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Craft beer in Hong Kong: brewers in the post golden age

Along Tung Wan Road on Cheung Chau Island, hides an inconspicuous pub, with its name, “Island”, on  a small brown sign.

Everyday, 37-year-old hostess Vicky Du stands behind the pub counter, pouring beers and tasting them with customers. 

“We sell craft beer here,” said Vicky, “when I first tasted it, I fell in love with it and wanted to share it with more people.”

One of the store's featured products is ‘honey beer’ which was founded in Cheung Chau. It Incorporates the unique culture of Cheung Chau into the design.

“I introduce craft beer to every drinker I meet because I think everyone deserves a taste,” she added.

Island’s liquor cabinet was filled with a wide selection of fine packaged beers. Some of them imported, but the vast majority were made in Hong Kong's local craft breweries.

Inside ‘Island’ pub, Cheung Chau

But Cheung Chau Island lacked the facilities for a brewery. So Vicky developed her own beer-ingredient list and later collaborated with various Hong Kong breweries for mass production.

Island's speciality bottled beer. "It's 100 percent made in Hong Kong," said Vicky.

“The biggest characteristic of craft beer is its diversity,” said Vicky Du. “You can customise the recipe to whatever you want.”

Unlike mass-produced beers, craft beers are usually produced in smaller quantities and accounted for a smaller share of the  market. However, as more and more flavours are introduced, craft beer is increasingly popular with drinkers as a way of  personal expression.

According to figures released by the Census and Statistics Department, the number of specialised outlets selling alcoholic beverages in Hong Kong increased from 140 in 2008 to 460 in 2019. On the export side, craft beer has been the mainstay of Hong Kong's alcoholic beverage export.

Hong Kong saw a golden age of craft beer in the past decade, with nearly 25 well-established local breweries, and countless pubs popping up every year, according to Business Digest, a Hong Kong commercial information platform.

Among them, Moonzen, a brewery founded in 2013. It is one of the first breweries in Hong Kong to offer craft beer. The name comes from the Cantonese “Munsan”, which is a god who guards the door and brings good luck to people in traditional Chinese mythology.

“We started to craft beer because it was a new concept at the time,” said Raphaël Ladislao , the 38-year-old founder who came to Hong Kong from Mexico in 2009, “When we were looking for a name, I thought of the gods standing at the entrance of the temple where I went to pray for the brewery, and so came 'Moonzen'.”

According to Raphaël, making craft beer is a unique scientific process. All the recipes were developed after full scientific research.

“We hope to promote traditional Chinese mythology through our brewery,” said Raphaël, “because I have fallen in love with its size and exquisiteness,”. 

Moonzen has launched a series of craft beers themed after mythological characters, such as Thunder God Beer, Sun Wukong Beer, and Jade Emperor Beer.

Moonzen sells more than 8,000 gallons of craft beer each month, mostly to local bars and party venues.

"These mythical characters correspond to different craft beer flavours. We have more than 10 craft beer flavours allowing drinkers to choose the taste that suits them," said Adam Raby, Director of sales of Moonzen brewery."What’s more, because our output is small, we can do better brewing to make it taste stronger than industrial beer.”

“Craft beer also has a unique market position. We target one group with each beer because each brand has its own recipe,” said Raphaël. Moonzen’s customers can customise their own desired flavours and choose their own beer recipes to brew.

Raphaël digs into the history of craft beer in addition to selling them. “A few years ago, we collaborated with Stanford University and the Chinese Archaeological Institute to recreate a prehistoric Chinese craft beer that was around some 7000 years ago,” said Raphaël. “We went to an ancient wreck in Shanxi Province to explore how the Neolithic Chinese brew beers using koji, barley and millet.” 

With the data collected, Moonzen listed a new brand that restored the original taste of the archaic craft beer as much as possible.

But with the popularity of craft beers, Moonzen is no longer the only brewery in Hong Kong, “Some breweries are emerging at a fast pace,” said Adam, “What we need to do is keep our loyal customers and talk to young people.”

Moonzen’s 10th anniversary edition.

Among these burgeoning brewers, "Deadman",  who also collaborated with Island, has already been a big name across Hong Kong since it was founded in 2018.

“We ourselves are synonymous with being young,” said Gerry Kuo, the founder of Deadman. 

Football, darts, bands, pool, Deadman is more like a club than a brewery. "Every Friday night we have a party in the brewery with free drinks," said Gerry, "and this is how we talk to the younger crowd."

“We won the best Asian brewery competition in 2020, and then the best Hong Kong brewery in 2023,” Gerry said. “When business is good, we sell a maximum of eight tonnes of beer a month."

When Gerry was studying in Canada, he loved "West Coast Beer" which has a rich fruit juice flavour. After he returned to Hong Kong, he wanted to brew his own "West Coast Beer.”

At first, Gerry just bought his own brew kit and started brewing on the rooftop of his house, out of personal interest. He then bumped into an old friend on a factory tour who wanted to start a brewery and that’s how it started. 

“Then we give it a cool name, Deadman,” he said, “because everyone's a dead man walking in Hong Kong, working their asses off.” 

With the classic skull and crossbones logo and personalised zombie bottle packaging, 

“Youth” and “rebellion” were the two keywords that branded Deadman.

“We have a very young team,” Gerry said, “and we always try to test and develop new products.”

Jason, 25, a  chemical engineering graduate, was the brewer of Deadman. “Using different moulds and hops, increasing or decreasing the dry hop process, all affect the ultimate flavour,” he said, "If it's very fruity this time, try something really floral next time.”

Gerry and his team explore new craft beer recipes by the bar desk.

Deadman's product line includes more than 40 kinds of beers, and the number is increasing with different beers being released seasonally.

“Like stouts are usually pushed out during winter time, and something light like lagers, is usually during summertime,” said Gerry. “We also develop limited editions, like imperial stouts and the honey beer for  Peninsula Hotel.”

A variety of Deadman beer fills a wall cabinet.

According to Gerry, Deadman just does not want to be rigid."We don't plan, we live in the moment," said the founder.

Apart from local breweries, exotic craft beers are also joining the Hong Kong beer market in a steady stream, according to the Government Investments Promotion Agency.

Zhangmen craft beer from Taiwan first came to Hong Kong in 2017 and had two outlets in Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok. 

"Hong Kong's craft beer market has become more mature in recent years, and the location is close to Taiwanese breweries, which makes it convenient for shipping," said Hong Kong general manager Lo King-chung.

"We stick to the spirit of natural brewing, small quantities and original craft brewing," said Cyrus Lau.

Cyrus Lau, the head of Zhangmen’s Mongkok shop,  said coming into the   Hong Kong market used to be a challenge for them, but gradually they gained a foothold in the new market amidst competition. 

“Most breweries, on the other hand, were not so lucky,” said Lau.

"Unlike ten years ago, there are so many craft beers on the market competing on price, flavour, and technology," said Gerry. "There are always a couple of breweries out of business every month and you have to find what makes you stand out."

The rapid changes in people's tastes are another challenge for craft beer brewers. "Some days people really like pineapple beers, and all of a sudden, they move into apple flavour or even get tired of craft beer," said Gerry, "but we still have inventory for mass production, so we have to start competing price-wise which will make us suffer.”

In response to the frivolous taste of the market, Moonzen chose to flow with the market. “Today, our focus is no longer on ‘making beer’ but ‘making good beer’,” said Raphaël, “we need to talk to young drinkers and let them know about our brand."

Moozen is cooperating with local football clubs that are popular among young people in Hong Kong to produce a customised craft beer, hoping to tap into the young market.

"Our formula must also be adjusted appropriately to cater the preferences of new consumers. Such continuous innovation and adaptation is what we will do in the future," he added.

Island is also trying to do the same thing.

"We've watered down the bitterness in our newly launched craft beers and make it more sweet or sour" said Vicky Du, "because young people nowadays are fond of beers which taste like other drinks. l think that will also be the future trend of craft beers”.

Island's newly launched craft beers "Cheung Chau Boys" and "Cheung Chau Girls" cater to the preferences of young people.

Although Hong Kong's craft beer industry faces challenges such as fierce competition and changes in  taste, there is no reason to downbeat it, said Vicky.

"Craft beers have a loyal customer base that appreciates our product, and this base will expand." she said, " craft beer is here to stay for a long time, so will 'Island' bar".












《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) started as a newspaper in 1969. Today, it is published across multiple media platforms and updated constantly to bring the latest news and analyses to its readers.


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