Home brewing enthusiasts open a shop to advance the hobby

Making beer at home is starting to take off in the city

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 November, 2014, 5:47pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 November, 2014, 6:54pm

Hong Kong accountant Chris Wong See-wai caught his first whiff of home-made beer seven years ago as he was leaving a restaurant in San Francisco.

His nose soon led him to San Francisco Brewcraft, a store catering to Bay Area home brewers. Although primarily a wine lover, he was intrigued and immediately picked up a brewing kit.

Wong's maiden venture into home brewing yielded a couple of surprises. For example, the equipment needed was remarkably simple - at its most basic, the kit consisted of two plastic buckets; the most expensive comprised a plastic bucket and glass jar.

His other revelation came after tasting his first batch of beer: "I was really nervous before trying; but it tasted a lot better than a lot of the beers I could find on the shelf. I had hit the jackpot."

But when he returned to Hong Kong to take up a job at a public accounting firm, Wong figured he would have to leave his new passion for brewing behind. The basic ingredients of malt, hops, barley and brewers' yeast were hard to come by in Hong Kong, and the city's small apartments left little room for the task.

But as he met other beer lovers and hobbyists who were keen to take up brewing, Wong sensed an untapped market. In April last year, he and seven like-minded friends joined together to open HK Brewcraft in Tin Hau to distribute home-brewing equipment and ingredients, as well as a selection of international craft beers.

Since then HK Brewcraft, which also offers workshops on brewing and beer appreciation, has been fomenting an explosion in home brewing in the city. Business has grown "tenfold" in the year since the shop opened, and they have now moved to bigger premises in Central.

"Every week we push about 20 students through the home-brewing course, 80 to 100 students a month," Wong says.

At the latest count, he estimates HK Brewcraft has taught about 1,200 people. That's not a pace they can't keep up long term, so "the idea is to phase out the workshops when we can", he says. "But for now, we just want to get the whole city excited."

Many learners are surprised at just how easy it is to make their own beer. Other types of alcohol production can be prohibitively difficult and expensive.

The idea of making good wine at home is laughable, for example, but there's little gradient to the learning curve in beer making.

HK Brewcraft sets out the process in six easy steps on its website: preparing the equipment, "mashing" or steeping grains in hot water to create a sugary soup called the "wort", soaking and rinsing the grains in a process called "the sparge", boiling the wort with hops and spices, mixing the chilled wort with yeast, allowing it to ferment, and then bottling. That's all there is to it.

All you need is a bit of patience and the same skills required to make porridge.

Still, home brewers in Hong Kong face some challenges. The biggest is space; there are few homes big enough to accommodate larger brewing set-ups. That's why the one gallon (3.8 litres) brewing kit is most popular here: it is small enough to fit almost any flat.

The weather presents another challenge. Hong Kong's sweltering summers affect the fermentation process and although certain brewing styles such as Belgian Saisons love the heat, most aficionados agree the best time for brewing in Hong Kong is during winter.

Then there's the softness of Hong Kong's water, which makes it hard to brew the very hoppy beers favoured by Americans.

Wong reckons there are now about 200 active home brewers, and there has been talk of another brewers' supply store opening to cater to growing interest among novices. But for now, HK Brewcraft is the city's sole specialist supplier.

Its patrons tend to fall into two groups: expatriates or Hongkongers who got into brewing abroad, and just need a place to buy ingredients and equipment; and novices who look to the shop for guidance and as a way to interact with the wider home brewing community.

Adam Goldberg is among the first group: the anti-corruption lawyer from Los Angeles already had four years' brewing experience under his belt when he relocated to Hong Kong.

Goldberg owes his first exposure to brewing to his wife, a fellow beer lover who bought him a starter kit for his birthday.

Like many other home brewers, he was pleasantly surprised by the results: "In the years that I've been brewing I've never made a beer that is undrinkable. I've made some that are fine, and lots that I love."

Before HK Brewcraft came along, he found sourcing ingredients to be a constant struggle. Luckily, his wife was in the beer importing business, and used her connections to ship over ingredients from the US by the sackful, and he even cultured his own yeast at home.

But as bubbly as the local brewing scene has grown, it doesn't compare with the US, where there are big home-brewing communities.

"There are many more people doing it here and more resources but it's still pretty small. By the time I started doing it in LA, brew shops were already full with people who had been doing it for 50 years. It was a huge thing. Here it is still small."

Like most hobbyists, Goldberg is constantly struggling to make room at home for his fermenting tubs. "I brew in 30-litre batches, probably six to 10 times a year, so I have a pretty big set-up."

Space became such a problem, his wife made them move to a place that allowed dedicated space for his brewing. But the move was worthwhile, he says, as home brewing gives him the flexibility to drink beer that he loves wherever he is.

In the US, Goldberg focused on brewing British-style ales, even bringing in special yeast from British breweries. As Hong Kong favours British styles, he makes hoppier American-style beers here.

Wilson Liu Chung-him's story is typical of many Hongkongers who have taken up brewing. An IT specialist, Liu never considered himself a beer lover. "My previous impression of beer was similar to many Hong Kong people's - that beer is a low-end beverage for casual drinking," he says.

But a clip about craft beer that he caught on an in-flight entertainment programme opened his horizons. "That was the first time I realised there was something called craft beer. Later, I joined a home-brew workshop and sampled a commercial beer together with a craft beer. The different complexity really impressed me."

It wasn't just his palate that was impressed, his wallet sensed the difference too. "Most important, the price of craft beer is just one-fifth of that of wine. After this, I become passionate about craft beers."

Liu has made two batches of beer so far; both have been very drinkable, and he says he enjoys the process just as some people love cooking because of the discipline it requires.

The comparison to cooking is apt, as brewing beer seems to appeal inordinately to cooks and foodies. Nick Tall is one such home brewer. When not experimenting with beers, Tall is working 14-hour days as the sous chef at Amber in The Landmark Mandarin Oriental.

Tall says he has always had a special relationship with beer. "Ever since I started drinking beer I think I have enjoyed it a bit differently than most people. Usually, people just want something refreshing and smooth that will get them buzzed," he says.

"I enjoy full-flavoured and dark beer for its complex flavours and aromas reminiscent of coffee, chocolate, citrus, even tropical fruit."

There are very few things in the world that can excite all of our senses the way beer and food do
Nick Tall, chef

A native of Florida, he had never tried brewing in the US, but decided to give it a go after being posted to Macau. Unfortunately, he found it impossible to find ingredients. So when he read about HK Brewcraft, after coming to Hong Kong, he checked out its supplies straight away.

Unlike many first-timers, Tall's early brewing experiences were a bit tough. Probably "because from the first day I wanted to only brew my own original recipes", he concedes. "It took a couple of tries and months before I produced something that was any good."

Since then, Tall has created recipes for seven different beers which he continues to refine.

"I love brewing for many of the same reasons I love cooking. Being able to have an idea, go forth and bring it to fruition. There are very few things in the world that can excite all of our senses the way beer and food do," he says.

"Ultimately, it's creating something that you are really passionate about, for the purpose of making someone happy that can appreciate your hard work and craftsmanship."