Craft beers have much to prove at Beertopia festival

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 April, 2013, 10:04am

"If you've only tasted mass market beer, I'm afraid you haven't actually tasted beer at all," says Garrett Oliver.

That's unlikely to be the view a number of large corporations in the United States and Europe want to hear, but it is one gaining currency internationally.

Oliver is the brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery company, and an expert on what he calls the "real beers" of the world. He is also the author of The Brewmaster's Table, a guide to pairing beer with food, and co-author with Tom Colicchio of The Oxford Companion to Beer.

He recently visited Hong Kong to talk about the Brooklyn Brewery and the joys of craft beer, drawing a good crowd.

Interest in the subject is growing in the city at a healthy rate - at least if the response to Beertopia, Hong Kong's first craft beer festival, held last year in Central, is anything to go by. About 1,700 people turned up to sample more than 90 craft beers.

Beertopia is back tomorrow, this time with more space on the West Kowloon waterfront, and with more than 200 different beers. Festival founder Jonathan So is hoping guests will be able to enjoy the brews and food al fresco, but if the weather doesn't co-operate, shelter will be available in a 10,000 square metre marquee.

"We've got beers from Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Norway, Denmark, a bunch of places in Britain, and a lot of American beers, of course. Japan, Korea, Singapore - all over the place," he says.

So what exactly distinguishes craft beers such as Oliver's - Brooklyn Lager and Brooklyn East India Pale Ale will be among those presented at the show - from what he calls "mass market American yellow fizz"?

There is a technical definition by the US Brewers Association which states that a craft brewery must be "small, independent and traditional", and goes on to define those terms. But it essentially means any beer brewed to high quality standards by an individualistic producer.

The craft beer movement in the US started as a rebellion against the big industrial brewers, whose products are derided as lacking in character. But larger brewers in Britain and continental Europe - which in some cases have been brewing to "craft beer" standards for centuries - tend to be favourites with the same people who enjoy US craft beers such as those made by the Brooklyn and Anchor Steam breweries.

"A lot of the larger breweries are not designing beer so that it is the best tasting," says So. "Their goal is to sell as much beer as possible by making it as widely appealing as possible, and that's different from a lot of craft brewers who experiment with recipes, use very high quality ingredients, taste every single batch and are obsessive about what comes out - what works and what doesn't.

"For them taste is paramount, and it's a matter of honour that they are not just adding syrups and flavourings to make a flavoured beer."

Hong Kong is not exactly at the forefront of craft beer appreciation in Asia. But according to So, there are more than 200 microbreweries in Japan, while Singapore has a beer festival that attracts about 32,000 people annually. Beer connoisseurs have an expanding range of options here.

There are established craft-beer-focused pubs such as The Globe, The Roundhouse and the Hong Kong Brew House, and So says better lists are cropping up in restaurants, particularly in SoHo and Wan Chai.

So and Oliver agree that an important element of craft beer appreciation is pairing it with food. "Real beer can do amazing things with food, and it goes places wine cannot go," says Oliver.

"Real beer can do everything. Mexican, Thai, Japanese, Indian, Cajun and Middle Eastern food and barbecue are far better with real beer than with wine," he says. "Even with traditionally wine-friendly food, beer often shows superior versatility and flavour compatibility.

"Beer has bitterness to slice through fat, carbonation to refresh the palate, caramelised flavours to match those in your food and sweetness to quench the fire of chillies."

Committed oenophiles might raise an eyebrow at that, but Beertopia will provide an opportunity to put Oliver's opinion to the test, as the festival will offer a range of Mexican, Thai, German, British and American food.

For more details, go to