in Cheung Chau, for instance, patrons can now drink 'Jelly Beer' and 300 bottles are being sold a day. There, any type of beer is put into a specially imported refrigerator from Thailand. Once shaken and poured into a glass, small bits of ice form.

It's purportedly the only one of its kind in the city. 'The most important thing is temperature,' says owner Michael So. The fridge dramatically lowers the temperature of the beer, he says, but, 'If it's too low, the beer will turn to an ice-like jelly.' The name, bia wun in Thai, comes about because, to Thais, the texture is like jelly, although it doesn't actually set like jelly.

Tastings and special tours are another way to try new beers. At The Globe, Cooper has recently tried out several 'tutored tastings' and aims to do more with a select group of beer drinkers. Tours and parties at the Hong Kong Brewery in Aberdeen can be booked at any Grappa's venue.

Lim hopes customers enjoy her newest imports - four bottle-conditioned beers from St Austell Brewery in Cornwall. These are live yeast beers, which, like champagne, go through a second fermentation in the bottle.

One of the new Grappa's initiatives is 'Beer Pressure HK', in which three selected microbrews are tasted, tested and judged by both the man on the street and local bands. The subsequent video is then posted on Facebook and YouTube.

'It's simply to sell more beer,' says Robertson. 'We can't compete with the commercial beers in terms of numbers; our aim is to reach out to consumers who are interested in quality beer, and knowing where it is from and the craftsmanship and story behind it.'

Will this satisfy the veteran beer drinker? 'You could use more fresh beer like Kirin or Sapporo as well as beers like Hobgoblin,' Guy says.