Hong Kong Beer: Yardley Brothers and the Pleasure of Experimentation

Most Hong Kong breweries had humble beginnings, but there’s only one that started in a shack. In 2015, Lamma Island residents and day-trippers out for a hike were able to buy a pint of freshly-brewed Yardley Brothers ale from a lean-to along the main path from Yung Shue Wan to Hung Shing Yeh Beach. 

“We started homebrewing when we were teenagers,” says Luke Yardley, who moved here in 2010 to work for a company doing purchasing in China. “I was only meant to be here for six months but I fell in love with Hong Kong,” he says. His brother Duncan soon joined him. They picked up homebrewing again, and in 2015, they decided to see if they could make it work as a business, brewing in the borrowed kitchen of a Lamma restaurant and selling the results out of the shack on the weekends. “I’d been looking for a creative outlet for a long time,” says Yardley. He had played music and dabbled as an artist, but there was something uniquely compelling about making beer. 

The brothers started out with three brews: the Lamma Island IPA, a West Coast-influenced take on the style with citrusy and floral notes; a punchy double IPA called Hong Kong Bastard; and a Belgian-style saison named !Quit Your Job!. That moniker turned out to be prophetic: within a year, Yardley had left his job to brew full-time. “We never had a business plan. But when the beer shack started earning more money two days a week than I made at my job five days a week, I was like, ‘Ah, this works.’”

Fast forward to 2024 and Yardley Brothers Craft Brewery is one of Hong Kong’s leading breweries, having expanded at the beginning of the year to a new ground-floor facility in Kwai Fong. The original lineup of beers has grown to include an array of sour and mixed-fermentation brews that have earned Yardley awards and international attention, like the S.E.A. Sour, which was fermented with local cultivated fungi. With the expansion comes big ambitions. “I don’t want to be the leading brewery in Hong Kong, I want to be the leading brewery making sour beer in Asia,” he says.

And yet these aren’t easy times for craft beer. After a buoyant couple of decades that saw an explosion of new breweries in countries as diverse as Singapore, Italy and Brazil, beer sales are flat or declining in most places. The situation is different in every country, but what’s happening in the United States, the country that launched the contemporary craft beer boom in the 1990s and early 2000s, is a good example. The number of US craft breweries has reached an all-time high, with more than 9,500, a nearly three-fold increase over the past decade. But those breweries are competing for a piece of a shrinking pie: craft beer production declined by one percent last year, while the overall beer market — including big industrial breweries like Budweiser — declined by 5.1 percent. 

There is precious little data to illustrate the situation in Hong Kong, but nearly everyone in the industry, from brewers to retailers to bar owners, agrees that this is a challenging period of time. In comparison with the US, Hong Kong’s craft brewing industry is still in its infancy, dating back only to 2013 with the launch of Young Master Brewery. But the upheaval of the 2019 protests, followed by three years of Covid restrictions, dealt a hard blow to the roughly 15 local breweries and the ecosystem of bottle shops, bars and restaurants that support them. “A lot of businesses have closed or are still struggling,” said Tracy Gan, co-founder of beer, wine and spirits distributor The Bottle Shop, at the end of 2022. 

Things very slowly improved over 2023, but it was only at the beginning of this year that many people in the industry have said they are seeing light at the end of the tunnel. Even so, footfall in local restaurants and bars is still lower than what it was before 2019: some regular bargoers have emigrated, while others are saving their money for trips to Shenzhen, where prices for eating and drinking are substantially lower than in Hong Kong. “The situation is challenging. Hong Kong is not what it was 10 years ago,” says Josh Abrams, Yardley’s chief experience officer. “But there is still a market for craft beer that is growing and will continue to grow.”

Craft beer is, after all, an unusual industry, one driven as much by creative passion as by the desire to make money. That’s especially true in the case of Yardley Brothers, whose fervour for experimentation is a throwback to the more innocent early days of craft beer. “Luke is probably the most experimental brewer in Hong Kong right now,” says Gan. “I like the fact that [he] is very open minded in his approach to beers and willing to collaborate with anyone.”

Yardley Brothers’ first beers were fairly traditional: IPAs, a blonde ale, a bitter, a pale ale. But within a couple of years, they were trying their hand at less conventional styles. In 2018, the brewery released a saison aged for six months in French oak barrels that had previously housed red wine, which it soon followed with a lambic-style sour — a wild-fermented beer originally from the Brussels region — aged in Chardonnay barrels. By the end of the year, the brothers had concocted the Thai Chilli Getaway, a lacto-fermented sour made with fresh Thai basil and bird’s eye chillies that proved to be a hit. 

That beer is an example of the freewheeling spirit that defines Yardley Brothers. Luke Yardley was at a beer conference when he met three Thai brewers, including Taopiphop Limjittrakorn, who had just served time in jail for homebrewing, which is illegal in Thailand. Yardley shared some of his sour beers with them and they were intrigued. “At the time, sour beers weren’t that common [in Asia],” he says. They suggested he make a beer inspired by tom yung goong — hot and sour Thai soup — and they ended up brewing it together illicitly, on an island where they were unlikely to be discovered by police. (The following year, Limjittrakorn was elected as a Member of Parliament, and he has since spearheaded efforts to liberalise Thailand’s liquor laws.)

When Thai Chilli Getaway was released, Yardley and his brother were no longer selling beer out of a shack. Two years earlier, in 2016, they had rented an industrial space in Kwai Hing and kitted it out with brewing equipment given to them by Pierre Cadoret, a Cathay Pacific pilot who had started making English-style ales out of a shopfront in Mui Wo in 2009. Having a proper brewery allowed Yardley Brothers to distribute to bars, restaurants and bottle shops around Hong Kong, and it quickly became a favourite among Hong Kong craft beer aficionados. 

“One cannot help but admire the remarkable variety of beers they have created,” says Kenneth Ho, a certified beer judge and co-founder of HK Beer Geeks, a community of craft beer enthusiasts. He is impressed by their classic styles — including English-style cask ales, which are usually available at The Beer Shack on Lamma and Yardleys Taproom in Soho — but also the brewery’s wild and sour ales, “including the unforgettable Mango Sticky Mango.” An extra-strong variation of the German gose style, it is made using fresh mangoes and coconut and fermented using Lactobacillus, the same bacteria that gives cheese its tang. 

Despite the hardships of the pandemic, Yardley Brothers was running at capacity in 2022. The brewery was split between the fourth and fifth floors of a high-rise building, and any growth was hampered by low ceilings and limited load capacity. (By then, Luke was the only Yardley left, as Duncan had moved to France a few years earlier. Luke’s wife Ting Ting took over Duncan’s role as business manager. “So it’s still a family operation,” says Luke.) Despite turbulent seas, Yardley decided to swim forward instead of treading water. Taking advantage of the depressed Covid-era real estate market and government support for small businesses, he signed a lease on a more spacious ground-floor space in nearby Kwai Fong.

There are only four other craft breweries in Hong Kong with ground-floor locations: Young Master, Carbon Brews, HK Lovecraft and Hong Kong Beer Company. Renting a ground floor space is significantly more expensive than renting a space upstairs, but it has its advantages, including easy access for deliveries and more load capacity that can support larger and heavier equipment. In other words, it’s a serious commitment to growth.

On a sunny morning in early April, Yardley is standing in what he calls the “hot side of the brewery,” where grains are boiled to make wort. (That’s the liquid to which hops and yeast are added, creating a fermentable liquid that will eventually become beer.) It’s already sweltering outside and even hotter inside. Yardley says that when the five-person brewing team needs to cool off, they step inside a nearby cold room used for storing yeast; a mural of Jack Nicolson’s frozen zombie-like face from the final scene of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is painted on the cold room’s sliding door. 

“In the old brewery, there was no technology whatsoever, it was literally just standing on a platform mixing by hand. Now there’s some high technology with a lot more automation,” says Yardley, pointing to the computer terminal that controls the kettles where the wort is boiled. “This is more efficient, it’s also less time-consuming. You can make more beer in less time, and what that means is you have more time to do your quality control checks. You have more time to be creative. It actually makes brewing more of a pleasure. Before it was just pretty hard work.”

Creativity was an important consideration when Yardley was designing the new brewery. Although the kettles have a combined 4,000-litre capacity — up from just 700 litres at the old brewery — he decided to install two 2,000-litre kettles so he could make smaller batches of more niche or experimental beers that might not sell as well as something more accessible. One example: a hazy IPA brewed in collaboration with Manchester’s Cloudwater, one of the UK’s buzziest breweries. One batch is fermented with Brettanomyces, the other with Saccharomyces; both are yeasts, commonly found in the wild, that produce funky flavours ranging from fruitiness to something often described as “horse blanket.” 

It’s an experiment that would have been vastly more difficult in the old brewery. That’s not only because of the expanded capacity and shiny new equipment but also because the brewery is split between the hot side and a delightfully air-conditioned expanse where no Brettanomyces is allowed. (Wild yeasts, which can easily contaminate other beers if brewers aren’t careful, are kept on the hot side of the brewery.) The cool side also includes an office, a bar and space for events — the brewery hosted a concert to celebrate its grand opening in January — and 72 barrels where beer is currently ageing. “There’s French oak and US bourbon, Chardonnay, vin du Jura,” says Yardley, surveying the rows of barrels stacked atop one another. “This one’s a sour beer that tastes like yellow wine. It’s been in the barrel for 2.5 years now. It goes well with Comté cheese.”

Many of those beers will be sitting in barrels for years before they are released. In the meantime, Yardley is keen to continue exploring the limits of beer – and fermentation in particular. Three years ago, the brewery released Asia’s first beer made with a koëlschip, a shallow vessel open to the air that allows beer to ferment spontaneously from ambient yeast. That was done on Lamma, in early January, to take advantage of cooler weather and the island’s natural microfauna. (Making the same beer in the industrial area of Kwai Fong might produce different results.) Yardley recently hosted Jason White, the former director of fermentation at Noma — the renowned Copenhagen restaurant focused on foraged ingredients — for a one-month residency to explore new approaches to making beer and food.

“If you keep banging out the same pale ale everyday, it’s boring – that’s not what gets me out of bed,” says Yardley. “The point of good beer is to be curious.”

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