Hong Kong’s Industrial History, Part IX: Locally-Brewed Beer

Hong Kong’s colonial history is usually said to start with opium, but Martyn Cornell thinks credit should be given to another intoxicating substance: beer. The British journalist and beer historian began investigating Hong Kong’s history with the beverage when he lived here for a few years in the early 2010s. He found quite a few surprises along the way. 

It all goes back to the summer of 1839, when a fleet of British merchant ships was anchored off the coast of Hong Kong. Among their supplies was a quantity of what was described in official records as “good beer,” along with some apparently less good French wine. There wasn’t enough of either substance. When the ships’ tanks ran dry, the sailors ventured ashore to Kowloon, where villagers sold them cups of saam1 siu1 (三燒 “thrice fired”), also known as san shao, a type of local rice spirit. The sailors depleted the village stock and began rampaging around the peninsula looking for more booze. They raided houses, vandalised a temple and fought with locals – one of whom, a man named Lin Weixi, was struck across the chest with a wooden stick. He died of his injuries the next day. 

Lin’s murder set in motion a cascade of events that culminated in the First Opium War, which saw the control of Hong Kong Island handed over to Britain in the Treaty of Nanking. “It could, perhaps, be argued that if the sailors in Hong Kong harbour had had access to supplies of beer, they would never have gone drinking san shao in Kowloon, Lin Weixi would not have died (…) and the British would never have decided they needed Hong Kong as a secure home of their own to conduct trade with China from,” writes Cornell.  

But they did, and Hong Kong was flooded with beer very soon after Britain established its presence there. As Cornell notes in the journal of the Brewery History Society, Hong Kong’s history with beer taps into the transnational flow of people and capital that has shaped the city from its very beginnings.

The first beers available in Hong Kong were British ales, porters and stouts “like Bass pale ale, Guinness [or] Youngers from Edinburgh,” says Cornell from his home in London. They were likely served with a side of ice, as the beers were typically stored at ambient temperature – not exactly a refreshing tipple in sweltering Hong Kong. 

As the number of British soldiers and expats grew in Hong Kong, so did the thirst for beer: 1,305 barrels were imported in 1851, but in 1866, this had increased to 11,977 barrels. It was official government policy to keep soldiers well-lubricated, because if they ran out of beer, they would venture into town to hit up the san shao – with predictable effect. “As long as good and cheap porter remained at the canteen the men always drank there and not in the town,” reported Colonel William Sankey in 1866.

Demand for British beer stayed strong throughout the late 19th century; in the early 1890s, Hong Kong consumed nearly as much of it as Canada and New Zealand combined. But things were changing. All around the world, beer drinkers were switching from traditional ales to light lagers, which are less flavourful but arguably easier to drink in quantity. 

Department store Lane Crawford, which at that time sold food and drink and had originally imported Bass from Burton-upon-Trent, began selling the Danish lager Tuborg as early as 1876. It was followed by similar lagers such as Rainier beer from the United States and Kirin from Japan, and by the turn of the 20th century, they completely dominated the Hong Kong market. “Beer drinkers in Hong Kong began to realise that light, cold lager was a much more sensible drink in a hot climate than the still quite heavy, hoppy British ales and stouts they had been drinking before,” says Cornell.

When he began his research into Hong Kong’s beer history, one thing that surprised him was that nobody had bothered to start a local brewery until the first decade of the 20th century. “There were breweries being opened in India from the 1820s onwards, and someone even opened a brewery in Shanghai in the 1860s, while there were breweries opening in Japan in the 1870s. But Hong Kong somehow missed out.”

A string of entrepreneurs aimed to rectify the situation, but their ambition was bigger than their brew kits. Singapore’s Straits Times reported in 1900 that a “well-known brewer” named W. von Moslowsky planned to open a brewery in Hong Kong with 120 employees and an annual output of 390,000 barrels per year, an astonishing number in a city with fewer than 300,000 residents. “No more seems to be known of Mr. Von Moslowsky,” writes Cornell. “Indeed, he looks to be a figment of the Straits Times’ imagination.”

That mystery brewery was followed by another failed attempt, in 1904, that involved Paul Chater, an influential businessman who had his hands in every Hong Kong pot. The company never managed to raise enough funding to actually start brewing. Around the same time, a pair of Portuguese entrepreneurs, AAH Botelho and FD Barretto, did manage to start brewing lager in a converted villa on Wong Nai Chung Road in Happy Valley. Known as Imperial Brewing, it opened in 1907 and was already exporting beer to mainland China the following year. 

But reviews of the company’s beers were mixed. “Both flavour and clarity have much to be desired and should probably be blamed on the technical management of the company,” wrote the Hong Kong consul-general of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. “The whole plant of this brewery, which is in makeshift accommodation in a former private house, points to the low capital strength of the owner.”

And it soon faced a rival across the harbour. In 1908, the Oriental Brewery began operations in Lai Chi Kok, making a light lager called Prima, which was advertised with the slogan, “The Beer That’s Brewed to Suit the Climate.” The brewery also made its own ice, competing with Dairy Farm in supplying the city with frozen water. But in spite of some early success, the Oriental Brewery never managed to make enough profit to pay back its investors. It folded in 1912 and its equipment was sold to the Baretto family, which ran Manila’s San Miguel Brewery. It was dismantled and shipped to the Philippines.

That was just the beginning of San Miguel’s involvement in the Hong Kong brewing scene – although it would be several decades before the company returned to these shores. That particular chapter of Hong Kong’s beer history began in 1930, when Jehangir Ruttonjee launched a new company called Hong Kong Brewers and Distillers.

Ruttonjee was a member of India’s Parsi minority who had moved to Hong Kong in 1892 to join his father, Hormusjee, who ran a wine and spirits importing business. Although Hong Kong had never managed to sustain a brewery for more than a few years, its thirst for beer continued to expand, and Ruttonjee sensed an opportunity to succeed where all others had failed. With funding from a group of investors that included the Kadoorie family—owners of China Light and Power and the Peninsula Hotel—Ruttonjee began building a brewery in Sham Tseng, a village on the shores of the Rambler Channel in the western New Territories. 

The two-storey facility opened in 1933 with a ceremony catered by Lane Crawford, which served tea and cakes inside a bamboo matshed that had been built for the occasion. The governor’s wife, Lady Southorn, was given a specially engraved hop shovel, although it’s not clear if she actually used it. 

The new brewery marketed its beer under the HB brand and fortune seemed to be on its side. Its top-of-the-line equipment had been provided by a company in Pilsen, the birthplace of Czech pilsner—a crisp, hoppy lager—which also loaned Ruttonjee’s company its head brewer. At first, HB beer was half the price of an equivalent imported beer, but in 1935, the global price of silver went soaring – and since Hong Kong and China were the only two places in the world that still used the silver standard, so did the value of their currencies. Imported beer suddenly became cheaper than locally-brewed HB, and the brewery’s export markets dried up, too.

The currency crisis cleared up when Hong Kong abandoned the silver standard and introduced the Hong Kong dollar in December 1935. It was too late for HB, though, and one week later, the brewery went bankrupt. But it didn’t go out of business: Ruttonjee came to the rescue by dipping into his personal fortune in order to buy out creditors. Soon after, he incorporated a new company and took over the Sham Tseng brewery. 

It was smooth sailing thereafter for HB – until Japan invaded in 1941. The Japanese military seized the brewery and hired a brewer from Osaka to make beer for occupying forces. Ruttonjee and his son were tortured when they refused to encourage the Parsi community to collaborate with the occupation. The following year, in 1943, his daughter died of tuberculosis when an epidemic swept through Hong Kong. 

Four years later, Ruttonjee was able to reclaim the brewery, and HB beer was back on sale by the autumn of 1946. But the war must have sapped his enthusiasm for the beer business because he quietly sold the company to San Miguel the following year. He dedicated the rest of his life to fighting tuberculosis, donating money to establish a sanatorium that later became the Ruttonjee Hospital. 

San Miguel continued to make beer in Sham Tseng, which became a popular destination for roast goose and fresh-brewed pilsner. In 1971, Danish beer behemoth Carlsberg opened a brewery in Tai Po. Both factories closed in the 1990s: the Sham Tseng brewery in 1994, when San Miguel moved to a smaller but more modern facility in Yuen Long, and Tai Po in 1999, when Carlsberg moved to Huizhou, Guangdong, in search of a more affordable operating environment. In 1994, an American psychologist named David Haines opened a third local brewery, South China Brewing Company, in Aberdeen, producing small-batch ales that today would be considered craft beers

And yet local beers have never dominated the Hong Kong market. Cornell says that, when both San Miguel and Carlsberg were brewing here, “maybe half of Hong Kong’s beer market was produced domestically.” But most Hong Kong drinkers seem to have preferred imported beer.

Blue Girl is one example. It’s known as the preferred brand of taxi drivers, football fans, karaoke singers and construction workers, and you can find it in every convenience store and dai pai dong. In many boisterous Chinese restaurants, “beer girls” dressed in skimpy Blue Girl outfits serve blue buckets filled with ice-cold bottles of the brew, which are emblazoned with the slogan, “Premium Imported Beer.”

Imported, but only technically. First brewed in Germany in the 19th century, Blue Girl was acquired by Hong Kong-based trading company Jebsen & Co. in 1906. It is now made in Korea almost exclusively for the Hong Kong market. “There appears to have been a certain snobbery in Hong Kong about Hong Kong-produced goods,” says Cornell. “I met a lot of people who wouldn’t drink San Miguel because it was produced in Hong Kong. The staying power of Blue Girl, I’m sure, is because it’s cheap, and also it’s undemanding.”

Things have changed in recent years thanks to a boom in local craft brewing. There are now more than 20 breweries in the city, from pint-sized nanobreweries like Lion Rock and Heroes to larger operations like Young Master. Although some of them brew lagers, most of their beers have more in common with the ales, porters and stouts that were popular in the late 19th century – only this time, they’re local, not foreign.

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