Gone are the days of plain old grog – for the discerning elbow-bender, artisan brews are the orders of the night

0- Kitty Wong Craft Beer.jpg -Illustration by Kitty N. Wong

You might have heard all the hoopla about Beertopia, the craft beer festival taking place this week from March 13 to 15. Or maybe you’ve noticed a few new offerings on the drinks list of your favourite restaurant – drinks with strange names like Dead Guy Ale or Kagua Rouge. What’s the deal? Craft beer, that’s what.

What? Beer has just four basic ingredients – water, malted grain, hops and yeast – but they offer an infinite range of flavours and aromas. English beers are known for their emphasis on malt, with biscuit and caramel characters, while Americans are crazy for hops, which can taste and smell fruity, citrusy, piney, floral, spicy or herbal, depending on which of the 80-plus varieties are used. Belgians are masters of yeast, which opens up a whole galaxy of complex flavours, and Germans have traditionally strived for simplicity and balance. Beer comes in dozens of styles, from dark, roasty stouts to hoppy India Pale Ales to smoky rauchbiers. And that is just the beginning: craft beer is all about experimentation and exploration.

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Who? Credit for the modern craft-brewing movement usually goes to Fritz Maytag, who purchased San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company in 1965 and began making unique, small-batch beers that eschewed the bland, mass-market lagers favoured by industrial brewers. Craft beer grew in popularity over the next few decades, but it really took off in the 2000s with the rise of the extreme beer movement, when small but influential brewers such as Dogfish Head really started pushing the envelope by producing beer with more hops, more alcohol and more flavour than anyone had seen before. Regular stouts became extra-rich Imperial Stouts, with amped-up chocolate and coffee flavours; new beer styles were invented, such as the Belgian IPA, which combines fruity American hops with dry, spicy Belgian yeast; and brewers are increasingly interested in sour beers and beer made with brettanomyces (affectionately known as “brett”), a wild yeast with a love-it-or-hate-it taste that some describe as earthy or “funky,” like a barnyard.

When? Hong Kong has always imported beers from abroad, but the tide of craft beer really started to rush in when the tax on beer and wine was abolished in 2009. Small importers began sourcing beers directly from brewers, selling them online or through a growing number of restaurants and bars with a taste for distinctive beverages. Homebrewing took off around the same time, with a growing community of enthusiasts banding together to launch the Hong Kong Homebrewers Association and Hong Kong’s first homebrew competition, the second edition of which took place in February. Last year also saw the launch of the Hong Kong Craft Beer Association, which unites drinkers, brewers, importers and purveyors.

Where? Let’s start with the brewers. Launched last November by homebrewer and former banker Rohit Dugar, Young Master Ales offers regular tours of its seaside Ap Lei Chau brewery, where you can taste brews like the 1842 Imperial India Pale Ale, a deliciously balanced beer with a passionfruit aroma, or the Cha Cha Soba Ale, a light, dry beer made with green tea and buckwheat. Other newcomers include New Empire, Nine Dragons and the Hong Kong Beer Company, the last of which began in 1995 but was recently relaunched with a range of classic American-style beers made by veteran brewer Simon Pesch. Tipping Point Brewing Company is a new Wyndham Street brewpub run by chef Que Vinh Danh, formerly of TBLS, that offers three house brews alongside 10 taps of craft beer. The Roundhouse opened last year with an unprecedented 24 taps of craft beer – a constantly-rotating selection of local and imported brews – while The Globe, Hong Kong’s best place to try good beer, has introduced a new 18-tap system to complement its unparalleled collection of imported bottles. Other sure bets include The Beer Bay on the Central waterfront, Dickens Bar in Causeway Bay and Stone’s in Tai Hang. For dinner parties and those times when you just want to drink at home, check out The Bottle Shop and Craftissimo for the two best selections of takeaway craft beer. Importers Hop Leaf and Americraft also run online shops with home delivery. And let’s not forget HK Brewcraft, where you can learn how to brew your own beer, buy ingredients to brew at home, fill up a takeaway growler of Young Master Ale or buy a few well-chosen bottles for your own private tasting session.

Why? Flavour. It’s as simple as that. New and surprising tastes you never thought you’d get from a beer. It’s the same reason why you drink single-malt scotch and small-batch bourbon instead of King Robert II Blended Whisky: it keeps things interesting.

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