Asia’s first craft brewery launched in Hong Kong in 1995 when I happened to be living there. Fast forward to 2012, the city still had only one craft brewery, despite the efforts of some enterprising individuals who saw the potential. Fortunately, when Canadian, Jonathan So, discovered the lack of craft beer events and a general apathy towards beer in Hong Kong, he decided to do something about it. He started the Beertopia festival.
When embarking on a venture, you never really know what will happen. Changing culture can be a long, drawn out process or it may happen overnight. Are people ready for it? Is what you’re offering attractive? Are you engaging people with the right messaging? Can what you’ve created be scaled up and leveraged to carry the change forward?
Regardless, cultural change must come from a foundation established by a vanguard of change agents. People need a nucleus to be drawn to. Once a critical mass is achieved, a chain reaction follows and the transformation can be quite astonishing. I saw this very thing happen in Vancouver when I led the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale, then started Vancouver Craft Beer Week.
With Beertopia now in its fifth year and the number of local craft breweries having grown to over a dozen, I see the same trend happening in Hong Kong.
Right Place, Right Time
I first went to Beertopia in March of 2014. While people may think it’s a good time of year because the weather is still mild, I beg to differ. The humidity is already starting to rise and it regularly rains, but it isn’t hot enough to dry things out afterwards. Most buildings do not have heat, so you can be in for a shock when you walk into building, damp, and find the air conditioner blasting. No surprise that this was the season I typically found myself coming down with a cold.
This was also when the festival was held on the West Kowloon waterfront. Normally, a beer festival on the shore of Hong Kong Harbour, bounded by its legendary skyline, would sound like an amazing location. That’s not the case when a chilly, rain-soaked onshore breeze assails you. Needless to say, it dampened the mood.
Last year, with a change of venue to the Hong Kong Island waterfront and the date set in November – the best time to visit Hong Kong, in my opinion – these two issues were neatly solved. With over 13,000 attendees in 2015, I think the Beertopia organizers have found a winning combination.
Here for the Beer
In 2012, when only one Hong Kong craft brewery was still operating, the inaugural Beertopia was dominated by imported craft beer. This isn’t exactly an attractive prospect for the beer traveller when the main goal is to experience the local brew. Nevertheless, the festival’s primary purpose was – and still is – to convert local palates by celebrating the diversity of craft beer.
This year, even though only 10% of the breweries at Beertopia are local, there are at least 84 Hong Kong beers to sample, which amounts to almost 17 pints if you wanted to taste them all – plenty to carry you through the festival’s two days. Combine that with some sightseeing and enjoying the city’s various beer bars, beer travel to Hong Kong is now a very attractive prospect.
Nevertheless, as a visitor, I wouldn’t ignore all of Beertopia’s other beer. Depending on where you are from, you might find something that isn’t available at home and may not be any time soon. I’m not interested, for example, in samples from most of the American or European breweries represented. Either I can get them in Vancouver or I’ll make separate trips to those countries. The regional options from the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam are a different matter. Craft beer from Lebanon? Definitely! And since I don’t expect to visit Australia or New Zealand in the foreseeable future, they also offer hoppy hunting grounds.
If you think most of the beer at Beertopia will be light and fruity, think again! There are more than 100 different IPAs, over 50 porters and stouts. And who wouldn’t be intrigued by 京A Brewery‘s collaboration hybrid sake ale, the City Brew Peanut Butter Wheat Porter, and Mahanakhon‘s Thai Tea Ale?
Some people are purists and don’t want their beer containing anything other than the Reinheitsgebot-sanctioned ingredients. No worries. All tastes are accommodated. I, on the other hand, appreciate experimentation; to push boundaries, discover new uses for beer. Beer desserts, beer floats? You’ve got my attention.
This year, for the first time, Beertopia will feature canned craft beer cocktails by KWOON, an new cocktail bar from the team at The Woods, opening next month. They have collaborated with Young Master Ales to create three cocktails exclusive to Beertopia. On the lighter, fruitier side is Go-Go-Gose, a vodka-based drink featuring the refreshingly sour Cha Chaan Teng Gose. For those who prefer darker spirits, Rye So Serious is a complex bourbon-based cocktail made with The Rye on Wood, a 6% malt forward rye ale.
Are You Not Entertained?
Okay, so let’s admit it. Munich’s Oktoberfest isn’t so much about the beer; it’s the festive atmosphere. You won’t find an IPA, imperial, barrel-aged, or sour tent, but craft beer geeks still want to go to Oktoberfest. This just confirms the importance of creating a fun and lively environment so that even non-hardcore beer fans can have a beer or two, something other than pretzels to eat, and still enjoy themselves. Beertopia seeks to provide that vibe.
For myself, given that there’s a lot of beer I’d want to go through, food is an important consideration to help keep up my stamina. I remember going to the PINT Bokbierfestival in Amsterdam and finding next to no food to speak of. That was a problem, especially when every beer was 6.3% ABV and higher. This won’t be an issue at Beertopia because they have 22 different food vendors. From Chinese to French, Japanese to German, Tandoori to vegetarian, there’s a wide range to choose from – even dessert.
I also don’t expect to have much time to get into my dancing fool mode. Those so inclined can head to the music stage to groove to local bands and DJs from Sol Passion Music. Alternatively, chill out at a 2,000-square-foot shisha garden, complete with comfy beanbag chairs. Games are also popular with festivalgoers. This year, the games area has been expanded with beer pong, giant beer pong, and flip cup.
Another new addition to this year’s Beertopia is the HK Beer Championship. This is Hong Kong’s first Beer Judge Certification Program-sanctioned competition open only to licensed local commercial breweries. As it’s being held during Beertopia, the organizers have been able to assemble an international judging panel that includes brewers from China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, and Taiwan.
HK Beer Championship judging will take place on November 17. Awards will be presented on the Beertopia main stage the following night at 9:00pm.