At Moonzen Brewery, a World’s First in Beer Barrel-Aging

Moonzen Brewery Chinese Barrel Aging

To celebrate the Year of the Dog, which is next up in the 12-year Chinese zodiac cycle, Moonzen Brewery is adding some extra bite—or bark, if you insist—to what co-founder Laszlo Raphael calls his Hong Kong craft brewery’s annual “lunar barley wine.”

“I’ve always been fascinated by how time can completely transform beer, and particularly high-alcohol beer, into something that’s very smooth and palatable,” Raphael says. We catch up with him by phone on a Friday afternoon in July, a few hours before he and his wife/Moonzen co-founder, Michele Wong Raphael, open up the brewery for its weekly open house. “The usual route for aging, especially in Western or current craft brewing, is to use oak barrels—French oak, American oak, tequila, bourbon, et cetera. We have always been a proponent of Chinese culture, and Chinese brewing has its own barrel-aging system, which is done in earthenware barrels.”

Every year for the past few years, Moonzen brewed a special small-batch barley wine that underwent a 12-month aging process meant to coincide with the full lunar calendar cycle. The potent brew would spend its first six months fermenting in stainless steel tanks, then the next six months in bottles for further conditioning before it was released around Chinese New Year. For the 2018 Year of the Dog edition, Moonzen has skipped the six-month bottle conditioning step to instead mature the barley wine in 12 handmade clay barrels previously used to ferment Chinese yellow wine in Shaoxing, a city-level prefecture in eastern China’s Zhejiang province noted as one of the country’s premier yellow wine producers.

Moonzen Brewery Hong Kong

Moonzen Brewery Barrel Aging

Moonzen Brewery Hong Kong

This is likely the first time anywhere that a brewery has used Shaoxing huangjiu (Chinese wine) barrels to age beer. The 12 barrels, each of which holds around 23 liters of barley wine, are showcased at Moonzen’s brewery tasting room in Kowloon’s Kwun Tong District, less than five minutes by foot from the MTR’s Kwun Tong Station.

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“The first thing we had to think about was how the aging will affect the beer,” says Raphael. “When you’re using oak or any other wood for barrel-aging, you can taste as you go; you can always put a nail in to get a little taste. Of course, if you do that with a clay pot it would just break the whole thing.”

To get a sense of what to expect from the huangjiu barrels, Raphael says Moonzen first did a trial batch with an abbreviated barrel maturation that imparted a certain… vintage flavor. “It’s hard to describe,” says Raphael. “It’s not musty; it’s like the flavor you get when you go into and smell an old library.”

Moonzen Brewery consistently expresses its interest in Chinese culture through beer. Earlier this year, for instance, the brewery teamed up with the Stanford University Archeology Team of Ancient Alcohol Research and the Shaanxi Institute of Archeology to recreate a 5,000-year-old beer recipe, which was culled from analysis of deposits left on pottery excavated in Mijiaya, near Shaanxi Province’s Wei River. Moonzen’s Yama, a porter brewed with Sichuan peppers, is a nod to China’s Sichuan Province; each of the brewery’s core beers, in fact, has a name derived from Chinese mythology.

Moonzen Brewery

The Chinese Lunar New Year falls on February 16 in 2018. Raphael expects to package the Year of the Dog barley wine in 330ml bottles a month or so before then, and isn’t yet sure whether he’ll do any bottle conditioning with this batch. Assuming there’s no excessive waste there’ll be a final maximum yield of around 300 liters, which means 900 or less bottles will be available. For those keeping score at home, that’s one year to prep 300 liters in a brewery that, overall, pumps out 10,000 liters a month.

Raphael says Moonzen hopes to begin expanding its barrel-aging program in 2018 to, eventually, encompass not just barley wines but other beer styles with, in his words, “a need for complexity.”

“The good thing about those kinds of barrels is that you can use them many, many times, and you definitely saturate, completely, the whole barrel,” he says. “Whereas if you do, for example, a sour ale that’s been barrel-aged and you leave it for a very long time, you can always overdo it. With these barrels you can leave it for much longer and not have to worry about that.”

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Moonzen Brewery is located at 18 Shing Yip Street, 2A New East Sun Building, in Kwun Tong, Kowloon, Hong Kong. Brewery tours and tastings (and barrel viewings) are available every Friday.

Photos provided courtesy of Moonzen Brewery.

Brian Spencer
written by: Brian Spencer
Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance journalist and the founder of Beer Travelist. Say hello at brian [a] beertravelist.com.