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Food & Drinks

Hong Kong’s biggest craft brewery Gweilo Beer to start production at the end of this month

Founders of start-up that began operating from a spare bedroom in 2015 are about to open a state-of-the-art operation in Fo Tan that can turn out 6,000 cans per hour and allows them to vastly expand their range of beers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 February, 2018, 12:49pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 February, 2018, 2:16pm

The transformation of Hong Kong craft beer company Gweilo Beer, from humble beginnings operating in a spare bedroom to a purpose-built, 1,300-square-metre (14,000-square-foot), US$5 million brewery is almost in the can.

Brewing trials began on February 8 and tests are almost complete on a state-of-the-art, US$1.2 million Italian canning machine, capable of producing 6,000 cans per hour. The facility in Fo Tan, in Hong Kong’s New Territories, will be Hong Kong’s largest craft-beer brewery and one of  Asia’s most advanced. Full-scale production is slated to start at the end of this month.

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Moving to its own brewery is necessary because Gweilo – which Ian Jebbitt, 33, co-founded in 2015 with his wife, Emily, 34, and their friend Joe Gould, 35, who are all British – could not meet rising demand at the shared premises it was using.

Ian Jebbitt says: “There’s growing interest in craft beers – beer with no additives or preservatives, made in smaller batches with traceability, and created with a bit of love and passion.”

Since October, brewing equipment from Canada, a bottling machine from Germany capable of producing 3,000 bottles an hour, a centrifuge from Sweden, a  custom-made chiller from the US and the Italian canning machine, have been shipped and installed.

“The project has almost doubled in budget and we have had delays but come the end of February, we will be ready to showcase our new line-up – and we couldn’t be more excited” says Ian Jebbitt, an intellectual-property lawyer who first brewed beer at the age of seven at home with his father.

The new brewery has been built in conjuction with BCI Engineering, who American Scott Powrie, Jebbitt’s friend and fellow home brewer from Mui Wo on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island, works for. CLI Engineering is an industrial accelerator whose owners also have a passion for craft beer.

Powrie, 39, says: “We’ve had equipment coming from all four corners of the world and this is the first project of this size and scale in Hong Kong. “We were in unchartered territory, as a lot of the contractors had never done things on this scale before.”

The South China Morning Post had a sneak preview of the facility, where teams have worked around the clock  to build walls, install new electricity and gas supplies, and tip up 17 tanks,  including 12  that are more than six metres tall, which will hold the company’s expanded range of beers.

“There were a few scared faces when the chain block broke as we tipped up one 14,000-litre tank and she rocked backwards and forwards before finally settling in place,” Emily Jebbitt says.

She says the team has spared no expense to create the best possible beers and has shipped ingredients from the US, Britain, Vietnam, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand and Thailand in preparation for the new beer range.

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“Gweilo will have some of the most sophisticated equipment in Asia. We’ve gone all out with the equipment we’ve bought, the ingredients we will be using and the team we’ve hired,” Emily Jebbitt says.

“We all love Hong Kong and have made it our home; we want to help elevate the craft-beer scene in Hong Kong and really put the city on the world map,” as a great beer-producing area.

American Matt Walsh, formerly head brewer at Modern Times Beer, Lost Coast, Speakeasy and Karl Strauss in the US, has joined the company and been busy finalising recipes. Walsh, 43, says: “The great thing about working for a smaller brewery like Gweilo is I have much more freedom to be creative. They actively encourage me to go wild.”

A major focus in the future for Gweilo’s expanded team of 13 staff will be to lead the shift from bottles to cans. 

American assistant brewer Justin Jackson, 36, is a former physics teacher, owner of Back to School Brewing and chairman of the Home Brew Association. 

“Cans are the way forward. They protect the beer by completely blocking out damage caused by light … [and] keep dissolved oxygen levels – the main enemy of a brewer – extremely low, which leads to fresher beer for longer. They are also more environmentally friendly,” Jackson says.

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Ian Jebbitt says: “In hiring Justin, not only have we hired a great assistant brewer, but also someone that can help us connect with and support Hong Kong’s growing home brewing community.”

Gould says the Gweilo brand has been refreshed, too, with the  dictionary definition of gweilo – Cantonese slang for Westerner – given a new place on its label.

The current Gweilo IPA and Gweilo Pale recipes will stay the same, but as the brewer is introducing a limited-edition 1,000-litre experimental  range, it has changed its Gweilo Wit recipe, and stopped using mango and kaffir lime. 

It plans to offer a big choice of beers, including core, quarterly seasonal, collaboration and sour-beer ranges and a barrel-ageing programme, in addition to the 1,000-litre range.

“With the 1,000-litre range, we aim to make as many batches of limited-edition beers as the market will consume to help educate people on the different styles that exist and push the boundaries, to test  their  perception of what craft beer is and can be,” Ian Jebbitt says.

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“We want to use the 1,000-litre range as a testing ground to try and make a style of beer which becomes  synonymous  with Hong Kong.”