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?”
It took 18 months, but eventually Jonathan managed to get enough momentum going, helped by a small wave of enthusiasts determined to widen Hong Kong’s beer choices by setting up companies to import craft beer themselves. Finding a venue was, of course, the biggest challenge, as it seems to be for any beer festival organiser, made even more difficult because urban Hong Kong is among the most densely populated places on the planet (Hong Kong “city”, the north side of Hong Kong island, crams a million people into a strip mostly between 500 and 1,000 yards wide and seven miles long), and has few suitable-sized halls.
This being Hong Kong’s first beer festival, naturally Jonathan didn’t want to risk getting somewhere too big in case nobody came: eventually he hired the second floor at the Edwardian-era Western Market, one of Hong Kong’s finest old buildings, and a space more usually used for grand wedding receptions: it would hold 800 or so drinkers, with room for ten stalls for beer sellers (wholesalers, importers and retailers, who brought along 90-plus almost entirely bottled beers from 10 different countries, including the UK, the US, Japan, Germany, Belgium, Australia and New Zealand, and both of the local small brewers), and a small stage for bands to perform. Tiny by, say, Campaign for Real Ale standards: but for Hong Kong, an act of faith.
I interviewed Jonathan So for the South China Morning Post before the event, and he told me: “We’re not marketing specifically to expats or to locals, but I expect that it will be mostly people who have lived overseas, who have been exposed to craft beer and are aware of it. In Hong Kong, it’s hard to know what craft beer is because you don’t see it that often. Nine out of 10 bars, they won’t have any craft beer, so people aren’t aware what it is. Hopefully that changes.”
The festival would give people a chance to learn more, he said: “I’m encouraging all the vendors to have staff on hand who will be able to chat about the beers, and not just have people serving. I hope this becomes an annual event, if there’s enough appetite and interest in it. And I’d love to have some brewers come along, on top of the importers, just so people can speak to them, the same way that at beer festivals in the US people can interact with the brewers, who are there serving their own beers.”
So how did it go? The first clue I heard that this might be a success was the news that all online tickets had gone before the event. The second was that the stall selling beers from Hitachino Nest, so far the best Japanese beer I’ve found, sold out not much more than three and a half hours after the festival doors opened, with another seven hours to go to closing time, and had to send out in a rush for fresh stock (cue mildly racist joke about “Supplies! Supplies!”). By 6pm the hall was packed, and not just with gweilos – my guess is somewhere between a quarter and a third of the audience were Hongkongers. Interestingly, I’d say approaching half the Hongkongers there were female, a higher proportion of women, in my experience, than you’d see at a British beer festival: at Beertopia, Western males certainly well-outnumbered Western females.
I enjoyed myself hugely: too much, almost. I was introduced to Jonathan So’s father, who had flown in from Toronto to give his support to his son’s venture, and who was apparently delighted enough that I helped publicise the event (and wrote a very brief piece about the history of beer in Hong Kong for the festival programme) that he kept popping up at my elbow and thrusting fresh beer tokens in my hand. Unfortunately this kindness completely wrecked my calculations on how much I had drunk, and put me in danger of being completely wrecked myself. There are pictures on my camera from the end of the evening I definitely don’t remember taking …
Before that stage, however, I’d managed to talk with Pierre Cadoret from Typhoon, and been delighted to discover that in preparation for setting the brewery up in Hong Kong, Pierre had gone for advice to a very old mate of mine, Steve Wright, head brewer at the Hop Back brewery in Salisbury. Steve obviously gave Pierre excellent guidance: I’ve had two Typhoon cask beers now, T8 and Eastern Lightning, both American-style IPAs, and both have been very good indeed. The Eastern Lightning on Saturday was straight from the (rather ducky pink plastic) cask, in beautiful condition, full of flavour, thanks to Citra and Styrian Goldings hops, but with a fair amount of bitterness from the Citra as well. I could very happily have spent much more time with it. Sadly, there’s only one place you’ll find Typhoon’s beers on sale regularly in Hong Kong, at the Globe bar in Central, and even then you won’t be guaranteed to see it on very long: expats come through the front door, see the lone handpump on the bar counter and run at it like bulls spotting the matador’s cloak.
I suspect Jonathan So will be upsizing the next Hong Kong beer festival somewhat: every congratulation to him, he’s shown there’s considerable demand in Hong Kong for good beer, and hopefully the demonstration of that clear demand will encourage more retailers to improve their beer lists