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Roll out the barrel

With homebrew specialists and events in the city increasing Hongkongers' interest in beer, Martyn Cornell plots the tumultuous history of local breweries

 

Beer came to Hong Kong with the British, even before Hong Kong itself became officially a territory. In April 1842, months before the island's ceding was ratified by the Treaty of Nanjing, Alexander Matheson, of Jardine Matheson, reported in private letters that beer, porter and pickles were "pouring into this market", with the company's newly built godown in Hong Kong "full of the stuff".

In 1866, 11,977 barrels of beer, worth £38,346, were imported from Britain. British forces were particularly keen to ensure supplies for troops stationed in Hong Kong: a parliamentary select committee on "the mortality of troops in China" had been told that year that without beer being available, the troops would go into town and drink "a deadly liquor called 'samshoo' [a rice wine]", which cost four pence for a "reputed quart", a container the size of a wine bottle.

Only British beers - exported in casks and bottles - were available at first in Hong Kong, but the late 19th century seems to have witnessed a change in local tastes, with British ales and stouts being replaced by lagers from other lands. As early as May 1876, Lane Crawford was advertising "Danish beer from the Tuborgs Fabrikker". By 1901, Hongkongers were being offered Kirin from Japan - "a delicate lager" - in quarts and pints, and beer from three breweries on the American west coast.

Not until February 1904 did anybody propose opening a brewery locally. The Hong Kong Brewery Company announced it intended to erect a plant alongside the Metropole Hotel, on the then Shaukiwan Road (now King's Road) in North Point, by the new tramway. A watercourse delivering an "abundance of pure, good water, suitable for beer brewing purposes" ran through the site and the company had been "in communication with an experienced master brewer in Germany, with who we have arranged satisfactory terms", according to the Hongkong Telegraph newspaper. Nothing more is heard of this brewery, however, and the company was wound up in August 1906, apparently without ever producing a drop of beer.

Around this time, Imperial Brewing was founded by Portuguese businessmen A.A.H. Botelho and F.D. Barretto. It began operations in a converted house in Wong Nai Chung Road, Happy Valley, in late 1907, and a report the following year said its annual capacity was a substantial 76,400 barrels, while "large quantities of their products are being exported to the various ports in China". However, its beers failed to impress the local consul of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who wrote to Vienna in 1907 about Imperial Brewing's products: "Both flavour and clarity have much to be desired."

Imperial Brewing seems to have closed after only a year or two, pushed under, perhaps, by a combination of its own poor beers and the arrival of another concern, Oriental Brewery. Land for Oriental's plant was acquired in Lai Chi Kok in the spring of 1907, when it was announced that the consortium behind it intended to spend "over a quarter of a million dollars on an up-to-date brewery".

Oriental Brewery opened for business in 1908, with a capacity of 100,000 barrels a year, using brewing equipment imported from the United States. The promoters were Americans but it was led by an Englishman, Alfred Hocking, a Cornwall native who had emigrated to the US as a young man. Hocking had lived in Hawaii, where he started the Honolulu Brewing and Malting Company in around 1898, before moving to Hong Kong.

By early 1911, Oriental Brewery's beer was on sale in Singapore - its advertising slogan was: "The beer that's brewed to suit the climate". In October 1912, however, the company fell into liquidation and, seven months later, it was announced that the brewery had been sold to a syndicate from Manila, which dismantled the plant's equipment and shipped it to the Philippines.

The dismantling of the Oriental factory put an end to brewing in Hong Kong for the next two decades. Then, in 1930, Jehangir Ruttonjee, a 50-year-old member of a Parsee family from Bombay (as Mumbai was then known) whose father ran a wine and spirits business in the city, founded Hong Kong Brewers and Distillers, with himself as managing director and largest shareholder.

By November of that year, work had started on a site for a brewery at Sham Tseng, by the seafront on Castle Peak Road. The equipment was being supplied by the Skoda Works in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, home, as the new company pointed out, to the original Pilsen lager, and Skoda was also furnishing an expert brewer. The water supply came from the hills behind the site. The 60-foot-high, two-storey brewery, designed by Hong Kong architects Leigh and Orange, had an annual output of 7,500 barrels: 1.22 million litres.

Plans for a distillery never went ahead but the brewery held its official opening ceremony in August 1933, an event attended by more than 600 prominent citizens, who were driven out to the site in about 100 cars. Catering - "teas, cakes, ices, etc" - was organised by Lane Crawford in an open mat-shed erected for the occasion between the brewery (itself decorated with bunting and flags) and the sea, while music was provided by the band of the South Wales Borderers, a British Army infantry regiment.

Unfortunately, adverse macroeconomics came into play. Hong Kong and China were the last places in the world to still tie their currency to silver, and high silver prices hammered their exchange rates. The rising value of the trade dollar, Hong Kong's currency at the time, made exports expensive and imports much cheaper, so much so that British beer was being sold for the same price as the local brews, despite the cost of shipping it nearly 20,000 kilometres.

In early December 1935, it was announced that the brewery was going into voluntary liquidation, its collapse "in direct consequence of violent exchange fluctuations". However, "it is planned to carry out a reorganisation scheme and meanwhile the company's business will continue as usual". The following year, Ruttonjee incorporated a new firm under a similar name - the Hong Kong Brewery and Distillery - and bought the Sham Tseng brewery from the liquidators, again taking up the post of managing director.

The bottles the brewery used were embossed with its name, and on several occasions it had local soy sauce retailers summonsed for using its bottles to distribute sauce in. Ruttonjee told magistrates that the company put regular advertisements in the colony's English and Chinese papers warning people against refilling the brewery's bottles with their own products.

In August 1939, the company celebrated its sixth anniversary with a lengthy write-up in the Hongkong Telegraph. The report described the brewery's landscaped garden, with flowers laid out to depict the letters "HB"; its dormitories for Chinese staff, "built on the plan of semi-European flats", with messrooms and cooks; and its separate quarters for "female operatives" who worked in the bottling hall. The women workers "live like girl students in a school dormitory" under a matron who was also the forewoman during working hours. All female workers in the bottling hall were required to have "a complete tub bath" twice a day, before starting work and again in the evening.

Irish Jesuit fathers who had a study house not far from the brewery held on-site religious services every Sunday.

Many of the Chinese staff were recruited from Sham Tseng and other villages in the neighbourhood, and "the ideal living and working conditions at the brewery have provided an incentive for them to improve the general lot of their relatives at home. Knowledge of hygiene is thus disseminated into remote households", said the Telegraph.

The start of the second world war seems not to have damaged the brewery's ability to get raw materials, since it was still advertising its Blue Label "British Brewed" lager in the Hong Kong Sunday Herald on June 9, 1940, when the front page of the newspaper was detailing the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk. Japanese beer was still being advertised in Hong Kong newspapers, too.

After the Japanese capture of Hong Kong, in December 1941, Ruttonjee avoided being interned in Stanley Camp, although he supported the smuggling of food parcels into the prison, where Indians were held along with Britons, Canadians and others, and he housed nearly the entire Hong Kong Parsee community in his home, Dina House, on Duddell Street. Ruttonjee and his son, Dhun, were tortured by the Japanese after they refused to encourage members of the Parsee community to collaborate with the occupiers, and Jehangir would be awarded a CBE (Commander of the British Empire) in the 1947 New Year's Honours List "for courageous and loyal services during the enemy occupation of Hong Kong".

Meanwhile, his brewery was one of many businesses, including Lane Crawford's department store and the Hong Kong Ice Factory, in Causeway Bay, that were taken over by the Japanese. The brewery was apparently handed over to a businessman from Osaka called Inouye Yahei.

On September 12, 1945 - four days before the Japanese formally surrendered in Hong Kong - Ruttonjee, "accompanied by Royal Navy officers", visited the Sham Tseng brewery to see what state it was in. Ironically, the most damage had been caused by the United States Air Force some months earlier, when a bombing raid in the vicinity had scored hits on the site. The China Mail reported that "some barrels of recently brewed beer" were discovered by Ruttonjee and the officers, indicating that Yahei or his successors had been busy, "but these were found to have soured".

With Ruttonjee back in charge, the brewery recovered from the occupation. In September 1946, its HB brand beer appeared on the official government list of price-controlled goods: HK$1.10 a pint in the shops, HK$1.50 a pint in a pub or a bar. Carlsberg, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Schlitz and Tuborg, by comparison, all cost HK$1.70 a pint in a bar.

The following year, however, Ruttonjee sold the business to San Miguel Brewery of the Philippines, although the inauguration of the new business was not marked until May 21, 1948, with a reception at the Hongkong Hotel attended by hundreds of leading businessmen.

That same year, Ruttonjee, who was by then 68, donated HK$500,000 to fund the building of a tuberculosis sanatorium at the former Royal Navy hospital in Wan Chai in memory of his daughter, Tehmina, who had succumbed to the disease in 1943. It was said to be the largest donation to charity in Hong Kong's history. Ruttonjee's total donations eventually reached HK$1.3 million. The sanatorium is now called the Ruttonjee Hospital.

For 30 years, San Miguel operated without a rival in Hong Kong until, in March 1978, Danish company United Breweries announced it would be building a Carlsberg brewery in the territory. The new plant was built on an industrial estate in Tai Po, and opened on April 28, 1981. However, in March 1999, with Hong Kong in the middle of a recession, the Danes announced they would be closing the Tai Po brewery the following month, laying off 73 workers, "in an effort to improve profitability".

Five years before that, San Miguel had announced it was moving its brewing operations 11 kilometres north, to an industrial estate in Yuen Long. It made a tidy sum, selling the 11-acre Sham Tseng site for HK$3.5 billion in November 1994. Eventually, the Bellagio housing estate was developed on the seaside plot. Thanks to government subsidies, the company paid just HK$78 million for the Yuen Long site.

In June 2007, nearly 60 years after it arrived in Hong Kong, San Miguel announced the Yuen Long brewery would close, with production transferred to Shunde, Guangdong province. However, just 20 months later, in June 2009, the Yuen Long brewery restarted production. Sales were growing fast at the Shunde brewery, San Miguel explained, and in a few years it "may not have sufficient production capacity to satisfy the demand of the Hong Kong and overseas markets". In addition, the Hong Kong government had just cut excise duty on beer to zero, boosting the plant's competitiveness.

Even while the Yuen Long plant had been closed though, Hong Kong had not been without a brewery: in 1994, David Haines, a 29-year-old psychologist born in Colorado, in the US, began setting up the South China Brewing Company in a converted warehouse in Aberdeen. Its first beer, Crooked Island Ale, arrived in June 1995. In September 1996, South China Brewing's holding company, American Craft Brewing International, or Ambrew, listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange in the US, raising US$6.5 million. In January 1998, Ambrew sold its 100 per cent interest in South China Brewing to Golden Crown Management, a group of Hong Kong investors. In 2003, the brewery in Aberdeen was acquired by Hong Kong investment firm Harmony Assets and renamed the Hong Kong Beer Company.

Hong Kong's most recent brewery start-up came in 2009, when Pierre Cadoret, a Cathay Pacific airline pilot from Devon, England, started the Typhoon Brewery in a former shop in Mui Wo, on Lantau island. The tiny Typhoon brewery, a 3½-barrel set-up, made only cask-conditioned ales, served by handpump. The brewery had just one regular outlet, The Globe pub in Central, and late last year Cadoret put the brewery on hold, telling a local web newsletter: "It has been hard work trying to fit in the brewery stuff with my main job as a pilot, and this is why I need new investment and partners to help make the brewery more commercially viable, and to allow me to take on a more developmental role."

Brewing in Hong Kong has enjoyed a long, if patchy, history, then, but with the emergence of festivals such as Beertopia and homebrew specialists such as HK Brewcraft, the stage appears set for a new phase in Hong Kong beer history: the age of the microbrewery.

 

    Kenny Hodgart

The pursuit of hoppiness

If certain beer evangelists in Hong Kong are to be believed, the city's drinking habits may be on the cusp of a sea change.

The craft beer revolution that has gripped other parts of the world - the United States and Japan, in particular - has so far created only minor ripples here. Yet Hong Kong's beer culture has already come a long way in a short spell, according to Toby Cooper, director of The Globe pub, on Graham Street, Central.

"Not long ago we were pretty much alone in offering craft beers in Hong Kong, but the market is developing," he says. "There is more available, certainly. Even when we moved premises from Hollywood Road four years ago we struggled to fill the fridge with good beer; now there's so much out there. We now stock 150 beers from around the world and we're finding more of a local crowd coming in - particularly young Hongkongers. They will come in together and order some of the bigger bottles and share them; it's more of a tasting thing and a curiosity about different kinds of beer than just drinking in volume."

That curiosity, he says, has developed as a result of the growth in wine-drinking. The attraction of beer is that it's "more affordable and more sociable - there isn't the same snobbery about it". But while more imported beers - from hoppy Indian pale ales to wheat beers, Belgian Trappist ales and English bitters - have become available, small-scale brewing in the SAR remains conspicuously rare.

Again, that may be about to change, as budding micro-brewers size up a ready market.

"I predict we will see half a dozen or so brewers starting up in the next 12 months, and Hong Kong beers being drunk in restaurants, bars and hotels," Cooper says. "The first thing tourists want is to try the local beer, so I think we'll see a race to supply that now."

Early competitors in that race include the Young Master Brewery, which has premises in Ap Lei Chau, and the Typhoon brewery, owned by Pierre Cadoret, whose beers Cooper has sold at The Globe but whose operations have been on hold since last year.

Cadoret, a pilot, is looking for new premises and is primed for a fresh assault on local palates.

"I saw the potential four or five years ago to sell Hong Kong beer in Hong Kong," he says. "It was a blank canvas because there was nothing available, and I think maybe Typhoon helped to spark a wider interest in terms of the reaction against drinking generic rubbish. I'm confident there's demand for what we can produce here." His ideas for future brews include a beer that is "specifically aimed at girls".

Besides seeking out stockists and distributors, Cadoret and others could do worse than get involved in one of the most vibrant - and least sober - events to have sprung up here in the past couple of years. The Beertopia festival attracted some 1,700 attendees - with more than 90 beers on offer from around the world - when it was first staged in Western Market, last April. This year's festival, held at the West Kowloon waterfront, showcased 280 beers and drew more than 5,000 customers.

"I started Beertopia because there was nothing like it here," says Jonathan So Shing-bong, who is originally from Toronto, Canada, and lived in New York for many years before moving, in 2009, to Hong Kong. "People like events and things to do here, so I knew the festival would appeal in that sense, but when people saw what was out there in the world of beer, I think they were surprised. A lot of people didn't have much of an idea of beers beyond a handful of mass-market ones; so it's partly about trying to educate people. The festival has grown even in the space of two years and next year we're going to make it over three days, with more space, more food, more entertainment."

He adds: "In Hong Kong now you're finding a lot more importers who are taking advantage of not having to pay customs tariffs. There are 400-odd beers now available in Hong Kong and a grow-ing number of bottle shops are selling a variety of beers. Restaurants such as Blue Butcher [on Hollywood Road] and Sal Curioso [on Wyndham Street] are also making a point of stocking craft beers, which makes sense - if you're giving so much attention to the taste of the food, why not the beer?"

And so The Globe - which is hosting the launch of the Hong Kong Craft Beer Association on September 7 - no longer finds itself alone in charging the glasses of Hongkongers with taste bud-exalting, grain-derived distillations. The soon-to-relocate Innside Out, in Causeway Bay, boasts a longer list of bottled beers than you're likely to have the inclination to read, while Stone's, in Tai Hang, specialises in a roster of bottled and draft American craft beers supplied by Hop Leaf, an independent importer and distributor that also sells directly to customers online. Those thirsting for something a little different in Sai Kung now have The Bottle Shop to thank for offering the "greatest array of craft beers collected internationally".

Meanwhile HK Brewcraft, which opened in Tin Hau in May, not only stocks a selection of craft beers but sells homebrewing equipment and, through workshops, instructs budding caskers in its use.

Watch out, the beer revolution may not be televised but it's coming to a living room near you.

 

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