Beertopia: Exploring Asia's thriving craft brewery scene

Story highlights

  • Beertopia, hosted in Hong Kong, is Asia's largest craft beer event
  • Over half of the 125 attending breweries are based in Asia

(CNN)Think of Beertopia as Asia's younger, smaller-scale answer to the Great American Beer Festival.

In November more than 14,000 people attended Hong Kong's fifth-annual Beertopia, a record turnout.
This two-day festival has become Asia's biggest craft beer event, drawing nearly 125 breweries from around the world in 2016, almost half of which are based in Asia-Pacific.
    Head sufficiently cleared after a long night of, ahem, research, we're here to dish on 10 beers poured at Beertopia that are worth hunting down in Asia.
    Bear in mind there are dozens of other great brews that didn't appear at the event, but this list is a great place to kick off your immersion into Asia's growing craft beer scene.

    Hong Kong Bastard Imperial IPA (Hong Kong)

    Hong Kong Bastard was awarded "Best IPA" at this year's Beertopia.
    Brothers Duncan and Luke Yardley of aptly named Yardley Brothers Beer went all-in on their Hong Kong Bastard to distinguish it from the scores of local and imported IPAs flooding the local beer market.
    "This one has more than double my usual malt bill, 10 kilograms of five different hops, and continuous hop additions in the boil," says Luke.
    "During the long dry-hop period, we agitated the hops twice daily with CO2 to ensure all the hop resin mixed into the beer. I played heavy metal music to the beer every day, too, which I think had an influence."
    The effort (and head-banging) paid off handsomely.
    At Beertopia's inaugural Hong Kong Beer Championship, Hong Kong Bastard scored "Best IPA" honors and later earned the competition's top prize for "Best in Show."
    On December 10, Yardley Brothers opened its new Hong Kong brewery and taproom (Unit 10, 5th floor block A Wah Tat Industrial Center, 8 Wah Sing Street). It's the best place to sample the brewery's full beer range, including the Hong Kong Bastard and special single-batch experiments.
    The brothers hope to begin exporting in 2017.

    Hutong Clan CDA (Beijing)

    Heaps of Oregon-grown cascade hops impart a citrusy backbone and whiffs of grapefruit to this luscious black IPA from Jing-A Brewing Co.
    First conceived as a one-off collaboration with Oregon's Boneyard Beer in October 2015, the Hutong Clan CDA has proven so popular that Jing-A continues reproducing it at its Beijing brewery.
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    It's just one of a number of high-profile collaborations for Jing-A, which less than four years since its debut has already worked with such well-established peers as Elysian Brewing Company (Seattle, Washington), Beavertown Brewery (London, England), and Nøgne Ø (Grimstad, Norway), among others.
    Though sometimes tapped at beer bars in Shanghai, Shenzhen and other major Chinese cities, the Hutong Clan CDA most commonly flows at Jing-A's buzzy Beijing taproom (1949 The Hidden City, Courtyard 4, Gongti Bei Lu, Chaoyang district) where a handful of guest brews complement Jing-A's freshest creations.

    Wild Saison (Melbourne, Australia)

    If you've ever wondered what, exactly, your beer enthusiast friend means when he or she describes a given beer as tasting and/or smelling of "horse blanket," pop open a bottle of this bone-dry Wild Saison from Melbourne-based La Sirène Brewing.
    Developed more than six years ago, the Wild Saison was one of the first beers in Australasia fermented with Brettanomyces, a wild yeast strain that can unleash funky flavors, musty aromas and other characteristics one might ascribe to an old countryside farmhouse.
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    It's an acquired taste, but learning to appreciate the complexities of wild ales like this one can add a whole new dimension to your expectations of what a beer can be.
    "It's co-fermented with two wild yeast strains, and takes many months of maturation in the bottle to develop our 'house character,'" says founder Costa Nikias.
    "It's a customizable beer, too, as the consumer can dictate the desired level of funk and barnyard characters by storing it at 18 to 23 Celsius for continued development, or chill it to stop the ongoing wild yeast changes."
    Outside of Australia, La Sirène Brewing beers are available in China, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan.

    Island 1842 Imperial IPA (Hong Kong)

    Young Master's 1842: A well-rounded, full-flavored IPA.
    Reflective of its considerable influence on Hong Kong's rapidly maturing brewing culture, Young Master Ales won four of the nine beer categories at the Hong Kong Beer Championship on its way to earning "Best Brewery" honors.
    Soft-spoken Rohit Dugar founded the brewery in 2013 after abandoning a career in the financial sector. Though his potent 1842 was not among YMA's award-winning ales this time, it stands out as a well-rounded, full-flavored IPA that holds its hefty 8% ABV well.
    "1842 Island is a robust imperial IPA that strives to bring out all nuances of an outsized hop and malt bill," says Dugar.
    "We hop it generously throughout the brewing process, but what sets it apart from other IPAs we make is a very robust malt backbone that balances the hop flavors."
    Young Master Ales is one of the most widely distributed beers in Hong Kong.
    The deepest dives into the brewery's beer suite are available at its two affiliated bars: TAP -- The Ale Project, in Mongkok, and Second Draft in Tai Hang.

    Cyclo Imperial Chocolate Stout (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

    After pouring a glass of this award-winning chocolate stout at Beertopia, Pasteur Street Brewing Co. brand ambassador Mischa Smith said: "This is pretty much the best thing I've ever put in my mouth."
    He wasn't kidding, and this writer isn't the only one who agrees.
    Brewed with a key ingredient sourced from local chocolatiers Marou, Faiseurs de Chocolat, the Cyclo Imperial Chocolate Stout took home a coveted gold medal in the "Chocolate Beer" category at the biennial World Beer Cup, a competition that in 2016 saw a panel of 253 judges consider more than 6,500 beers submitted by just over 1,900 worldwide breweries.
    "The malts we use are European, while the hops are more subdued American varieties," says brewmaster Dave Byrn.
    "The star of the show is our very specifically sourced cacao nibs, however. We use a blend of two farmer's crops, both of which are from the Mekong Delta, as are our whole cinnamon and vanilla beans."
    Befitting a beer of such prestige -- and, at 13% ABV, one best shared among friends -- the Cyclo is packaged in a 750 ml bottle and sold in a handcrafted wooden case.
    Pick one up at Pasteur Street's taproom, located in HCMC's District 1.

    Tire Burning Weizen (Koh Kong, Cambodia)

    Thai beer...brewed in Cambodia?
    Panitan Tongsiri, founder of Stone Head Thai Craft Beer, figured out how to circumvent Thailand's antiquated brewing restrictions: brew in Cambodia and sell it back home as an "import."
    "We are the first and still the only group of Thais who own a microbrewery and can brew and bottle our own beer independently," says Tongsiri.
    "Our goal is to raise awareness about the injustice of Thailand's brewing laws, and to make people question why Thais can't brew in their own country."
    Brewed with Hallertau hops -- one of Europe's four classic "noble hops" -- at Stone Head's facility in Cambodia's western Koh Kong province, the easy-drinking Tire Burning is an admirable take on the classic German weizen, with subtle, style-appropriate flavors of clove and banana.
    Though Stone Head plans to eventually export throughout Southeast Asia, for now they only distribute to Bangkok.

    Pernicious Weed (Wellington, New Zealand)

    In terms of sheer numbers, the three-man Kiwi band that is Wellington-based Garage Project may have created more beers over the past five years than just about any other brewery in the region.
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    From sessionable ales like the 2% ABV Fugazi and Rhubarb Rhubarb Rhubarb (2.9%), to such booze bombs as the Bastard Rye (13.75%) and Cockswain's Courage (13.2%), these dedicated experimentalists are constantly dabbling in a wide range of beer styles and strengths.
    Garage Project brews its dank, bitter Pernicious Weed IPA with loads of the native New Zealand hops Rakau and Nelson Sauvin, which together convey a piney, resiny character laced with juicy flavors of mango, grapefruit and passion fruit.
    In Asia-Pacific, hunt for Garage Project brews in Hong Kong, Australia, and New Zealand.
    Garage Project's taproom in Wellington's Aro Valley (91 Aro St) has 20 brews (including two cask ales) on draft; there's also a takeaway shop just down the street.

    Yama Sichuan Porter (Hong Kong)

    Moonzen Brewery: The magic happens here.
    Moonzen Brewery is one of the many Asian craft breweries embracing their regional terroir by experimenting with local ingredients that give their beers a certain bottled -- or tapped -- sense of place.
    For instance, the Yama Sichuan Porter, which founder and brewmaster Laszlo Raphael says draws inspiration from the spicy cuisine of China's Sichuan province, incorporates Sichuan peppercorns and chilies.
    "Yama is the Chinese king of the underworld, and when you die he passes judgment upon your soul," says Raphael. "That's the story we're reflecting through this beer, so we imagine hell to be a smoky, spicy, dark place."
    Though Raphael says the Yama is a natural pairing with such Sichuan classics as mapo tofu, he suggests also trying it with a big, smelly cheese, like the Stinking Bishop from England.
    Track down Moonzen in Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand and Taiwan.

    Hitachino Nest Espresso Stout (Ibaraki, Japan)

    Winner of the 2016 Hong Kong Beer Championship's "Best Specialty" category, the rich, boozy Hitachino Nest Espresso Stout is Kiuchi Brewery's take on the classic Russian imperial stout.
    Brewed with roasted barley, four different malts, and hopped with earthy Chinook and Kent Goldings varietals, the Espresso Stout draws its distinct coffee aroma and flavor from espresso beans added to the kettle while boiling the wort (the liquid created when the grains and water are heated during the mashing process).
    Now produced in Japan as well as the new Hitachino Nest brewery in Hong Kong, Espresso Stout is available in 10 countries across the Asia-Pacific region.

    Procrastination Pale Ale (San Pedro, Philippines)

    Procrastination Pale Ale is one of Pedro's three signature beers.
    Keep your eye on the Philippines, which in a few years just may become Asia's next big craft beer destination.
    Pedro Brewcrafters is one of the upstart breweries leading the charge, this year becoming the first Filipino craft brewery to make an appearance at Beertopia. The Procrastination Pale Ale is one of the brewery's three signature beers.
    "We wanted to brew a beer with crisp, balanced bitterness that goes down really well on a hot and humid day," says Jaime Fanlo, head brewer and director of operations.
    "We hop the beer generously with American hops like Citra and Centennial to give it a distinct aroma, keeping the malt bill simple to let the hop characteristics shine through."
    Readily available in beer bars and craft-friendly restaurants and supermarkets across metropolitan Manila, Pedro Brewcrafters aims to introduce at least two more year-round brews and a seasonal in 2017.