Jonathan So, 30, is the brains behind Beertopia, a festival designed to increase awareness of craft beers. After a successful opening last year, the Toronto native is hoping to attract 6,000 people to the event, which will feature more than 200 kinds of beer, food from popular Hong Kong eateries, live music and even classic drinking games such as beer pong and flip cup.
More than a dozen lectures will help educate people about the brew they’re sampling and the craft beer industry in Asia. The goal of the festival is to expose Hong Kong drinkers to beer beyond the ubiquitous Carlsberg, Heineken, Tsingtao and other big players that dominate the market here.
"The hope is that people see how much beer is out there, see the range and how diverse the flavours can be," So told CBC News.
Beertopia attendees for example can sample chocolate stouts, fruit-flavoured beer, even a pizza-flavoured one and a popular pick from Canada — the Hemp Blonde Ale from British Columbia's Bowen Island Brewing Company. The Whistler Brewing Company will also have a few brews on offer at the festival.
'Explosion' of craft beer
Hong Kong is a beer-drinking city, it's just not a craft beer-drinking city, according to So. "That's not by choice, it's just because craft beer hasn’t been available until recently," he said.
But there's been an "explosion" of craft beer in Hong Kong, So said, that started about two years ago when more importers decided to bring it in for both retail and wholesale business, and more restaurants in Hong Kong's renowned culinary scene became willing to carry it.
Jeff Boda, who owns a beer import business with two Canadians called Hop Leaf, called last year's Beertopia "phenomenally successful" in promoting craft beer and bringing its fans together. His booth alone poured more than 3,700 cups of beer and Hop Leaf sold all inventory in the wake of the festival.
Sales have continued to grow month after month and Boda believes craft beer is finally taking hold in Hong Kong. He formed Hop Leaf because he was convinced there was an untapped market, so to speak, of people wanting good quality beer who couldn't easily get it.
That's exactly why So started Beertopia in the first place. He got hooked on craft beer while living in New York City and when he moved to Hong Kong four years ago he was disappointed that it was hard to find.
Despite having zero event management experience, So put Beertopia together when he wasn't working at his day job at a software company. Given its success and how much So enjoyed organizing it, he quit his job and now does Beertopia full-time.
Canadians helping promote craft beer
"In Hong Kong, the craft beer industry isn’t as developed, so it’s exciting that I’m able to be there and do something about it," he said.
The city in many ways is an ideal place for craft beer to thrive. Craft beer costs more, but people in Hong Kong have disposable income and they like high quality. There is also a built-in audience of craft beer fans because of the high number of Westerners who are more familiar with it. The business-friendly city also imposes no duty or licensing fees on beer importers.
Hong Kong's top-notch food scene also works in the industry’s favour. Fine diners don't wash down a great meal with a cheap glass of wine, and they shouldn't settle for an inadequate beer either, Boda and So say. The idea of pairing good beer with good food is catching on. This is also an international city and people are willing to try food and drinks from all over the world.
However, there are a few things working against the growth of craft beer in Hong Kong. The city has some of the most expensive real estate in the world, and bars and restaurants of course have their bottom line in mind when choosing what beers to put on tap.
"It costs a lot more than your fizzy yellow lager," Boda said about craft beer, adding that it's hard for businesses to take the risk. Some have let others take the lead, and now that they see it's doing well they're jumping on board, Boda said.
Thomas Lau and Ricky Takasu, two more Canadians helping drive the craft beer movement in Hong Kong, set an early example for other bar owners. They opened The Roundhouse, where customers can browse the extensive beer list on iPads and read descriptions of the different products, with the craft beer market in mind.
Craft beer 'here to stay'
"I saw the market was on the rise, I could see a big craft-beer movement so I started this restaurant," said Lau. He and Takasu are high school friends from Vancouver who now live in Hong Kong and they're the ones who import Bowen Island's Hemp Ale and the Whistler Brewing Company's beers that will be offered at Beertopia
The hemp beer sold out instantly last year, so this year they ordered 2,000 cases of it. A strike by dock workers in Hong Kong threatened the shipment's arrival but it arrived with a few days to spare before Beertopia.
Lau said people in Hong Kong have been drinking bad beer for a long time and they're looking for something different. Restaurants have to respond to the demand, he said. "People will come in and ask for a better selection so you have no choice, you have to follow it," he said.
Lau said that despite the higher cost to carry it, craft beer can actually be good for business. Customers are more likely to drink more in a single visit because they want to try multiple varieties while they're there, he said.
In addition to expensive rent for bars, another characteristic of Hong Kong that could slow craft beer's growth is the city's susceptibility to trends. Hop Leaf's Boda recalls the gourmet hamburger trend that came and went, for example, as did the frozen yogurt fad, but he's not too concerned.
"I've never seen craft beer go into a market and disappear. It goes into a market and it sticks for the long-term," he said. Raising awareness about it — something Beertopia is doing — is one way to guard against the trend risk, he said.
Lau agreed, saying the time for craft beer to take off has finally arrived in Hong Kong. "I think it will be a movement not just a trend," he said. "I think craft beer will be here to stay."