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The air was sweltering despite the fans, and condensation quickly formed on glasses of beer as soon as they were filled. On the top floor of the Pei Ho Street Market in Hong Kong, people were dressed in shorts and singlets, standard attire in the food hall.
The market is the kind of rough-and-ready place you go for hearty dishes and cheap beers, never mind the slippery floors and bright fluorescent lights. But the night of October 4, 2019, was remarkable, because instead of the usual Tsingtao, Carlsberg, or San Miguel, people were drinking Pale Ales, Pilsners, IPAs, and Goses from Young Master Brewery, one of Hong Kong’s pioneering craft breweries. And outside, the city was burning.
Earlier that day, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam had announced the invocation of an emergency act to immediately ban the wearing of masks. It was an attempt to quell the protests that had been raging for nearly four months after the Hong Kong government tried to introduce a law that would allow people to be extradited from Hong Kong to mainland China. Although Hong Kong ceased to be a British colony in 1997, the framework negotiated before its handover guaranteed 50 years of relative autonomy, allowing it to preserve freedoms that are unthinkable elsewhere in China, including freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, and the kinds of checks and balances on power that we have taken for granted in Western democracies.
Many people saw the extradition bill as the latest attempt to undermine not just those fundamental freedoms, but also the language, culture, and deeply ingrained pluralism that make Hong Kong distinct from the rest of China. While China has been very diverse historically, seven decades of Communist Party rule have had a homogenizing effect on language, education, and just about everything else, a trend that has only accelerated under the strict control of ruler-for-life Xi Jinping.
Hongkongers greeted the bill with enormous protests, the largest of which drew 2 million of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million inhabitants. The police responded with tear gas and beatings, and over the course of the summer, the situation devolved into pitched battles between protesters and police. What began as a movement against a specific law morphed into a more general campaign against an undemocratic government and a police force accused of rampant brutality.
Protesters had been wearing masks in order to protect their identities—in previous years, police had arrested protesters months or even years after taking part in demonstrations that had been deemed illegal—and Lam’s move to ban them only caused their anger to boil over.
As the crowd in the Pei Ho Street Market enjoyed their feast, protesters set fire to subway stations and erected barricades across major streets. News footage was beamed through televisions mounted around the food hall, and the revellers erupted into pro-democracy chants. TV images of riot police were greeted by middle fingers and colorful insults. By the end of the evening, as the kegs were tapped out and a few leftover cans of Gose floated in buckets of half-melted ice, the dinner had turned into a karaoke session of anti-establishment Cantonese rap and heartfelt Hong Kong ballads.
It has been a tough year for breweries around the world, but those in Hong Kong have been dealt an especially hard blow. First came the protests, which scared away tourists and left bars quiet, because nobody knew when police operations would shut down public transportation, preventing people from getting home. Then Hong Kong was hit by the coronavirus in January, three months before it rampaged through Europe and the United States. Now the city is facing a draconian national security law drafted in secret by Chinese officials and imposed on Hong Kong on the 23rd anniversary of its handover, as well as new social restrictions following a July flare-up of COVID-19. Today, the kind of event that happened at the Pei Ho Street Market would not only be unsafe—because of the pandemic—but it would also likely be illegal, because chanting pro-democracy slogans is now a violation of national security.
“Long-term, we’d like to be Asia’s leading craft brewery. When people think of craft beer in Asia, we want them to think of Hong Kong and Young Master.”
— Rohit Dugar, Young MasterIt’s a hell of a time to be running a craft brewery. But if Rohit Dugar is worried, he isn’t showing it. The founder of Young Master is preternaturally even-tempered, a quality that has helped him blaze a trail for other brewers and business owners in a city that has become one of the best places in Asia to find quality beer. For nearly seven years, Young Master has been making well-executed standards alongside wild experiments, challenging the hegemony of macro beer in a part of the world that had for decades been dominated by fizzy Light Lagers. And it has done so by inserting Hong Kong’s DNA into everything it makes, from the ingredients it uses to its branding, to the point where Young Master feels as inextricable from the city as milk tea, pineapple buns, and char siu.
Now Dugar is aiming to project that spirit beyond its borders. “We spent our first four years focused exclusively on Hong Kong,” he says. “We’ve tried to build an ecosystem around the brewery with bars and festivals. Long-term, we’d like to be Asia’s leading craft brewery. When people think of craft beer in Asia, we want them to think of Hong Kong and Young Master.”
LOPSIDED OPENINGSWhat exactly is a Hong Kong beer? That’s something Dugar has been grappling with since he first moved to the city in 2011. Born in New Delhi, he studied in Singapore before doing an MBA at Dartmouth, which is where he met his wife Maansi. It’s also where he had his first experience with craft beer—specifically, Smuttynose Brewing Company. “The first one I actually remember is Old Brown Dog,” a hoppy Brown Ale, he says. After he and Maansi moved to New York to take up jobs in finance, he tumbled headfirst into the craft beer rabbit hole.
Then their work took them to Hong Kong in 2011. At the time, it was not a good town for beer. After becoming a British colony in 1842, Hong Kong saw substantial quantities of Porter imported from England, but they were soon supplanted by Lagers brewed in Europe and Japan.
Hong Kong’s first successful brewery didn’t appear until Jehangir Ruttonjee—a Parsi from India whose family imported liquor—launched Hong Kong Brewers in 1930. After World War II, it was acquired by the Philippines’ San Miguel Brewery, and for decades, if you wanted something fresh and local, that was your only option. Carlsberg joined the scene for a time in the 1980s. In 1995, an American expat named David Haines opened the South China Brewing Company, Hong Kong’s first bona fide craft brewery. It sputtered out after a few years of success and eventually became a contract brewery making increasingly mediocre brews for a local restaurant group.
Although more and more quality craft beer was being imported to Hong Kong by the time Dugar arrived, he decided that if he wanted something good to drink, he had to make it himself. He wasn’t alone. By 2012, Hong Kong had a small but robust community of homebrewers, most of whom knew each other through the Globe—a British-style pub that was one of the few places in town where good beer could be found—and HK Brewcraft, a homebrew supply and bottle shop. When Hong Kong’s first homebrew competition was held at the Globe in 2013, Dugar won with a brew he called Hong Kong Black.
“It was a roasty Porter but also dry-hopped, because I wanted something that would be good for Hong Kong winters,” he recalls. With a subtropical climate, Hong Kong isn’t exactly the kind of place that makes you crave a heavy Stout. In food halls like the Pei Ho Street Market, many working-class drinkers order a bottle of Guinness Foreign Extra which they blend with a light Lager to make a half-and-half more appropriate to the climate. Dugar had brewed something that resembled a tastier version of that concocton. “It had a lightness to it, and a fruitiness from the hops, but also a richness from the malts,” he says.
Around the same time, Dugar was meeting with Ulrich Altbauer, a veteran German brewer who had spent decades working for a number of breweries around Asia, including the South China Brewing Company when it was still at its peak. They decided to take the plunge into brewing together. Young Master was born in November 2013, housed inside a series of three rooms in an enormous high-rise industrial block on the island of Ap Lei Chau, about a half hour by bus from Central. The ceilings were low and contractors had cut lopsided openings in the concrete walls, but there was a glorious sea view and a German-made brewhouse capable of brewing 10 hectoliters (8.4 barrels) of beer.
Altbauer was big and gregarious, the yin to Dugar’s more understated yang. He was also more of a traditionalist, whereas Dugar was keen to experiment. The compromises they reached helped define Young Master’s early output. There was the Classic, a Pale Ale that was initially dry-hopped with Galaxy hops from Australia. The 1842 was a malt-forward Imperial IPA. Rye on Wood, aged on oak pellets, was inspired by an Old Fashioned. All three were initially well received by Hong Kong’s nascent craft beer community, but the sleeper hit was the Cha Chaan Teng Gose, a tart, briny brew made with homemade salted limes. It tasted a lot like haam ling chut—7-Up with salted limes—which is a classic drink incha chaan teng, Hong Kong-style diners that serve what is often called “soy sauce Western” cuisine. It proved to be a gateway for a lot of Hongkongers who never thought they liked beer. “People in Hong Kong are really interested in new experiences, more than we’ve seen in any other market,” says Dugar.
LIKE A CAFÉHong Kong’s drinking culture is unusual. Beer was long seen as a cheap beverage, and while it is widely consumed in working-class settings—in restaurants where construction workers gather after a day on the job, or at convenience stores where the clerks give you a straw with your can of Blue Ice—it was typically shunned by the middle class, who preferred red wine, if they drank anything at all. There were windowless bars where people chain-smoked and played liar’s dice, and more upscale places frequented mainly by expats and Chinese people who had grown up in countries like Canada and Australia.
Craft beer changed that dynamic. Aside from the Globe, only a handful of places were willing to serve craft beer, so in 2014, Dugar opened The Ale Project—better known as TAP—with two partners: Chris Wong, co-founder of HK Brewcraft, and Phil Chan, a former craft beer importer who now runs a company that builds cold rooms and tap systems for craft beer bars.
TAP’s location was unusual: Hak Po Street, a quiet side street in the otherwise busy neighborhood of Mong Kok, known more for its shopping than for its bars. Dugar had a hunch that there was an untapped market of mostly local Chinese craft beer enthusiasts who were put off by neighborhood dives but alienated by the mostly English-speaking crowd at expat bars.
He turned out to be right. Under the management of James Ling, a former Globe bartender who Dugar convinced to return from a brewing gig in Australia, TAP became something Hong Kong had never seen: a craft beer taproom that felt more like a café than a bar, where the staff spoke Cantonese and customers were more likely to be beer geeks—or potential beer geeks—than white-shirted bankers downing five pints of Stella.
It was a cramped space and the decor was decidedly budget, with electric blue walls, rickety high tops and a bench that doubled as a cupboard. But it had a cold room that kept beer fresh, as opposed to the flash-chill systems used by almost every other Hong Kong bar. And its beer list was varied, split evenly between local brews and imports. That seemed to appeal to a diverse crowd. Not long after it opened, TAP was frequented by people speaking Cantonese and English, solitary drinkers, groups of friends—even a 50-something woman who ordered pint after pint of Cha Chaan Teng Gose as she watched Hong Kong soap operas on her iPad. The atmosphere was—and still is—both intimate and convivial. At TAP’s first New Year’s Eve party, Ling went from table to table offering shots of ng ka pei, an herbal spirit made by one of Hong Kong’s last remaining traditional distilleries.
The first few years after Young Master opened saw an explosion in the number of local breweries. Hong Kong treats beer with a light regulatory touch, which made starting a brewery relatively easy. All you need to brew is a food factory license, and once you’ve made your beer, there is no tax on alcohol under 30% by volume, no specific distribution requirements, and few restrictions on where and how you sell it. High rents and a lack of space add a burden every step of the distribution chain: a 3,000-square-foot industrial space might cost US$7,000 per month, while a 1,000-square-foot retail space runs upwards of $13,000 per month. “But on the plus side, market penetration is [easy] and it offers very low distribution transportation costs,” says Laszlo Raphael, co-founder of Moonzen Brewery.
Raphael launched Moonzen with his wife, Michele Wong Raphael, shortly after Young Master opened its doors. Like many other Hong Kong breweries, it began as a kind of pseudo-homebrew operation that made a nano-brewery seem big in comparison. Soon, others followed: Yardley Brothers started brewing in a shack on Lamma Island, a bucolic hideaway with no car access. Lion Rock was hidden inside a high-rise industrial building. Hong Kong’s beer scene was enthusiastic and tight-knit, buoyed by regular events and the support of bars like the Globe and TAP. If you made good beer, all you had to do was load a keg into a van—or on a boat—and it could be pouring that afternoon.
“The beer scene in Hong Kong is very accessible and inclusive,” says Toby Cooper, the Globe’s longtime owner. With a wiry frame and an easygoing Cumbrian accent, he is a kind of godfather to the craft beer scene in Hong Kong, always willing to give brewers a helping hand—as well as some plainspoken advice. He was one of the driving forces behind the Craft Beer Association of Hong Kong (CBAHK), a big-tent group that includes brewers, bar owners, importers, distributors, and beer enthusiasts. “When we started six or seven years ago, everyone involved really were like family,” he says. “Things have obviously grown since then, but most of the original people are still involved.”
FIGHTING STANCEThe growth has been remarkable. In the space of just a few years, Hong Kong went from having one local craft brewery to nearly 30. Young Master was busy expanding. In 2016, TAP was joined by a sister bar, a more ambitious gastropub called Second Draft. Meanwhile, Dugar and Altbauer were laying the groundwork for a second 40-hectoliter brewery on a ground-floor space in Wong Chuk Hang, not far from their original brewhouse. This would allow them to brew much larger batches, expand their barrel-aging program, and acquire something Dugar had had his eye on for awhile: an oak foeder. Dugar had already been experimenting with wild beers, notably in the annual Tai Sui series, which was made with a sourdough starter from a local Hong Kong baker. The foeder would give Young Master the chance to embark on a more concerted exploration of mixed-fermentation beers.
Around the same time, the brewery tweaked its branding. Its original logo featured a pair of legs in loose-fitting red pants leaning lackadaisically to the side, a direct reference to Old Master Q, a beloved Hong Kong comic strip about a curmudgeonly but warm-hearted sifu. “Sifu” is the all-purpose, Cantonese word for “master,” which can be used to describe everybody from an old kitchen hand to a veteran metalsmith to, of course, a well-seasoned brewer. The new branding took the master to the gym, replacing the logo with a more dynamic pair of legs that evokes Bruce Lee’s fighting stance.
Just as the new brewery was about to launch, however, Altbauer suddenly died from toxic shock syndrome related to an infection. Dugar can sometimes be inscrutable, but when he broke the news, he was clearly devastated. In honor of its late brewmaster, Young Master made a Doppelbock called Herr Altbauer, with all proceeds from its sale going to Altbaeur’s widow and two young children. It was launched at Second Draft as Hong Kong’s beer community toasted to their lost friend against a soundtrack of metal music.
That left Young Master on the verge of a major expansion without a head brewer. “It was petrifying,” says Tom Hanson, who had been working as Altbauer’s apprentice. “I thought Rohit would hire someone to replace him. But instead he was like, ‘I think you can do it.’ Which was very nice but also terrifying.”
Hanson ended up at Young Master through a twist of serendipity. He and his wife Jessica Li had moved to Hong Kong for teaching jobs. They were both from the north of England, and a previous stint in Korea—which had few craft beers at the time—gave them a new appreciation for the cask ales of their homeland. They began homebrewing. Hanson just happened to be buying supplies at HK Brewcraft when Dugar and Altbauer were tapping the very first keg of 1842 outside of the brewery. “Ulli looked at me and said to Rohit, ‘Here’s our very first customer. You need to give this man a beer.’”
“After years of expansion, Hong Kong’s brewing scene is now faced by the combined impact of the protests and pandemic.”
Hanson and Li were on the verge of starting their own brewery when Hanson spotted a job posting for a brewer’s assistant at Young Master. His first trial was a batch of Cha Chaan Teng Gose. It went well, but Hanson says it underlined just how much he had left to learn. “I realized I didn’t actually know how to brew beer,” he says with a laugh. “Now it’s six years later. It started with me wondering, ‘How do I drink cheap in Hong Kong?’ Now I’ve figured it out—I just get beer from work.”
Hanson wasn’t the only person Dugar gave a break to. Fed up with teaching, Li ended up joining the brewery to manage its barrel-aging program. “The whole thing was just trial-and-error,” she says. “The barrels weren’t logged or anything. Tom was stressed and I said, ‘I just want to come in and sort things out.’” Li is now Young Master’s production manager, something that baffles certain visitors who still have a sexist preconception of who brewery employees and beer lovers can be. “I look young, I’m Asian and a woman, so people don’t take me seriously. People think I’m the office lady,” she says, shaking her head. “This industry, sometimes.”
That a husband-and-wife team run the show at Young Master seems to fit with the brewery’s ethos. “It's a big family and beer school,” says Ronda Liu, who worked at Young Master until she moved to Boston last year. A sip of Chimay in 2012 made her realize beer could be so much more than light Lager. Dugar hired her after they met at a festival in 2015, and Liu eventually became a Certified Cicerone and BJCP judge. “I like to give people a chance,” says Dugar. The entire staff often attend events together, and Dugar really does look the part of a sifu, especially when he wears red pants—as he often does. He could be the embodiment of Young Master himself.
DING-DINGSToday, there are many approaches to, and many definitions of, Hong Kong beer. “I genuinely think that in terms of quality, Hong Kong has some of the best beer in Asia,” says Hanson. Over the past few years, he and Dugar have tweaked the recipe of their core beers—1842 has become crisper, more light-bodied and hoppier, for instance. And Young Master’s growth has finally given it an edge on buying hop contracts, whereas before it had to rely on what hop growers were willing to send across the Pacific: whatever was left over after big American brewers had taken their pick of the good stuff, in other words.
There have also been some intriguing experiments. When the brewery won €1,000 worth of hops in a beer festival competition in 2017, it poured them all into one 10% IPA. The result was good enough that it has since been rebrewed a few more times, despite the cost. The brewery makes Märzens, Lichtenhainers, Saisons, Wee Heavies, kveik sours, and more. Its series of foeder-fermented beers is called Days of Being Wild, a nod to Wong Kar-wai’s 1990 film starring a host of venerated Hong Kong actors, and its various incarnations have been aged on fresh lychees and dried cherries, among other fruits.
“We take a scientific approach to sours,” says Hanson. “Because Hong Kong is so hot, you can’t do wild inoculation, otherwise you’ll end up with vinegar.” He may be willing to take more risks in the future, because he recently made a tapache—a spontaneously fermented Mexican pineapple beer—using unwashed pineapples from Taiwan, and was pleased to discover that it had a pleasant funk.
“Last year—and still this year—is one of resilience and cost-cutting strategies. On the operational side, brewers are cooperative and we help each other out. Unfortunately, on the commercial side, it’s the opposite.”
— Laszlo Raphael, Moonzen BreweryBut experiments don’t pay the bills. After years of expansion, Hong Kong’s brewing scene is now facing the combined impact of the protests and pandemic. “We seemed to have topped out in terms of number of breweries,” says Cooper. “We’ve seen some mergers and some closures.”
According to Laszlo Raphael, while Hong Kong’s brewers are still a tight-knit bunch, breweries have recently stepped up competition. “Last year—and still this year—is one of resilience and cost-cutting strategies,” he says. “On the operational side, brewers are cooperative and we help each other out. Unfortunately, on the commercial side, it’s the opposite.”
Industry players say Young Master is in a good position because of its size and the diversity of its business. It now runs five bars in Hong Kong, one in Singapore, and one in Shenzhen, mainland China. It also operates its own overseas distribution channels, which come in handy in places like Singapore, where craft brewing is effectively prohibited and the cold chain can be spotty. Dugar hopes to expand Young Master’s reach into Asian restaurants in North America, providing an alternative to macro brands like Tsingtao and Tiger.
These days, a lucrative part of Young Master’s business is making custom beers for corporate clients—a numbing-spicy málà Lager for a Sichuan hot pot chain, for example, or Dad Bod, a guava Pale Ale made for Chef Jowett Yu’s modern Chinese restaurant Ho Lee Fook. The most recent commission involves a pair of beers made for Hong Kong Tramways, which operates a fleet of double-decker trams affectionately known as ding-dings. One of the Ding Ding Beers is a bergamot Pale Ale, while the other is a ginger osmanthus Wheat Beer, both adapted from existing Young Master brews.
Today, Hong Kong has already weathered three waves of COVID infections, each of which has kept people away from restaurants and bars. Combined with the vagaries of Hong Kong’s property market, the situation has forced breweries like Young Master to eat a lot of bitterness, to paraphrase a well-known Chinese maxim. Just as this story was going to press, word broke that TAP may soon shut down after its landlord demanded a 50% rent increase—despite the pandemic and the worst recession in nearly 50 years.
And the political situation has only grown worse. By and large, Hong Kong’s craft beer community was supportive of the protests, although few bars could advertise their support openly, because the police control the issuing of liquor licenses. Now the protest chants have been silenced and banners removed because of the national security law, whose broadly defined crimes include obstructing the government and promoting hatred of China. At least one employee of a local brewery has quit his job and fled the city because he feared he would be targeted under the new law. Although legal analysts say it’s unlikely the law will have a direct impact on employers such as breweries, it does give police new powers to search and seize property without a warrant if they suspect it has been used by someone violating national security.
“There’s only so much you can do to prepare,” says Dugar. He is still committed to Hong Kong, both for practical reasons—he thinks it’s the best option for running a regional brewery—and for sentimental ones. After all this time, it has become home. “We came to Hong Kong as outsiders nearly a decade ago and besides Young Master, our two sons were born here. The city has gifted my family and I the ultimate opportunity to create and grow in a way we are not sure any place else could have.”
He’s not leaving anytime soon. Looking back, it seems the brewery’s 2014 rebranding was appropriate. Old Master Q was good-natured but a bit of a fuddy-duddy—not the best symbol for a brewery with big ambitions. By contrast, this Young Master is ready to fight.
Words, Christopher DeWolfIllustrations, Araña Schulke