CRAFT BEER, OR BEER made by smaller, independent breweries, has been on the rise in Hong Kong recently, thanks to a boom in importers. But how does craft beer differ from the tipples you’ve been knocking back all these years?
What is craft beer?
“The best definition I’ve heard is that there are more people brewing beer than there are in the marketing department,” says Toby Cooper, chairman of the newly formed Craft Beer Association and director of popular Central pub, The Globe.
While the term “craft beer” has a strict definition in the US (the Brewers Association deems craft beer to be beer made by independent brewers that produce less than six million barrels a year), to most beer enthusiasts, it appears to be about setting themselves apart from corporate brewers by focusing on quality and flavour.
Chris Wong, co-founder of HK Brewcraft, says that it’s about “low production, high quality”. He says craft brewers in the US are only allowed to add adjuncts, or carbohydrates other than barley, when it benefits the flavour of the beer.
But the craft brewers are not against corporate beer. Jeff Boda, founder and “chief beer evangelist” of importers Hop Leaf says: “At major breweries, the people who brew the beer are incredibly skilled. It takes as much skill to make a mass-market lager as to make a craft beer, it’s just that the focus is put on the bottom line, the margin.”
Wong says it’s a mentality, a mindset.
“Craft beers are made with incredible skill and focus, and are more experimental.”
A co-founder of Hop Leaf, Jon Braun, believes the difference is in the quality.
“Craft breweries spend more on raw materials.” Boda says whereas corporate beers are about mass appeal, craft brewers “follow the muse guiding them”.
While the craft beer movement seems relatively new, and has only been seen in Hong Kong for a couple of years, Cooper says that small-production European beers, which have been around for centuries, could also be considered craft beer.
Experimentation is a large part of American craft brewing. “American craft beers are based on traditional European styles, but they’re making them more extreme, putting more hops, more malt and so on, making a bigger beer with more personality and using different ingredients like bacon,” says Wong.
Hong Kong now has its own craft beer organisation. Launched last month, the Craft Beer Association of Hong Kong has around 100 members, including distributors, bars and the beer-loving public; it’s hoping that more local breweries will join in the future.
The goal is “to promote and protect the craft beer industry in Hong Kong”.
Cooper says the association will address issues such as parallel importing and consumer education. “We’ve been trying to highlight the good ethics that go into craft beer, the fact that they’re using the best ingredients with the best methods to produce the best beers that they can,” he says.
The association is confident craft beer will become more popular in Hong Kong.
“At The Globe, we’re getting a lot of young locals ordering bigger bottles, sharing and tasting [craft beers],” Cooper says. He believes that Hongkongers have become more interested in alcoholic drinks since the wine boom, and have been receptive to beer because it is cheaper.
The association wants craft beer to be more than just another hot new thing. “Craft beer is getting a bit trendy, which is why we want to set standards, and make something good, so that the customer can learn to find beers they like,” says Boda.
From homebrewing to craft brewing
An interest in homebrewing has risen along with craft beers. “Without homebrewing, the number of microbreweries producing craft beer would be a fraction of what it is,” says Clark Hopton, co-founder of The Beer Necessities, an online store for homebrew kits.
“Many brewmasters at famous breweries started off by experimenting with very basic homebrewing equipment in their garage.”
Wong agrees: “If you go to a craft brewery today and talk to the brewmaster, he probably started because his friends thought his homebrew was great.”
“For the vast majority of people, homebrewing is a hobby. Not every enthusiast will want to make the leap and deal with the headaches of craft brewing,” adds Rohit Dugar, who won a recent homebrewing competition. An exfinancier, he has started his own brewery in Ap Lei Chau, called Young Master Ales, and hopes to launch his first beer by the end of the year.
Dugar cites issues such as water quality and consistency as factors in creating a viable commercial product.
Seasoned drinkers pint the way
Toby Cooper, The Globe
De Molen Molenbier Made in the Netherlands. Like a strong English ale, with an almost sweet finish. Cooper calls this producer "a real brewer's brewer".
Founders All Day IPA Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This beer is citrusy with "big flavours, but not hugely strong".
North Coast Brewing's Brother Thelonious Made in northern California. Cooper says the brewers have "taken a Belgian beer and improved on it … It's a dessert beer that's more rounded and pairs well with chocolate".
Chris Wong, HK Brewcraft
Meantime Brewing Company's London Pale Ale "There was a time when Britain ran out of hops, so they imported from the US West Coast [hops called] Cascade, which give you floral, grapefruit notes. They also blended them with Kent Goldings hops (from Britain)." A chapter of beer history recreated by a young British brewery. A mild-tasting beer with the subtle flavour of hops.
Meantime Yakima Red A "very easy drinking" amber ale, using five different types of hops from the United States. "The red colour comes from Vienna malt," says Wong. Light, subtly sweet and citrusy.
De Molen Amarillo Another one from De Molen brewery. "It's my favourite IPA [Indian Pale Ale] recently. It's like an American-style IPA - bigger, hoppy but not bitter," he says. Floral with a finish reminiscent of black tea.
Rogue Voodoo Doughnut Bacon Maple Ale This brewery from the US state of Oregon, is a star on the craft beer scene. "It's like you're eating chicken and waffles, and drinking scotch at the same time."
Where to drink
45-53 Graham Street, Central, tel: 2543 1941
108 Hollywood Road, Central, tel: 2613 9286
China Tower, 1-9 Lin Fa Kung Street West, Tai Hang, tel: 2570 6858
Empire Centre, 68 Mody Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui East, tel: 2367 8770
Where to buy
Hop Leaf hopleaf.hk
Americraft Imports americraftimports.com
The Bottle Shop
114 Man Nin Street, Sai Kung, tel: 27911600, thebottleshop.hk
How to brew your own
Classes and equipment; hkbrewcraft.com
The Beer Necessities