What if you could make a beer that didn’t just evoke Hong Kong – but actually tasted like it? We’re about to find out. This month, Young Master Ales is about to make the city’s first ever lambic-style beer, a kind of brew that is fermented inside a giant wooden tank known as a foeder. “It allows a bit of oxygen in, so we’ll get some organisms in as well,” says brewery founder Rohit Dugar.
This is just the latest step in a movement by Hong Kong’s upstart breweries to create beer with truly local flavours. Next weekend, the annual Beertopia craft beer festival will feature more than 65 locally-brewed beers, the largest number yet. Among them are brews made with chrysanthemum, papaya, longan and other distinctly Hong Kong ingredients.
“I’m feeling there is a trend of localising flavours,” says Laszlo Raphael, who runs another local brewery, Moonzen, with his wife Michele Wong. “No longer can you get away with just doing a pale ale or an IPA [India Pale Ale]. People want exciting things.”That’s a message echoed by Dugar and his head brewer, Tom Hanson. Earlier this year, Young Master expanded from its original brewery on Ap Lei Chau to a second, 10,000 square foot space in Wong Chuk Hang, where stainless steel tanks tower over racks of oak barrels, which the brewery uses to age strong beers like its recently released Mio, a Belgian-style quadrupel aged in Templeton rye whisky barrels. Young Master’s expansion has made it the largest craft brewery in Hong Kong – and Dugar has ambitious plans to push the envelope of what can be brewed here.
“It’s something in our DNA – we like to do bold things and bring them to market,” says Dugar, a longtime beer lover who launched Young Master in 2013. “It became clear to us early on that we need to play an important role in the developing of the scene, in educating people. Making new, interesting styles is a part of that, so people realise that beer is not just one thing – it can be many things.”
Local drinkers got a taste of that with the Cha Chaan Teng Gose, a sour, salty ale based on a style that originated in the German city of Goslar. Inspired by haam4 ling4 cat1 (鹹檸七), a classic Hong Kong drink made by infusing 7-Up with salted, preserved limes, the Cha Chaan Teng Gose is unexpected yet familiar, which is perhaps why it was a surprise hit when it was released as a one-off summer special in 2015. It was so popular, Young Master made it part of its core lineup of beers.
Many people assume that Hong Kong drinkers have conservative tastes, but Dugar says they are actually quite adventurous. “I don’t think there is such as a thing as Hong Kong palate,” he says. “You can’t be safe. We try to do one-offs every three or four weeks and those are some of our most popular beers.”
Though some Hong Kong breweries have become known for using unorthodox ingredients in their beer – Mak’s Brewery has a stout made with sugarcane and City Brew makes a wasabi IPA—both Raphael and Dugar say there should be a rhyme to the reason for using unusual ingredients or techniques. “You need to have a story, a linkage between Hong Kong and what the beer is,” says Raphael.
One of his latest releases is the Papaya Milk IPA, which was inspired by the papaya milk served by beloved dessert chain Yee Shun Milk Company. “One night we went out for dinner there and in one burst of creativity I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to make a beer out of this?’” he says. He developed a recipe for a hoppy beer brewed with lactose, which add an extra layer of sweetness. Once it finished fermenting, it is infused with papaya pulp. “It sold out in like two days,” says Raphael. “But because it was popular, I think we’ll try it again – but make it more thick, more hoppy, more milky.”
Dugar says the foeder will allow Young Master to quench his thirst for experimentation in an entirely new way. “We’re doing Hong Kong’s first — actually, Asia’s first — lambic beer,” he says. Traditionally made in Belgium, lambics are fermented with wild yeast, which gives them a dry, funky character similar to cider or wine. Lambics can be mixed with fruits, or aged in barrels and blended to create a gueuze, a combination of differently aged lambics.
Brewing this type of beer in Hong Kong will require Young Master to deviate from tradition. “One thing we are sacrificing in Hong Kong is spontaneous fermentation,” says Dugar. In Belgium, lambics are fermented with ambient yeast from the surrounding brewery, which is usually some variety of brettanomyces—often nicknamed brett—a maverick yeast that creates a musky flavour some describe as “horse blanket.” Though a brett-heavy beer is definitely an acquired taste, in small quantities it can give the brew a pleasantly dry fruitiness.
Because Hong Kong has such a warm climate, however, any ambient brett floating through the air might be accompanied by other, undesirable organisms. That’s especially true given the industrial setting of Young Master’s brewery. “We could go to some areas where there are fruit trees and try to capture some wild yeast from there and get it lab analysed to see if it’s something we could use,” says Dugar. “That’s an experiment we will hopefully do at some point, but probably not in our first foeder brew. We’d have to take a more scientific approach to spontaneous fermentation. This has never been done in a tropical place.”
For its first batch, the brewery will import two or three cultivated strains of brett, along with a Belgian ale yeast and some pediococcus, a lactic acid bacteria that is also used to make kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt and cheese. It’s a controlled experiment, but the foeder’s permeable wood surface will allow at least some unpredictable organisms to settle into the beer. “We’ll leave that part of it to mystery and nature,” says Dugar.
Dugar plans to fill the foeder by the end of November. It will take at least six months for the beer to mature. After that, part of it will be released as an unblended lambic-style ale, part could be used to create a farmhouse IPA and part could be aged for future blending in a gueuze. “We could put fruit in, too,” says Dugar. “A classic [Belgian] kriek uses sour cherries. We could use local hawthorne.”
It all comes down to one thing. “We want to prove that high-quality, world-class brewing can be done in Hong Kong,” says Dugar. And if that beer actually tastes like it’s from Hong Kong? Even better.
Try beers from Young Master, Moonzen and 12 other local breweries at this year’s Beertopia, which runs on the Central harbourfront on November 18 and 19, 2016. Click here for more information.