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.

0 thoughts on “Thirty-nine lagers in 40 minutes

  1. 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)


    Japan has a number of cask-conditioned ales, most famously Yona-Yona, but there are others these days too (and occasionally one can also run across special cask-conditioned versions of beers which normally aren’t).

    Is there something not “proper” about these, or don’t you count Japan as part of Asia…?

    [One of the most memorable beers I’ve had in recent times was a cask-conditioned Preston IPA (brewery: “Joyful Honda”!); the bar had both that and the normal kegged version, and the difference in taste was quite startling!]

    1. “Is there something not ‘proper’ about these, or don’t you count Japan as part of Asia…?”

      No, that would be down to me being entirely ignorant of them – thank you for educating me. Post now corrected.

      1. Just to put the boot in a little further, Brewerkz in Singapore does a cask bitter too.

        If they’re short of judges for next year I’d be very happy to pitch in. Via First Class on Cathay, though, as befits my status as an international beer celebrity.

  2. Looking forward to seeing the list of winners,

    I’m curious about the general condition of the beers. 20-30 years ago in places such as Hong Kong, Florida, Italy, Caribbean, I found bottled and draft beer often skunked or damp-paper oxidized. Today, the risk of this is lesser I believe due to refrigerated storage and quicker transportation and customs clearance methods. On the other hand, today there are more non-pasteurized beers than back then, and these are often liable to damage despite good precautions.

    In a word, did the beers strike you as generally in good condition or did you notice many duff examples?


  3. While also looking forward to seeing the list of winners, I’d also be interested to know if you get to see names matched up to your ratings. In other words, being able to revisit the ones you rated high/low and thus make recommendations to us accordingly. Or, will it forever be anonymous, save for the ones you were able to recognize?

  4. It sounds like the stout category – certainly more relevant historically to the Island than almost any other except pale ale possibly, needs a fillip. You might suggest to the organizer to arrange shipment of a strong bottled-conditioned stout from England in time for next year’s competition. Maybe something from Kernel, say, eg its Double Stout from the 1890’s books would be perfect. It would be interesting to try it against Sinha (or Lion) Stout and Guinness FES.

    I happened to have a Sinha last night and so can assess it “the other way”. It had an intense licorice-like note and was very incisive in taste. There was no soy-like autolysis or acidity but there was a winy richness nonetheless. The dregs of this almost-9% ABV beer were yeasty and thus it seemed bottle-conditioned or at least lightly filtered. It is probably an example of a shipped stout a la 1800’s.

    After drinking half of it I thought I’d combine it with a can of Fuller’s Porter for a mild-and-old but I used instead a West Coast IPA to make a kind of Black IPA. This actually didn’t work, even the Oregon hops were effaced by the powerful smack of sound-aged strong porter. I kind of liked that, it was the old school telling the new one, boys, we can show you up when of a mind…


  5. Off topic, sorry. Martyn, I am brewing Colonel Williams IPA clone today and was trying to find a way to private message or email you to ask for an address where to ship two bottles for sampling…obviously no hurry yet…

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