It’s fairly unlikely that Hong Kong has been on any Western traveler’s beer-destination bucket list. At best, it’s been a stopover on the way to a pub crawl in, say, Tokyo.
Not that it’s ever been hard to find something to love about Hong Kong. Even on its worst day, the densely populated metropolis is a multi-sensory circus. You could be squeezing through the throngs of deal-seekers in the nocturnal street markets to haggle over a cheap pair of earrings or a remote-controlled plastic robot (I bought a selfie stick—don’t judge). Or, perhaps you could gorge, quite inexpensively, on sliced roasted duck, fresh seafood or noodles while exploring compact, no-frills food stalls. And people-watching is particularly wonderful in the Central District’s luxury retail area, Asia’s dazzling answer to Rodeo Drive and the Champs-Élysées.
Now, you can finally add “drink local beer” to your Hong Kong itinerary, as the city’s once non-existent craft brew scene is in the midst of a dramatic transformation. And, thanks to one of the world’s most modern and efficient subway lines, it’s easy to get a taste of most of it in little more than a weekend.
“Four years ago, you literally could not find a decent beer; you had to make your own, which is what I was doing,” says Rohit Dugar, founder of Young Master Ales, the barely-two-year-old operation that’s among the handful of new breweries leading the revolution. “Then, little by little, things started to change.”
Within a few years, beers from Brooklyn, Stone, Rogue, Jolly Pumpkin and Japan’s Hitachino began to trickle into Hong Kong’s two primary zones—Kowloon in the north and Hong Kong Island (or, simply, “the Island”), home to the commercial and entertainment-heavy Central District in the south—thanks mostly to the work of the two major local craft importers, Americraft and Hop Leaf. But one of the notable turning points for beer in the city is, oddly, credited to expat software industry professional Jonathan So, who moved from New York to Hong Kong in 2008. With no formal festival experience, he decided to launch Beertopia International Craft Beer Festival.
“The first year was kind of random, actually,” So recalls. “I just wondered, ‘Why doesn’t Hong Kong have a proper craft beer festival?’ After a couple of years here, I jumped into it and figured it out along the way.”
So expected a few hundred people to show up that first year. The final attendance figure was closer to 1,600. For year two, the event moved outdoors to a much larger space and attendance tripled. The third installment, held in March 2014, attracted 11,000. (Mark your calendar: Beertopia moves to the Central Harbourfront for the fourth edition, scheduled for October 9-10.) Initially, the festival showcased only imports; until 2013, craft beer production within Hong Kong was virtually non-existent. That’s no longer true.
“I’ve been in Hong Kong 20 years and [the beer scene] has changed more probably in the past five years than it had in the previous 15,” says British-born Toby Cooper, chairman of the fledging Hong Kong Craft Beer Association and owner of The Globe, one of the city’s premier beer bars.
He’s characteristic of a movement largely led by transplants. Similarly, Dugar’s job in banking relocated him from New York; tired of having too-few beer offerings, he launched Young Master Ales (open to visitors most Saturday afternoons; private tours by appointment) in December of 2013. It hangs its hat 150 feet from the sea on Ap Lei Chau, a half-square-mile, mostly residential island southwest of Hong Kong Island. The brew house, tasting room and storage area are crammed into three units on the fourth floor of a 23-story off-white industrial building that’s easy to mistake for an apartment complex. Dugar tries to put a local spin on Western styles whenever possible. For instance, Young Master released a seasonal Belgian-style witbier, Mo’ Mo’ Wit, which uses aged Mandarin orange peel in addition to a proprietary spice blend of chrysanthemum, chamomile, white pepper, coriander and the vaguely gingerlike herb zedoary.
Also led by expats, Hong Kong Beer Co. (open to visitors most Saturday afternoons) is a tale of rescue and reinvention. American entrepreneurs Devin Otto Kimble and Daniel Flores, founders of Singapore’s successful Brewerkz pubs and breweries, saw potential in the ailing Hong Kong Beer Co. “In July of 2013 when we acquired [HKBC], it was down to one brew a month of one beer,” Kimble remarked over a couple of pints at the small brewery, located on the ground floor of a dense cluster of industrial facilities in the Hong Kong Island neighborhood of Chai Wan (as with any populous city, production space is at a premium). Among HKBC’s six year-round offerings is Gambler’s Gold, a refreshing, lightly hopped golden ale designed to woo folks accustomed to drinking industrial light lagers (still about 99 percent of the local beer market). Then there’s the 7 percent ABV Big Wave Bay IPA with plenty of the citrusy, piney bitterness one would come to expect from an American West Coast-style IPA.
Moonzen Brewery (call for hours), conversely, draws much of its inspiration from Chinese ingredients and iconography. The name refers to “door gods”—in Chinese folklore, the spiritual guardians of entrances who keep away the evil spirits. Beer names like Moon Goddess chocolate stout and Jade Emperor IPA vividly reflect that heritage.
“What Moonzen is about is celebrating Hong Kong culture, local imagery, local ingredients—it’s all incorporated in the beer,” says Laszlo Raphael, who founded the nanobrewery in Kowloon with his wife, Michele, in early 2014. Mexican-born Laszlo’s job as an engineer for a Chinese oil company brought him to Hong Kong—Michele’s home city—six years ago. For its first anniversary, Moonzen brewed Yin Wheatwine and Yang Porterwine. Both incorporated Chinese medicinal herbs like Paeonia lactiflora (more commonly referred to as Chinese peony, with purported anemia-fighting properties), Angelica sinensis (also known as dong quai, believed to help alleviate inflammation and cardiovascular ailments), Rehmannia glutinosa (aka Sheng Di Huang, with supposed efficacy in combating auditory ailments) and Ligusticum wallichii (aka Chuan Xiong, used as a headache remedy).
If you don’t have time for an all-out brewery tour, there are plenty of craft-centric bars where you can enjoy Hong Kong’s best in one sitting. Head to the Central District’s SoHo area, a trendy and sometimes grungy collection of international restaurants, nightclubs, boutiques and galleries situated on narrow streets whose inclines often put San Francisco to shame—parts of it are serviced by Hong Kong’s famous Central-Mid-Levels escalator and walkway system, which spans 2,600 feet and carries passengers to Central District’s higher points.
SoHo gets its name from the neighborhood in London, so it’s fitting that one of the prime craft beer spots in SoHo is English-style pub, The Globe, an easy, albeit partially uphill, 10-minute stroll from the Central subway station. (Those not in the mood for a workout can take the Central-Mid-Levels escalator to Staunton Street and walk two minutes from there.) Boasting several diverse taps, founder Cooper’s U.K. roots are readily apparent in menu staples like Ploughman’s platter, fish and chips, Scotch eggs and beans on toast.
Barely a two-minute walk from The Globe is one of the fixtures in the Central District’s emerging beer scene, the Roundhouse Taproom. Despite its proximity to The Globe, be sure to ask for directions. It’s around the corner and up another moderate climb, but it’s easy to make a wrong turn down one of a number of tight alleys. (Thanks for nothing, Google Maps!) Opened in 2013, the Roundhouse has an industrial vibe that reflects craft’s DIY roots with highboy tables fashioned out of repurposed stainless steel kegs. Here you’ll find some of Hong Kong’s freshest draft options—even from U.S., European and far-flung breweries—on its 24 taps. The Roundhouse’s gastronomic influences are markedly American—the Southern part, to be precise, as the kitchen is pretty big on barbecue. Visitors from the states might not get too excited about traveling 8,000 miles to eat brisket, pulled pork and baby back ribs, but to many on that side of the world, they’re kind of a novelty.
The island’s grittier sibling, Kowloon, is also starting to show signs of beer life. The most notable bar there is The Ale Project (TAP), whose lineup usually features a handful of draft selections from Young Master and HKBC, as well as kegs and bottles from U.S., U.K., Belgian and Scandinavian craft brewers.
It’s far too soon to rank Hong Kong among the world’s A-list beer cities—how much of a thirst the locals have for this craft thing really will determine how the next few years play out. But getting a chance to witness that educational process is what makes visiting Hong Kong now all the more appealing. I’ve rarely had the opportunity to experience a city’s beer scene in its absolute infancy and marvel at the palpable sense of excitement, possibility and optimism. “Our take is we’re about 20 years behind,” notes HKBC’s Kimble. “But it’ll take about five years to catch up.”