Landing for a layover, bleary-eyed after the thirteen-hour flight from London, with a slightly sore head from the combination of extremely generous staff on the Cathay Pacific flight from LHR and a celebratory overindulgence, I breezed through customs and grabbed the ubiquitous slightly dated red cab that embodies Hong Kong as much as the Black Cab does in London. The difference is that, in Hong Kong, the fares are more reasonable, and the drivers have a frantic style, machine gun speed Cantonese, plus you enjoy incredible views (I’m a sucker for glass and steel…).
Despite my lack of Cantonese, the driver handed over one of the devices from a dashboard that closely resembled the window of a pawn shop on a slightly run down high street, complete with tablets, phones and all sorts of electronics crammed onto it. I plugged in my hotel’s address and we were off – a thumbs up and a noise of acknowledgement suggested we were off to a good start. As it turned out, though, even having given him the address, we didn’t end up in the right place, and I was dropped off in the midday sun, with luggage, about 1km from where I wanted to be. However, I wouldn’t let that affect my spirits as something big and exciting was planned.
I’d visited Hong Kong a few months previously and the last drink of my night at the Ritz Carlton Ozone Bar had been an excellent craft brew – simply titled Hong Kong Beer – and a few weeks before this trip I’d been in touch with the great guys that ran this brewery and was eager to learn more. Now, in the UK we’ve had real ale since forever, and craft beers have made a big impact on both sides of the pond, offering a welcome change from the watery yellow macro fizz that used to dominate our pub tap selection.
The situation in Asia, however, is possibly more depressing than walking into a bar that only serves Coors Light. Most beers are adjunct lagers with rice added to the insipid mix – I’d checked out the world’s best-selling beer, “Snow”, on my previous visit; though it had some value when paired with spicy and oily foods, as a session beer I’d prefer pretty much anything else. So, when I chanced upon this beacon of flavour, this bottle of fermented goodness, a bosom of malted magic, I was excited. A few emails later and I was booked in to meet the brew master and visit the brewery.
After the previous mishap with Hong Kong taxis, I opted for the safe choice and tapped the address into my Uber app – half an hour later I was dropped off in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. Buildings with shutters down dominated, mechanics seemed to be the only active profession, and most units seemed to be warehouses. Had I got very very lost?
Luckily the guys at Hong Kong Beer Co. have a big sign over the door, lest you wander into a dried fish warehouse. A warm welcome followed from Tony Chu, the HK-born business manager, and Simon Pesch, the US-born brew master. I was amazed at the sheer amount of equipment packed into this tardis of a brewery. What seems like a rather small corner unit in an industrial area is deceptively large inside – 6,000 hectolitres can be brewed each year in this unassuming part of Chai Wan.
As for the beers on offer – there’s a wide range, all suitable for drinking on their own or paired with food. We started with the Gamblers Gold, an eminently drinkable golden ale which was a hugely welcome change to the aforementioned tasteless fizz encountered elsewhere in Asia, and like all of their beers a reference to something related to Hong Kong (in this case Happy Valley and horseracing). I could’ve settled in with this all afternoon, but I had a job to do – to put myself through the terrible hardship of sampling the rest of their range.
Next up was the White Pearl – a seasonal offering (it alternates with the Sevens Stout) in the Belgian White Ale style, packed with flavour from locally sourced ingredients including mandarin peels, rose buds and honey. This was an outstanding example, despite this style being probably my least favourite in usual circumstances. Named after the Pearl River Delta where Hong Kong sits, it would be a perfect match for the rich seafood meals that are a must try when in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong Beer, the allure of which had brought me here in the first place, was the next to be sampled. Coming straight from the cask gave it a huge dose of freshness which complimented the malty notes and would make this ideal for kicking back with some grilled food or even just some snacks for drinking into the small hours. We were now into the final stages – the two beers had caught my attention, the first for its excellent logo – Dragon’s Back. A smooth but crisp and dry pale ale that would’ve gone terrifically with anything spicy or simply as that first pint after a long day in the hot sun. And finally, Big Wave Bay – named after a scenic spot on Hong Kong Island, this IPA packed a hoppy punch, coming in at 7.3% and offering the holy trinity of citrus, tropical fruit and pine aroma that are present in all of my favourite IPAs, and unlike other strong beers didn’t taste like a normal beer with a shot of spirits dropped in. Definitely drinkable and definitely dangerous!
The passion of the team is clear. They source local ingredients where possible and where it isn’t possible they make sure they get the best the world can offer. This is a philosophy that I’m a huge fan of, and one that really sets their beer apart from anything that can be imported. They’re friendly too and happy to explain to novices in the craft – I knew very little about brewing before I went in – but left knowing a little more but feeling a lot more confident, though that could be the samples they liberally offered up.
Given the high concentration of expats in HK who are probably sick of drinking the same super fizzy, straw-coloured soda water taste-a-likes I can see why their popularity is growing. Out of all the breweries I’ve visited and tasted – I can’t think of one that offers a more consistent range of excellent brews. If you’re in Hong Kong, Macau or Singapore you can check out where they’re sold via their website. Better still, try one of their beers on a Cathay flight – the two companies have partnered up to create a beer that taste perfect at altitude, where beer, and food, usually tastes awful thanks to the effects of the altitude on the taste buds.
Was it jet-lag or was it overindulgence at the brewery? I wasn’t sure but it was time for a nap following the afternoon’s fun. My final destination of the day was The Globe – a highly recommended gastropub that wouldn’t be out of place in any trendy area of London. This was a hotspot for Hong Kong beers – offering seven on draught – and with knowledgeable staff willing to offer a helping hand in picking the next taste bud tantalising pint. A solid range of food was on offer too – but having just eaten at the Queen’s Street Cooked Food Market I was full to the gills. In search of a nightcap I headed up the street and settled for some Tiger beer in a pretty standard bar – a definite step down from the delights of the craft beers I’d just been enjoying – but as I was ready to leave I was attacked by a man with a cleaver. Who said layovers were boring?