Craft beer. It’s on the minds and in the mouths of every Asian hipster, and over the past five years, hundreds if not thousands of craft breweries have cropped up across the continent.
Most are jumping on the bandwagon with little inspiration, passing off hop-heavy brews as another bland IPA. But a select few are passionate about their beers, infusing their creations with distinct flavours from their home countries.
In Hong Kong, one of the first on the quickly saturating scene was Young Master, opened in late 2013 and named after a cult ‘80s Jackie Chan film. “Right from inception, our goal has been to make a wide range of beers that we could introduce to the people of Hong Kong,” says founder Rohit Dugar.
“We frequently make beers that are inspired by flavors of Hong Kong. Our locally inspired beers are usually rooted in traditional beer styles and incorporate local accents that add a new dimension to the beer, while respecting both the local influence and the underlying beer style.”
One of the most popular is the Cha Chaan Teng Gose, inspired by popular sour lime sodas served at the city’s working-class diners, and made by mixing a classic German style with house-aged salted limes. There’s also the seasonal In the Mood for Spring, its name inspired by a Wong Kar-wai movie (In The Mood For Love) and infused with such Hong Kong flavours as jasmine, chrysanthemum and osmanthus.
Young Master mixes up Hong Kong tastes with more standard offerings, but other brewers are dedicating their entire output to local flavors.
Pasteur Street Brewing Company is from Vietnam, a country already notable for its impressive beer selection, if largely lagers.
“Craft beer was mostly an unknown commodity here when we started,” says co-founder John Reid, who had been living in Ho Chi Minh for six years before he opened the brewery. “But our decision to use local fruits, spices, and flavours to complement the beer styles got us a lot of attention and curiosity early on.”
Pasteur Street achieves its distinctly Vietnamese flavours by adding ingredients at different points of the process. For example, jasmine is added to the IPA during the boil to only get its aroma and not overpower the beer, while passion fruit is added to the wheat ale at the end to fully acquire its subtle smell and taste.
“It makes sense: why would an American brewer move to a foreign country and then just continue to make the same beers they’d been making forever?” says Reid. “Why not take advantage of all of the amazing ingredients your new home has to offer?”
For countries that don’t have many particular flavours to define them, brewers are following alternative paths.
In South Korea, beer makers are using medicinal heritage to instil their brews with therapeutic properties. The Booth Brewing was founded by a former doctor, and its Summer Zen Ale includes supposedly curing herbs.
Magpie Brewing, meanwhile, has a seasonal Winter Warmer that’s often noted for its medicinal sensations.
“Craft beer has always possessed a very ‘local aspect’ that pushes drinkers to consider who and where their beer is made,” says Magpie founder Erik Moynihan. “Many brewers like Magpie aren’t just trying to make a beer that captures what people might call a ‘Korean flavor profile,’ but more of using what’s around you to make universally great beer.”
For many brewers, it boils down to a love of where they live, while tapping into that shared admiration with the beer-drinkers around them. Unlike wine or spirits, beer is something that they can distinctly say is different from anything else out there, and is uniquely their own.
“Craft brewing at its heart is a local industry, and it’s only natural that brewers draw inspiration from what they see around them,” says Young Master’s Dugar. “It’s one of the ways brewers are also able to forge their own distinctive identities. Broadly speaking in Asia, we are at the very beginning of the craft beer movement, and we should see a lot more incorporation of local flavors in beers.”