And the winner is … 961?

I’ll forgive myself for never having heard of 961 Beer, because its products are apparently not yet on sale in the UK. But they ARE available in Hong Kong – and 961 Lager has just been declared the best lager in the city, after the blind tasting by me and 11 other judges I blogged about last month.

Those of you with an encyclopediac knowledge of international dialling codes will recognise 961 as Lebanon: the brewery, based in the village of Mazraat Yachoua, six miles or so north-east of Beirut, is now six years old and claims (I’m sure it’s true) to be the only microbrewery in the entire Arab world. It triumphed over 38 competitors in the lager category at the 2012 Hong Kong International Beer Awards, suggesting strongly that founder Mazen Hajjar, who started the operation in his kitchen, knows what he is doing.

British winners were BrewDog, which came top in the Amber Ale category with 5am Saint; Saltaire, which took the Stout first prize, with Triple Chocoholic; Little Valley, from Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, in the Organic category with Python IPA; and in the “British Style Ale” category, Strong Suffolk from Greene King. That wouldn’t be my personal first choice for a “British Style Ale”: I’ve always had a problem with Strong Suffolk, it’s a beer I really want to like, because of the almost unique way it’s made, by blending an aged 5X old ale with a younger Burton Ale, and yet every time I try it I go away underimpressed. However, I’m glad it won, simply because I hope it encourages Greene King to carry on brewing 5X.

Pacific Coast American craft brewers also swept up four of the prizes, a sign of the boom in imports of microbrewed beers from the West Coast US to Hong Kong in the past 12 to 18 months. The Californian North Coast Brewing’s Scrimshaw took the Pilsner prize, Rogue of Oregon won both the Pale Ale category, for its Chatoe OREgasmic Ale, and the Brown Ale category, with its Hazelnut Brown Nectar, and another Californian operator, Mendocino Brewing, had the top Bock with Eye of the Hawk.

Despite strong competition from American craft brewers, the “Belgian Style Ale” winner was a proper Belgian brewer, Brouwerij Huyghe (best known for Delirium Tremens) of Ghent, with Artevelde Grande Cru, and Huyghe also walked off with the prize for best Fruit Beer with Floris Fraise. The Wheat Beer prize went to a German entry, Hopf White, from Weissbierbrauerei Hopf in Miesbach, in the far south of Bavaria.

The big surprise, however, was the winner in the IPA category – not an American, but Feral Brewing, from Baskerville, Western Australia, with its Hop Hog. Indeed, the judges loved this beer so much, they gave it the highest number of points of any of the more than 250 entries in the competition, meaning Hop Hog also carried off the palm for Champion Beer of the 2012 Awards.

Reports say the microbrewing scene in Western Australia is booming: hopefully Feral’s success will encourage more brewers from there to look north to the market in Hong Kong.

(Addendum: apparently Feral was extremely surprised to win, because it didn’t even know the competition was on, let alone that it was entered.)

Thirty-nine lagers in 40 minutes

Hong Kong Beer Awards logoSome British beer bloggers get invited to be judges at the Great American Beer Festival. Well, poot to them: I’ve just had a much more exclusive gig. Only 12 people are invited to judge in the Hong Kong International Beer Awards, and this year I was one of them.

If you’re thinking: “Yeah, man, tough job”, I can assure you it was no picnic: not unless your picnics involve sipping and sniffing 145 or so different lagers, stouts, IPAs and ales, and 21 ciders, over two three-hours sessions, with nowt to eat except crackers, there to take away the taste of the more egregiously bad examples of the brewer’s art. After about the 25th almost identical pale and generally undistinguished euro-style lager, some of the judges at the Globe bar in SoHo, Hong Kong where the drinks had been lined up for scrutiny, appeared to be eyeing the exit and wondering if they could sprint fast enough to be out the door before they were tackled to the ground and brought back to the table. By the time the 39th and last entry in the lager section had been dismissed, it was a relief to move on to the ciders, a drink I don’t normally find much kind of relief in at all.

The judging was simple: up to 20 points for appearance, aroma, clarity and colour, up to 80 points for taste, body and mouthfeel. Most of the lagers were getting just 40 to 50 points from me, and the highest I gave was a rare 71. None was as vile as the “flavoured” ciders, mind: cheese on top of strawberry is not what I want in a glass. However, a couple of the ciders were authentically very “English” (tart, plenty of character) and, grateful, I awarded them good marks.

Pale and uninteresting

Spot the interesting lager … no? Me neither.

The “ordinary” (ie non-IPA) pale ales were almost as hard to tell one from the other as the lagers, with only one truly memorable  afterwards, thanks to a strong aroma of cedary pencil shavings (not that pencil shavings earned it more marks, at least from me). I was even more underimpressed with the brown ale category. None of the five was what I would describe as a brown ale (that is to say, dark at the least, and preferably veering towards very dark indeed), and only one had any real roasty flavour, of which I like to see a hint. The hazelnut one was easy to spot, though: it would make a good ice-cream float, but as a beer, I dunno. (Knowing what beers are available in Hong Kong, I’m guessing that was Rogue’s hazlenut brown ale. I like many of Rogue’s beers, but not this time.)

The “Belgian” ales went past in a blur of golden Duvel-alikes and browner nods towards what were presumably meant to be more “abbey” types. The “British-style” ales (my personal favourite category, I own up) contained one of the rare instantly recognisable beers in the judging, from Hong Kong’s own Typhoon brewery, which is “British” in the sense that it’s a proper cask-conditioned ale (and the only one in Asia, I believe) but sits firmly in the American Pale Ale category as far as its hop usage and character are concerned: whatever, it’s an excellent brew.

I’d love to find out the name of the really orangey wheat beer we were given: of the 26, most, again were hard to distinguish, and I was disappointed that there were not more Dunkels among the wheat beers: it’s a style I am growing increasingly fond of. One style I’m not so fond of is fruit beer, and the 16 up for judging at the Globe confirmed my prejudice: mostly unidentifiable fruit, nearly all pretty meh. The 11stouts, too, contained none among them that truly conquered. The 14 organic ales were, inevitably, a mixed bunch in terms of style, and none, I’m afraid, you would want to take home and introduce to mother.  The IPAs, by contrast, had a couple or four stand-out entries: that, I suspect, will be the hardest category to win.

So, then: thus was the Hong Kong International Beer Awards judging 2012. While the bulk of entries were ordinary (a reflection of the mostly unadventurous nature of Hong Kong’s beer importers, although there are now several honourable exceptions to that), there still were, I think, enough fine brews to make a respectable winners’ enclosure, all the same. The top beers will be announced at the 10th Hong Kong Restaurant and Bar Show, from September 11 to 13 in the Hong Kong Exhibition and Conference Centre and I’ll be listing them here as well.