Hong Kong’s newest craft brewery celebrated its opening this month with platters of plump Japanese oysters. They weren’t just paired with the beer – they were mixed with it.
“They taste great together,” said Hitachino Nest’s local brewmaster, Christopher Wong, before filling up a dropper with a ginger oyster essence. He released a few drops into a glass of dark beer. “Instant oyster stout!”
The pairing wasn’t accidental. Hitachino Nest hails from Japan’s seaside Ibaraki Prefecture, where it was founded in 1996 by Toshiyuki Kiuchi, whose family had been producing sake and shochu since 1823. Hitachino paved the way for craft beer in a country dominated by mass market lagers, producing subtle, balanced brews like the Dai Dai Ale, made with local mikan peels and orangey Tardif de Bourgogne hops from France.
Over the past 20 years, it became one of Japan’s biggest craft brewers, bolstered by a cult following in the United States. Although the company opened an izakaya in San Francisco this summer, the Hong Kong brewery is its first attempt at brewing beer overseas. But why here? Kiuchi says he is impressed by how quickly the city has fallen in love with craft beer. Nine new breweries have opened in the past few years, with a surge of specialty beer bars to match.
“The process is quite fast compared to other Asian cities,” he says. “Ten years before, when we first exported our beer to Hong Kong, there was no big market, only high class restaurants carrying imported Belgian beer,” he says. “Now lots of craft beer bars are opening.”
The Hong Kong brewery is Hitachino Nest's first attempt at brewing beer overseas. But why here? Kiuchi says he is impressed by how quickly the city has fallen in love with craft beer
There are more practical reasons, too. Demand for Hitachino Nest beer is exploding in mainland China, but Kiuchi says he cannot ship his beer there directly because of China’s strained relationship with Japan. Opening a brewery on the mainland itself was out of the question because Chinese laws prevent craft breweries from bottling and distributing their beer. Hong Kong seemed like a good compromise. Even the city’s extraordinarily high rents are offset by the zero percent tax on beer.
Still, setting up shop in Hong Kong wasn’t easy. Ground-floor industrial space is expensive and most factory buildings don’t have enough load bearing capacity to handle large vats of beer. When he finally found a space in Fotan, Kiuchi ended up with an unusual workaround. Aside from a small tasting room, the ground floor has just enough space for the first few steps of making beer: milling grain, mashing it, lautering it and boiling it with hops. After that, the beer must be taken ten floors up to ferment.
“We have to fight with the logistics companies for space in the cargo lift,” jokes Wong. He says it may well be the world’s highest production brewery.
While beer brewed for export will be Hitachino’s bread and butter, the brewery hasn’t forgotten local drinkers. Aside from classics like the spiced White Ale and a surprisingly fruity lager, Wong is making three beers unique to Hong Kong, including a session ale made with juicy Amarillo hops, an especially hoppy version of the Dai Dai Ale and a milk stout, which is brewed with lactose for extra body and sweetness. He says the brewery will soon start a barrel-aging programme, piggy-backing on the seasoned casks that Kiuchi will order for a new distillery he has opened in Japan.
“Hongkongers actually are very open to stronger flavour beers,” says Wong, who is also an owner of the popular TAP beer bar in Hong Kong, as well as the homebrew supply store HK Brewcraft. He says local drinkers in particular have a strong demand for “unique tastes.”
It turns out Hong Kong and beer is a bit like an oyster stout: surprising, with delicious results.
Hitachino Nest is located at Unit A1, G/F Unison Industrial Centre, 27-31 Au Pui Wan St, Fo Tan; +852 2620 0095. The brewery will begin tours (by appointment only) on Saturdays for HK$200 per person starting August 27, 2016.