BREWERS ARE TAPPING A NEW MARKET IN ASIA AS CONSUMERS DEVELOP A TASTE FOR COMPLEX CRAFT BEERS FAR REMOVED FROM THE BLAND LAGERS OF THEIR STUDENT DAYS, WRITES Christopher Dewolf
Brewers are tapping a new market as Asian consumers develop a taste for craft beers
Halfway through a tasting session at a Hong Kong speciality beer shop, the table is littered with half-empty bottles. “It reminds me of a game we used to play in uni,” jokes Nastasia Malatesta, one of The Bottle Shop’s employees. But the bottles don’t contain the types of sudsy lagers you’d find at a student party. Instead there are robust oatmeal stouts and farmhouse ales, hoppy wheat beers and India pale ales.
“It smells like Chinese pear,” says a regular customer of the Sai Kung shop, Liam Lee, before he takes a sip of a Dead Frog Festive Winter Saison, a Canadian take on a traditional Belgian farmhouse ale. Malatesta samples a C4 Double Coffee Brown, made by New Zealand’s 8 Wired Brewing. “This tastes like Greek coffee to me,” she says.
Danny Wong, who owns The Bottle Shop with his wife, Tracy Gan, brings out a
large bottle of Oro de Calabaza, a sour ale brewed with wild yeast by a US craft brewery based in Michigan called Jolly Pumpkin. He pours a sample into everyone’s wine glass. “I smell truffles,” says The Bottle Shop sales manager Joey Chung. Wong takes a sip and says, “It’s like eating an apple with that bit of sourness on the front. Drinking these beers is interesting because you can never quite put your finger on it. This has a white-wine quality to it.”
Such tasting scenes have become increasingly common as a flood of imported craft brews has washed over Hong Kong, and the three-day Beertopia craft beer festival drew more than 10,000 people to the West Kowloon waterfront in March. Brewed in small batches with high-quality ingredients, craft beer is to mass-market beer what single-malt Scotch is to bottom-shelf blended whisky. Hong Kong now boasts four craft breweries, two brewpubs and a small but dedicated network of craft beer bars and
bottle shops. It’s a similar story across Asia, where a mix of imported brews and local tipples is fostering a new and exciting culture.
As tastes become more sophisticated and adventurous, so do the beers. One of the most experimental brewers is Mikkeller, which recently opened a taproom in the Bangkok suburb of Ekamai. “It’s most fun to do something that isn’t expected,” says founder Mikkel Borg Bjergsø. “Thailand is a new culture for beer. It’s one of those countries where people are getting more money and spending it on better things, and one of our intentions is to show people things they didn’t know already.”
Bjergsø got into brewing as a high school science teacher in Copenhagen, where he lives with his wife, Pernille Pang (whose family is from Hong Kong) and their two young daughters. He is now one of the world’s most respected “phantom brewers”—producers without a brewery who have their recipes brewed by others.
Last year, Mikkeller produced 124 brews at a carefully selected network of breweries around the world. There are spontaneously fermented lambics (fruit beers left in open vats to capture distinctive wild yeasts), ultra-low-alcohol beers packed with hop flavour, and baroque concoctions such as Mexas Ranger, which is a stout made with five kinds of malt, three different hops, black beans, horchata, cocoa, avocado leaves and five types of Mexican chillis.
Bjergsø spends much of his time creating new recipes, often in collaboration with other brewers or with some of the world’s top restaurants, including Noma in Copenhagen and El Celler de Can Roca in Catalonia, Spain. “One of my beers is a 12 per cent imperial stout, really thick and creamy,” he says, specifying its alcohol content. “I wanted to make a version with different spices in it—cinnamon and vanilla, two different chillis, cocoa, coconut flakes. So I tried to make an extract out of these things. I just opened up the bottle, added it to the beer and tasted it.”
“BEER IS A LOT MORE COMPLEX THAN WINE;
IT’S THE REAL CONNOISSEUR’S CHOICE”
At its most basic, beer has just four ingredients: water, grain, hops and yeast. These offer so much variety that even the most straightforward beers can taste radically different due to various combinations of malted barley or hops. There’s a clear distinction between the mango and passionfruit characteristics of Australian Galaxy hops and the bitter, pine-like notes of American Centennial hops, for example. Depending on the amount of fermentable sugar in a brew, a beer’s alcohol by volume can range from 1 to 18 per cent, though some brewers have succeeded in making whiskystrength beer by freezing it repeatedly to concentrate the alcohol.
Craft beer embraces the use of adjuncts, such as fruit or spices, which can add intriguing new dimensions. This has been used to great effect by Japanese brewer Shiro Yamada, who was studying at Cambridge University when he attended a lecture by Karan Bilimoria, an entrepreneur who created a brand of beer to pair with curry. “I thought I could do that with Japanese food,” says Yamada. His experimentation finally arrived at the recipe for Kagua Blanc, a Belgianstyle wheat beer made with the Japanese yuzu fruit, and Kagua Rouge, a ruby-red Belgian dark ale brewed with fragrant sansho spice.
In Beijing, Great Leap Brewing makes six beers with Chinese tea, including Iron Buddha Blonde, Danshan Wheat (made with gongfu tea), and Three Door Tripel, a strong Belgian ale made with osmanthus tea. “The flower tea adds a beautiful finishing note that helps obfuscate some of the harsher alcohol notes,” says brewmaster Carl Setzer.
Tea-infused brews are not the only distinctively Chinese beer Great Leap offers. Its best-selling Honey Ma Gold is an easy-drinking ale enlivened by floral, mouth-tingling Sichuan peppercorns. The brewery is also pioneering the use of Chinese hops; Setzer praises the mint and melon notes found in a Qingdao Flower hop.
With so many combinations of ingredients, it’s easy for brewmasters to go overboard. “The most important thing in a beer is balance,” explains
“WITHIN A MONTH, YOU’LL SEE THAT CUSTOMER COME BACK WITH A GROUP OF HIS OWN FRIENDS”
Jeppe Jarnit-bjergsø, the twin brother of Mikkeller’s Mikkel as well as the founder of Evil Twin Brewing in New York. (The pair’s contentious relationship was the subject of a New York Times Magazine profile headlined “A Fight is Brewing” earlier this year.)
Jarnit-bjergsø once brewed a beer with molasses, chocolate, almond, hazelnut, vanilla beans, cinnamon, oak, chilli, marshmallows, muscovado sugar, chestnuts and coffee. He called it Bozo to poke fun at the maximalist tendencies of many craft brewers, including his brother. But he’s no stranger to experimentation himself, making India pale ales with Brettanomyces—a wild yeast once abhorred for giving beer a flavour known as “horse blanket”—and ageing many of his beers in barrels that previously housed wine and spirits.
Barrel ageing is one of beer’s new frontiers. “Brewing gets really technical,” says Søren Eriksen, a Danish brewer who runs 8 Wired Brewing in New Zealand. “With barrel ageing, it’s much more down to nature. You lose control a little bit. You just have to go with it and see what comes out.”
Eriksen has about 220 barrels, mostly white-wine barrels from New Zealand’s Marlborough region, which he is using to age 25 beers. “The one I’m most excited about is the feijoa. It’s a South Island fruit that is pretty much only grown in New Zealand,” says Eriksen. “I’ve never tasted or smelled the flavour anywhere else.”
Other breweries use different barrels to create distinct versions of the same beer, allowing the qualities of the barrel to play off the beer’s ingredients like musicians riffing in a jazz group. Mikkeller Black, a 17.2 per cent imperial stout
whose label carries the Chinese character for black (黑), is sold in various editions named after the previous contents of their barrels, such as Cognac, Calvados, Grand Marnier, Islay whisky and tequila. “It lifts the beer to a different dimension,” says Mikkel. In one case, he aged a sour beer in Sauternes barrels. “It gave it a balance that is really amazing.”
That’s something Hong Kong-based Rohit Dugar is hoping to achieve with his first barrel-aged brew, a 10 per cent rye beer currently stored in Templeton Rye whiskey barrels. “There needs to be something in the beer that pairs naturally with whatever was in the barrel,” he says.
Since launching Young Master Ales last year, Dugar has demonstrated an appetite for experimentation. In addition to his yearround line-up, he has released a summer wheat beer made with chan pei (dried orange peels) and a cocktail of five ingredients— zedoary, coriander seeds, chrysanthemum, chamomile and white pepper. He also collaborated with New Zealand’s Renaissance Brewing to make Siu Sauvin, a single-hop wheat beer that showcases the distinctively gooseberry-like Nelson Sauvin hop. “People compare it to sauvignon blanc,” says Dugar. “To me, I get crushed berries and an elderflower nose to it.”
The received wisdom is that drinkers in Asia, weaned on watery mass-market lagers, need to be eased into craft beer. But there may be more appetite for adventure than one might expect. Setzer says he often sees Beijingers introduced to Great Leap brews by foreign friends. Though reluctant at first, they soon return to try all the brews. “Within a month you’ll see that customer come back with a group of his own friends.”
Back at The Bottle Shop, nobody needs any convincing. “Beer lost the PR battle to wine and there’s no reason why it should have,” says customer Chris Williams. “Beer is a lot more complex than wine. It’s the real connoisseur’s choice.”
brimming with pride Craft beer comes in all shapes and sizes, including Anderson Valley’s The Kimmie The Yink & The Holy Gose, Evil Twin’s Noma Oxalis and Nippon Craft Beer’s Kagua Rouge; The Roundhouse in Hong Kong features 24 craft beers on tap
go with the flow Nippon Craft Beer’s Kagua Blanc is brewed in Belgium with yuzu from Japan
roll out the barrels Søren Eriksen is the Danish brewer who runs New Zealand’s renowned 8 Wired Brewing