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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Baird beer and breakfast

Beer: so much motre thsn a breakfast drinkBeer’s not my usual breakfast tipple, though I’d agree with Tim Martin, founder of the Wetherspoon pub chain in the UK, that Abbot Ale is an excellent accompaniment to the traditional Full English. But I couldn’t keep away from an invitation to “brunch” with Bryan Baird, the American founder of the eponymous brewery in Numazu, 80 or so miles west of Tokyo.

The event was organised by the Globe bar in SoHo, Hong Kong and featured six different Baird beers, all paired with different dishes and introduced by Bryan Baird himself. Like all brewers, Bryan is hugely enthusiastic about his trade, and he was well served by the Globe, which delivered some excellent matches to his beers, to go with a six-course breakfast.

Single Take session beerWe kicked off with cured ocean trout, cream cheese and cucumber, served with Baird’s Single-Take Session Ale: a fine pairing, a little more classy than the traditional breakfast kipper, the only problem here being that I really, really wanted a whole pint of Single-Take, rather than a small glass. It’s a Belgian-style beer, according to Bryan, made with Belgian yeast, but “inverted” – low-alcohol, high-hop, rather than the other way round, 4.7 per cent abv and plenty of hop flavour from dry-hopping. The hops are whole-hop Tettnanger and New Zealand varieties, and the name and label are inspired by Neil “single take” Young: the label is meant to show young Mr Young performing “Rocking’ in the Free World” on Saturday Night Live in 1989. And if you look at that video, you can see the woman who designs Baird’s woodcut-style labels has indeed captured a clip from the show.

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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.