Why does Hong Kong have great bars but terrible pubs?

A good pub needs well-kept beer that's not overpriced, loud music but only in one room (ditto TV screen), and a jukebox. It should be a place to go regularly to talk about sport, politics and religion

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 August, 2015, 11:54pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 August, 2015, 11:54pm

Hong Kong has some brilliant bars and terrible pubs - I can't explain why.

The distinction isn't based on journalistic pedantry but beer and spirits. (Wine bar culture here is relatively young and needs time to develop before journalists lay into it.)

A good pub, sorely lacking in Hong Kong, should sell well-maintained beer at a reasonable price and be an excellent place for banter. Despite those tediously unfunny signs, you should be able to talk about sports, politics and religion. This is a place where people can expect discussions to get heated.

There might be loud music in an upstairs room, not quite loud enough to drown out the earnest discussions downstairs about sport or children pooping on planes. Later in the night, when conversation has moved beyond sense, there should be a jukebox to fill the gaps in conversation.

Expect a darts board, a pool table and a TV with live sport, but only in one room in the establishment. A pub like this can be an anchor in your life, somewhere to come several nights a week; it's the sort of place you can find your significant other.

Some of our pubs just reek of despair. What we get is beer at ridiculous prices, sometimes pumped through pipes that haven't been cleaned in a while. Yes, there are places selling craft beer, but it is often outrageously overpriced.

You can bet there will be an enormous TV that dominates the place. You can watch sport but there's no way you can discuss it over the TV volume. Will there be room for a pool table? No way.

Our ideal bar, meanwhile, should have an interesting selection of spirits and a bartender who knows how to use them, or, failing that, pours them generously.

The conversation should be brittle and witty. It's a place where adults can be a little flirtatious, make eyes over the cocktail olives, even. This is a place to meet your lover.

Hong Kong does this well. Not all our bartenders are world-beating mixologists such as Antonio Lai of Ori.gin and Quinary, but the worst of them still pours a stiff drink.

Only four years ago a prominent wine merchant told me he found it difficult to even get a decent dry martini here. I think he was drinking at the wrong places, but even in the short time since then cocktail culture has taken off with a vengeance. It's not just a question of bartenders knowing the recipes; many are coming up with their own. We're even seeing the start of a trend towards customising drinks for each customer.

Apparently, New Yorkers find Hong Kong measures a little miserly, but at least you don't have to tip every drink to get good service here and, if we're making international comparisons, you need a magnifying glass to see a measure of spirits from a British bar.

The quality gap between pubs and bars is surprising and I remain mystified by it. Perhaps a reader with a background in economics can enlighten us. The mystery is that while there is no import duty on beer, some of which is obviously made here anyway, the tax on spirits is 100 per cent of the value. There's no apparent incentive to selling bad beer or being overgenerous with the spirits but it's how so many establishments work.