Depending on your temperament, the October chill is either welcome or a yearly annoyance. And depending on your tastes, so too are the month’s big beer shindigs, namely last weekend’s Beertopia slosh-fest and the more long-standing and long-titled Marco Polo German Bierfest Hong Kong 2015 later on.
This year’s Beertopia was held on October 9 and 10 on the harbourfront beneath the cluster of Central skyscrapers and the HK Observation Wheel, which is garish from a distance yet quite impressive when looking up from below. It’s not quite like being in a Munich beer garden, but the harborfront setting takes on a kind of elegance shrouded by the overhead electric rainbow of color.
On the ground, though, there’s more of an at-the-fair, small town kind of feel thanks to the game stalls with country western-style signage, sizzling food stalls handing out free shots of rum with impressive queues for burgers and fries, and tents billowing in wind that’s coming off Victoria Harbour over the event space.
It was the fourth year for the beer paradise here in Hong Kong, which bills itself as the largest for craft beer in the city. Craft beer has been repeatedly lauded as the newest big deal in town, though it’s admittedly more niche than, say, the previous hamburger trend or the current Korean chicken fad, etc. But it’s a welcome one.
A good working definition of craft beer might be this: beer that’s produced in small quantities with original flavors and local ownership. An even better definition, however, is beer that doesn’t make you wince when swallowed. The official event program claims there were more than 500 beers from around the world at the event, and I’m doubtful anyone but the most determined drunkard could have tried more than ten before collapsing.
Tickets went for HK$330 for five tokens, which were basically redeemable beer bucks, or HK$380 for ten. Prices were slightly higher on Saturday. The mood was merry past the ticket booth, where the crowds packed into rows with concession booths and onto a flashing dance-floor farther off thumping with EDM. Making one’s way through the crowd required careful dodging to avoid overflow from clinking glasses.
There was even a Lucky Draw at the front, though it seemed to be basically an exercise in brand sponsorship for the likes of NOHO Hangover Defense Beverage and Gweilo Pale Ale – both of which are actual products, surprisingly.
Past the burger stalls, I was asked to “Like” the NOHO Facebook page and was promptly rewarded with two energy-drink-sized canisters of the stuff. Later on I tried the Gweilo beer, which I’m guessing was a late-night joke amongst tipplers that turned into a serious business initiative.
The best part of Beertopia, of course, is the convenience of trying out local and regional start-ups and specialty craft brands, of which there are just an absolutely mind-boggling amount.
Just walking along the strip, standouts were the Pale Ale at Nine Dragons Brewery, a newish brand just finding its feet, and the smooth Gong Fu IPA from Drunken Cat Micro-Brewery in Guangzhou. It’s par for local brewers to each craft a range of beers ranging from light to strong, pale ales to stouts, and it’s a shame that I couldn’t try anything beyond a few from each, it being a gastrointestinal and financial impossibility.
Moonzen Brewery, run by a husband and wife duo, was above the rest in terms of pride in their product. Each of their beers has a story steeped in Chinese folklore and Hong Kong culture.
Take their Monkey King Amber Ale, for example, which “features hints of peaches stolen from the Heavenly Garden”. Indeed, it was divine. On the other end of the spectrum was Hong Kong Beer. From what was sampled, I was reminded of the similarly titled airline: benefiting from the city’s name but lacking its charm.
After passing the stalls for The Butcher’s Club, The Pink Pig and The Diner (and its mouth-watering all-American pulled pork BBQ sandwich) there were imports from overseas, including punch-packing Belgium beers. There was a great ale called Rodenbach Flemish Sour that tasted like a classy lambic, on-tap beer from Italy, smooth ciders, creamy IPAs and too many others to name or recall.
As my evening of guzzling wore on, I eventually ran out of tokens. I was wearing a wobbly boot, next to bursting and had traipsed across the dance floor to the fest’s eastern edge. I bought a Gweilo Brewery shirt to wear non-ironically, sampled still more beers: an ale from Lithuania, a German stout, a French cider – and had still only seen about half of what Beertopia had to offer in total. There was beer from countries A to Z, an overwhelming volume of alcohol that makes the mind reel and the stomach churn to think about in toto.
Teetering in front of the BEERS R US booth, I lapsed into a woozy rumination on beer and the fest itself. The imports, you see, had somehow not captured the heart and soul of Hong Kong’s Beertopia in the same way that brewers like Young Master Ale had.
The beers that were brainstormed and brewed here in the city itself were really the weekend’s winners, simply because they represent its boldness, its bitter and sweet qualities, and its successes, in a bottle. That something as arbitrary as local ale could be emboldened with Hong Kong spirit made them all the more special.
I was admittedly sodden, and prepared myself to exit. A young woman knelt over and lost her lunch in front of the table for sampling glasses. Southeast Asian men dressed in black suits swept in and demanded I leave, it being 11:30 pm.
Tables of red-faced expats seemed like they were just warming up for the weekend, and there was much chumming around. It was bottoms up for my own Chimay Red Brune, and a quick sampling of the evening’s dregs on the way out.
Time will tell which craft beers are Hongkongers’ favorites, and whether the city has what it takes to become an internationally renowned beer hub like London or Portland past the current craft craze. Trying the best beers in Hong Kong was, for me, like sipping at the fount of a barrelful of rich culture and community that’s mostly untapped. And like a true tippler, you just want more.
Beertopia succeeds because it balls up the separate entities in Hong Kong’s rumbling craft beer group and brings them together in a collaborative, friendly community. And that is something we can all raise a glass to. Yám bùi!
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