How I nearly found a brewery on my doorstep

I believe strongly in the old cliché about what to do if life hands you a ton of lemons: set to and make the very best lemonade you can. So when I wound up working in Hong Kong, I thought the worthiest use of my spare time was to write the first history of beer in Hong Kong. This turned out to be vastly easier than I had feared, because the Hong Kong library service had digitised every English language newspaper produced in the colony back to the 1850s, and while the OCR wasn’t perfect (it never is), it still threw up a mass of detail about Hong Kong’s brewing pioneers, much of it fascinating. And gave me a surprise on my doorstep.

The most beautiful setting for a brewery anywhere in the world? The Sham Tseng brewery site, New Territories, Hong Kong in the 1950s © San Miguel Corp

The most beautiful setting for a brewery anywhere in the world? The Sham Tseng brewery site, New Territories, Hong Kong in the 1950s © San Miguel Corp

Beer and Hong Kong were mixed up right from the moment the British seized the island in 1841 during our row with China over whether or not our traders should be allowed to sell the Chinese opium: for some reason the Emperor of China felt foreigners flogging his subject hard drugs and getting them addicted just to turn a profit wasn’t really on. Naturally, the British went to war on behalf of the drug pushers. Indeed, as I suggested in the article that eventually ended up in Brewery History magazine, it’s arguable that if it hadn’t been for alcohol, Britain would never have seized Hong Kong. Continue reading

The highs and lows of Hong Kong’s bar scene

La SalamandreIt is a truth universally acknowledged – in Wan Chai, at any rate – that a single man walking down Lockhart Road at night-time must be in want of a nice Filipina lady friend to be the Suzie Wong to his Robert Lomax. Hong Kong’s most persistent mama-sans will tug at your sleeve, trying to persuade you into their lap-dancing bars, where smiling young women from Manila or Luzon (so I am told) will attempt to get you to buy them drinks, at HK$300 – £25 – a time.

But while the image many people have of Hong Kong’s bar scene is probably based on Wan Chai’s pole-dancing clubs and places like the Old China Hand, where homesick expats can watch Six Nations rugby while washing down a full English breakfast with a pint of Stella, in fact the former colony’s drinking places are far more diverse and, sometimes, far, far better than anything you’ll find in Wan Chai. For the over-50 Westerner, Wan Chai is the place to go for a Friday night out. For anybody younger, Hong Konger or expat, the area known as Lan Kwai Fong, in Central, a couple of MTR stops to the west of Wan Chai, is now the wildly thumping heart of Hong Kong’s entertainment world: there is a whole grid of streets where practically everything is either a bar or a restaurant.

But drinking in Hong Kong is not just the Friday night rave scene in Lan Kwai Fong, either. While Hong Kong is not quite yet among the planet’s must-visit bar destinations, it has one of only two bars in Asia to appear in a list of “Great Craft Beer Bars Around the World” in a book by A Multiple Award-Winning Beer Writer due to be published in September, I can reveal (though I probably shouldn’t); it has the highest bar in the world, measured by distance from the ground; it has what must be one of the most unexpectedly situated craft beer bars in the world; and it has one or two of the world’s greatest beach bars. And while the beer in Wan Chai is generally pretty shoddy, if you know where to look you can find an impressive selection of terrific brews elsewhere in Hong Kong.

Agnès b Gough StreetIn fact Hong Kong is starting to be a place where you’ll discover great beer in outlets you’d never have thought had any interest in the idea. One of my favourite places to drink isn’t a bar in any conventional sense, but a French-style cafe chain run under the name of the Agnès b fashion group. They sell the usual sorts of French cafe foods – croques monsieur, baguettes, omelettes, pasta, salads, pastries and cakes – there’s a rather fine florist’s rammed into one corner, and an excellent range of nine or so organic, unfiltered beers from three breweries in the west of France that are the match of anything the best brewers elsewhere in the world can do.

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Designed in Japan, brewed in Belgium, drunk in Hong Kong

Kagua Rouge bottleFor a young Japanese entrepreneur, Shiro Yamada has a perhaps unlikely-sounding hero: Baron Bilimoria of Chelsea, lawyer, accountant, son of an Indian army general, and the first Parsi to sit in the British House of Lords. Bilimoria’s establishment credentials were enough to get him in the Royal Box at the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations last year. “He’s like Steve Jobs to me,” Yamada says.

Bilimoria earned Yamada’s admiration for being the man who founded Cobra Beer in 1989, to be the curry eater’s beer: designed specifically to complement food, with lower carbonation and a smoother taste. Yamada, who had worked as a venture capitalist, and been involved in dot-com start-ups in Japan, was studying for an MBA at the Judge Business School, part of Cambridge University, around 2005 when Bilimoria, himself a Cambridge graduate, came to deliver a presentation to students at Judge on the Cobra operation.

Yamada had already become interested in beer after going drinking with fellow students around Cambridge, and taken trips to Belgium and Munich to widen his beery knowledge. Listening to Bilimoria talk about his desire to brew a beer that would match up with Indian food, Yamada had a revelation. What about a beer specifically brewed to match up with Japanese food?

Kagua Blanc bottleThe Japanese have been brewing beer since the mid-1870s, after Seibei Nakagowa came back to the town of Sapporo having spent two years learning how to make lager at the Tivoli brewery in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Today, despite a reputation in the West for mass-produced blandobeers, Japan is the home of a thriving microbrewing scene with some excellent products – Yo-Ho Brewing’s SunSun lager was one of my personal beers of the year for 2012.

However, no one seems to have thought to do anything for Japanese food what Bilimoria did for curry: design a special beer to fit in with and enhance the different dishes. That, Yamada, decided, would be his task. “I drank a lot of beer from all over Europe when I was in the UK,” Yamada says, “beer from Britain, from Belgium, from Germany, and what hit me was that beer had a history in each of those countries, but if you look at Japan, it’s not like that. So what I decided I would like to do is to develop an original Japanese beer with a taste to fit in with Japanese culture and food.”

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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.)

Look, could you stop drinking craft beer straight from the bottle. Thank you

Bobby Hill and Andy Renko

‘C’mon, Bobby – time for a beer’

It was a phenomenon I first became aware of while watching the marvellous, multilayered Hill Street Blues in the early 1980s. Officers Bobby Hill and Andy Renko, the “salt and pepper” squad car duo, would repair their spirits after a tough shift dealing with assorted area villainy by repairing to a bar, where they would drink beer straight from the long-necked bottle.

That style of drinking, of course, was a reflection by the show’s writers and producers of authentic working-class US culture. Around the same time, however, doubtless through the medium of American yuppies, who liked to pick up on certain elements of working-class behaviour (eg copying the Mexican workers they saw sticking a slice of lime into the neck of Sol and Corona) in an attempt to look “authentic”, drinking beer straight from the bottle spread from working class bars across the US to middle-class bars in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Soon after, yuppie wannabes across the Atlantic in Britain seemed to have copied the habit from the young American financiers they so admired, adding it to their lusts for striped shirts, red braces, Filofaxes and BMWs. Continue reading

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.

Hong Kong’s first ever beer festival

Beertopia at the Western Market

The Beertopia crowd around 3pm: already pretty full …

Until last weekend, Hong Kong had never seen a beer festival: not a proper one, with a choice of beers from a range of different brewers. Odd, perhaps, for the home of Asia’s oldest microbrewer, the Hong Kong brewery, still running after 16 years in Aberdeen, on the south side of Hong Kong island. But most Hongkongers don’t seen enthusiastic about beer except as a thirst quencher or a relaxer. And yet … since 2009, Singapore has been running a hugely successful beer festival, Beerfest Asia, which attracted 30,000 people over four days last year, to try 300 beers on 40 stands. So Asian cities CAN run successful big beer festivals.

Mind, Singapore, despite having a smaller population than Hong Kong, manages to support far more micro-brewers too: seven, Beer Avocado suggests. Hong Kong still only has two, albeit one is probably the only brewery dedicated to reproducing hand-pumped British cask-style ales in the whole of Asia, the tiny Typhoon brewery, founded by an airline pilot from Devon, Pierre Cadoret, in 2009.

But among the attenders at the 2010 Beerfest Asia in Singapore was a 28-year-old Canadian called Jonathan So, whose parents had emigrated to Toronto from Hong Kong in the 1970s. Jonathan had moved to Hong Kong to work for a software company, bringing with him an appreciation for craft beer picked up while a student at Columbia University in New York. The Singapore festival impressed him deeply: “I thought, ‘How come Hong Kong doesn’t have anything like this, even a fraction of its size?”

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Matching Chinese food and beer

One of the opportunities I was looking forward to in Hong Kong was the chance to match beer with Chinese food, a surprisingly under-explored area. I believe strongly that most beers go with most foods: but that doesn’t mean some pairings cannot be particularly felicitous, and that’s especially true with Chinese cuisine.

China is easily the biggest beer market in the world, almost twice as large as the US, the next largest, and in 2010 China drank very nearly a quarter of all the world’s beer. But annual consumption per head, at around 30 litres, while rising at some five per cent a year, is still almost a third of the US figure (81 litres). In addition, most of that consumption is of pale, undemanding lager.

What that means is that the Chinese DO drink beer with food, but it will be Tsingtao, or Blue Girl (from South Korea) or something equally bland and dull. Fortunately, Hong Kong takes advantage of its position as one of the biggest trading centres in Asia by importing good beer from all over the world: you won’t find Gale’s Prize Old Ale in Chiswick right now, for example (there’s none in stock in the Fuller’s brewery shop and I bought the last two bottles they had in the Mawson Arms next door back in October) but you WILL find it in stock in Hong Kong bars run by the El Grande group, such as the Happy Valley Bar and Grill – or at least you will until I buy up their complete current holding and the 2012 version gets shipped out. And, amazingly, Prize Old Ale is a beer that goes fantastically well with Chinese food, so well it could almost have been brewed for it.

There is probably a proper expression for this, but I don’t know it, so let’s call it “food imagination”, or “food intelligence”: the ability to summon up in the mind two different tastes and decide how they would go together, even if you have never actually matched or paired them in life. I’m sure it’s possible to test “FI”, with questions like: “what beer would you recommend with fennel?”* Good chefs need “FI”: good brewers, too. Great chefs (and brewers) have “food imagination” in wagons. You need to have at least a little “food imagination” to match beer with food, to even be able to write about beer and food matching: someone like Garrett Oliver obviously has “high FI”, and I think I have a reasonable “FI quotent”, or I wouldn’t dare write about beer and food together myself. So some of this is based on experience, some on speaking to Chinese beer lovers in Hong Kong, and some on “FI”. Continue reading