Christopher Wong, the co-founder of homebrew brand HK Brewcraft and the frontrunner in the local craft beer scene, is striving to convert Hong Kong’s food paradise into a beer shrine.
When homebrewer Christopher Wong brewed his first pint of beer around 10 years ago at SF Brewcraft, a local homebrew shop in San Francisco, he became an instant convert to the craft. “It’s a form of self-expression, but also you get an inside scope of what’s happening in your beer,” Chris says of what drew him to the art. Back in the 00s, homebrewing was a thriving hobby in the U.S. where a burgeoning craft beer scene has taken root; yet, it was still a term unheard of in Chris’s hometown Hong Kong. Now, thanks to Chris and the small but dedicated community of homebrewers that’s sprung up in the city, Hong Kong has become one of the top craft beer destinations in Asia.
Tucked away in a nondescript building in Hong Kong’s Mid-levels district, HK Brewcraft is one of the city’s very first homebrew concepts and the home base of the city’s quiet beer revolution. Conceived by Chris and his drinking buddies as a secret society for homebrew enthusiasts six years ago, the warehouse is part brewing lab and part bottle shop housing over 350 craft beer brands. “Back when we started, there weren’t many choices of craft beer, we had trouble filling that fridge,” says Chris, of their difficult start. “Hong Kong has all these Michelin starred restaurant, but when you looked at our beer selections seven years ago, it was way behind any other Asia country. We had a third world beer scene,” says Chris.
In a city where space is a premium, operation costs were indisputably one of the most common roadblocks standing in the way for independent breweries. And then, there was a heavy dose of market oligopoly. “Dominating beer brands such as Carlsberg and Jebsen group can legally corrupt the restaurants and bars. They used cash as bait to get retailers to sell their beer,” Chris reveals. When independent breweries did manage to rise up in the industry, they were often bought off by the big brands. “That’s the way they recover their market share, which works,” he continues.
HK Brewcraft was Chris’s attempt to shake up this status quo. And, as he sees it, homebrewing is the very foundation on which a beer industry is built. “If you look at any successful beer market, it’s always been supported by a bunch of homebrewers. Who’s going to open breweries? Not the big corporates. Without home brewers, there’ll be no future breweries,” he argues.
Beginning life in Tin Hau before moving to its newer location, HK Brewcraft started out offering a range of homebrewing equipment and ingredients for local homebrewers, as well as workshops for beginners. “The whole idea was based heavily on urban brewing where you can easily brew at home with kitchenware. We just wanted to buy enough kits to share with people who like doing it,” says Chris, who, at the time, was working at a beef speciality hot pot restaurant. “By day, I was selling homebrew equipment. By night, I was cutting beef at my hot pot place across the street from HK Brewcraft,” the brewer recalls.
As if a switch has been flicked, since the opening of HK Brewcraft, the number of microbreweries in the city has mushroomed from 2 to more than 35, local breweries which have made a name for themselves include Gweilo, Young Master Ales, and Moonzen Brewery. “A lot of those local breweries you see were actually participants of our classes,” says Chris, proudly, “it all happened in 2012-2013. There were Beertopia (Hong Kong’s largest craft beer festival) and Young Master Breweries. Everyone was going for a different spot in the supply chain.” Drinkers, too, have pivoted away from commercial beer for the creative, boundary-pushing recipes. And, nowhere is this beer movement more apparent than at HK Brewcraft. Within six short months of opening, the shop was overwhelmed by the demand, which prompted Chris to relocate it to its current location.
Some read this trend as beer snobbery. “That’s a Hong Kong thing,” says Chris. “I won’t say it’s a beer-related thing. It’s human nature, if you find something new, the first wave of people who understand will hype it up to show off, and others will follow through. That’s the same with coffee, wine and whiskey.” But, snobbery aside, he sees the key drivers as education and exposure.“A lot of work has been done to let people know that there are more beers in the world other than what you see in 7-Eleven,” he adds. “There’re 130 different styles of beer, and 7-Eleven only has 2 types.”
As local palates continue to wake up to the variety of beers available, Chris predicts that the craft beer business will only gain momentum. “There’s been a trend going on called the ‘beer ticker syndrome,’ which means one drinker won’t want to drink the same beer for a second time. What they do is like collecting stamps, and they are going to change the world market of beer,” says Chris. Riding this trend, the brewing master has a bigger plan up his sleeve. “Our ultimate goal at HK Brewcraft is to become a shrine, a major attraction for beer geeks in Asia.” he envisages. Given that HK Brewcraft has been spotlighted by Lonely Planet as one of the craft beer hubs to watch, being one of the chief establishments for home brewing kits and full-on brewing courses, it seems he’s not so far from his dream.