When Beertopia returns for its fifth edition on September 22 and 23, keep an eye out for the superheroes. Or to be more precise, Heroes – the new local brewery whose brews are made in collaboration with a secret society of craft beer enthusiasts. The project started earlier this year, when brewer and entrepreneur Christopher Wong got together with two of his oldest friends, Jason Lowe and Angus Ip, to launch a new beer brand. “We’re childhood friends, so we knew we wouldn’t kill each other no matter what,” jokes Wong.
The first thing they needed to do was to find an identity. Hong Kong’s craft beer scene has exploded in recent years, with nearly 30 breweries now operating in the city. With no shortage of locally-brewed pale ales and wheat beers now flowing from the city’s taps, Wong wanted to do something different. “We thought, ‘Who owns a brewery? It’s not really the shareholders – it’s the drinkers,’” he says. He thought of the 2010 movie Kick-Ass, in which an ordinary teenager sets out to become a superhero. And so he and his friends decided to do offer similar powers to Hong Kong’s beer lovers.
“We only have one rule – the person has to have a passion for beer,” explains Wong. The first beer hero was a radio DJ who hosted music and beer pairings. “People listened to songs and thought about how they went with beer,” says Wong. Although the DJ loves beer, he doesn’t know much about it, so Wong and his partners gave him a “really long questionnaire” to help figure out what kind of beer they should make in his honour.
The result is Cereusly, the kind of dry, grassy India Pale Ale (IPA) that was popular 10 years ago. “It’s completely unfashionable now – who makes a dry West Coast IPA in 2017?” says Wong. But the result has been popular enough to become a mainstay in craft beer bars throughout Hong Kong. “We’ve ended up making beers we probably never would have made,” says Wong, because the collaborative process produces unexpected results.
Another beer is Hangry Donut, a hoppy wheat beer brewed with hibiscus and lactose, which gives it a subtle sweet-and-sour undertone. The hero in that case was an acclaimed local chef. Next week, at Beertopia, Heroes is unveiling its latest effort, a session IPA (a light-bodied, low-alcohol version of the popular style) that will be aged in oak barrels – a highly usual treatment for that kind of beer. “The hero is a time traveller,” says Wong. “He had this crazy idea because he likes IPA but he also likes barrel-aged beers.”In order to keep the mystery alive, Wong won’t reveal who any of the heroes are. But a few have stepped forward to unmask themselves. One is James Ling, the manager of Tai Hang gastropub Second Draft. “I was kind of precise with my beer,” he says. “I told them I wanted a Scotch ale with a little bit of diacetyl for a buttery flavour.”
That led to AP-09, whose name is derived from Ling’s Cantonese nickname, Ling4 Gau2 (零玖) – Zero Nine. He says customers often come into his bar asking for maak6 mei6 cung4 (麥味重), or malty beer, and a Scotch ale fits the bill, with a rich, caramelised flavour that comes from boiling the malt for a long time. “It’s one of the styles I really love and I think it’s underrepresented in Hong Kong,” says Ling. One of the first craft beers he ever tried was Belhaven Wee Heavy, a classic example of the style.
Another specific request came from avid homebrewer Jordan Kostelac. “My signature homebrew is a milk tea porter. When it’s on, it’s really good, but it’s incredibly hard to do,” he says. Tea is a fickle ingredient and it can be hard to find the right balance. “Sometimes the roast of the porter can dominate the tea, or the tannins overwhelm the roastiness you want.”
In the end, Kostelac and the Heroes crew decided to go with coffee, producing what they call the Hunk Sir Milfee Porter, a lactose-infused brew that tastes like the Hong Kong-style milk coffee you would find in a cha chaan teng. The name pokes gentle fun at Kostelac’s penchant for strength training. “If we make the tea version, we’ll call it Hulk Sir,” he says, laughing.
Kostelac says he wanted his beer to be accessible to a wide range of drinkers. While many brewers create light, easy-drinking “gateway beers” to win over novice beer drinkers, he thinks this approach second-guesses how culinarily adventurous Hongkongers can be. “People are naturally curious,” he says. A brew that evokes memories of a cha chaan teng snack might be just the thing that gets more people interested in craft beer.
Incidentally, one of Kostelac’s homebrew projects is a char siu beer, but so far success has been elusive. He once dumped an entire dish of the barbecued pork into a beer, and while the meat’s sugars fermented nicely, the resulting concoction had no char siu flavour to speak of. “The hardest thing is getting the savoury part right,” he says.
It’s that kind of openness and experimentation that distinguishes craft beer from its industrial counterparts. Among the 500 beers available at Beertopia are brews made with local Hong Kong ingredients and collaborations between different local brewers, such as Yardley Brothers and Little Creatures, who worked together to create a tart raspberry ale. Cocktail master Vicky Chan will even be creating a gin-and-tonic-inspired beer for the festival.
Heroes takes that one step further by opening its recipe book to members of the community. So far, the concept seems to be catching on. Toby Cooper, owner of The Globe — one of Hong Kong’s pioneering craft beer bars — says he loves the fresh hoppiness of Cereusly. “It’s got a great nose and a nice finish,” he says. “Heroes shows everyone it’s possible to come into the craft beer market later than everyone else, and still do really well because you’ve got well-made, well-marketed beers.”
Try Heroes and more than 500 local and imported craft beers at this year’s Beertopia, which takes place on the Central harbourfront on September 22 and 23, 2017. Click here for more details.