Rohit Dugar isn’t here to convert anybody.
“We’re not here to convert people,” he says. “We know that’s not going to happen.”
Leaning forward on a bar stool at Hong Kong’s revered pub The Globe, the soft-spoken founder of Hong Kong brewery Young Master Ales sips a pint of his Rye on Wood, a malty ale brewed with two varieties of rye grains and aged in new American oak. It’s a few days after the city’s annual three-day Beertopia bash, where this time a panel of 13 judges awarded top honors to YMA in four of the festival’s nine beer categories and named it the best overall brewery.
“We don’t think about what’s going to sell. I fundamentally believe that in the craft world that shouldn’t really matter,” Dugar says. “We’re not trying to sell beer to people. We make beers that we want to make, and if they don’t sell we won’t make them—but that hasn’t happened so far.”
Dugar’s candor is refreshing here in Asia, where some in the craft beer industry at times seem obsessed with this nebulous “conversion” notion of turning macro drinkers (poof!) into craft enthusiasts. Craft beer is not the holy sacrament, and though craft artisans are certainly evangelists of their trade, they are not missionaries.
Still, it’s tricky business in Hong Kong.
After ditching a finance career and relocating to the city from the United States, Dugar leaped ahead of the curve when he launched YMA in 2013. At the time his modest 10-hectoliter brewery was basically in a league of its own, in a place where craft beer was a greater niche than weekend larping.
Faced with a diminutive market and a local audience for the most part unaware that something called “craft beer” even existed, Dugar made the fairly bold decision to not out of the gate limit YMA to a straightforward range of beer styles. In his view, there’s no easing the local palate into something new—the only way to introduce craft is to embrace its adventurous spirit.
“First and foremost, craft should always be about individuality. Every brewery is different, and they have a point of view they want to express,” says Dugar. “For us, because we were the only ones when we started, there was this necessity that we are the ones that need to play an educational role, so we need to do a set of classic styles, but we also need to do a set of more innovative, different styles because we want people to realize that beer can be many different things.”
“Let’s say we chose four styles and just did that—a lot of people would have this perception that craft beer is only these four things. That’s no better than beer being either a pale ale, lager, or a stout,” he continues. “We did our first barrel-aged beer when we were three months old, so from day one we’ve been trying to take the biggest steps possible to get to the levels of sophistication you’d see anywhere else in the world.”
Let’s Get Funky
Take, for example, Tai Sui, which is not exactly the type of early-days beer one would expect from a small brewery navigating a developing market. One of the few brews that the keg-focused YMA bottled during its first three years, Tai Sui is a small-batch rye ale fermented in whiskey barrels with a sourdough knot sourced from a local bakery. “You can easily taste that there was some bacteria and Brett component going on. A bit of sourness, a bit of red funk, and some fruity esters that will remind of a saison or a Belgian, but not quite like a saison,” Dugar says. “To us it was the definition of experimental; it was about letting whatever organisms were in the sourdough just, I guess, express themselves.”
[Ed. Note: “Brett,” or brettanomyces, is a type of wild yeast brewers commonly use in certain beer styles, including lambics, saisons, and Flanders red ales, to help create funky, somewhat rank flavors.]
That sourdough jam session inside the barrels produced, Dugar says, an ale with aromas and flavors that the local Asian population have described as reminiscent of stinky tofu and fermented soybean. In a way, that’s local parlance for what a Western craft enthusiast might call—hopefully in a cheeky embrace of the clichés—“horse blanket” or “barnyard.” (I haven’t yet tried the ale, but have a numbered bottle of Tai Sui Black Mission Figs, #65 of 269, stashed at home in Singapore for a special occasion.)
“It’s very interesting that the flavor descriptors a western beer geek would use to describe this and other beers are so different than what people just getting into beer here use,” Dugar says. “For example, for an imperial stout the most common thing people say here is soy sauce. For Tai Sui, a lot of people say fu yu, which is a paste-like fermented tofu that’s a little bit funky, sour, and sharp, like blue cheese. I don’t think any of that is viscerally or fundamentally new, but locals may have just not seen it in beer.”
The locals will taste and feel more of that funk from this year on as YMA’s greatly expanded barrel-aging program begins bearing fruit. Dugar claims that his brewery is the first in Asia to acquire a foeder (a large oak vat used to ferment wine and, increasingly, beers using wild yeasts), and a new 40-hectoliter brewhouse in Wong Chuk Hang has space to accommodate scads of bourbon, brandy, tequila, and chardonnay barrels brought over from the US. He expects what will be the first lambic-style ales brewed in Asia to debut sometime mid-year, or whenever the brews say they’re ready.
It’s a costly investment and, perhaps, a risky one, even as the times have changed significantly in Hong Kong. Since YMA’s debut in 2013, the city has developed into what may be Asia’s craft beer capital as the number of new taprooms, breweries, brewpubs, bottle shops, homebrew suppliers, and importers continues to rise rapidly. Dugar believes the pivot to wood will go over aces, though. “I think some people have this attitude that they can do something that’s ‘good enough for Asia,’ or maybe a more positive way of putting it is that they think that the market isn’t ready for this kind of thing,” Dugar says. “We are not trying to dumb things down.”
Today YMA is the Hong Kong brewery with the most kegs tapped across the city. Its brews are commonly available at leading beer bars like The Globe and The Roundhouse, poured at such luxury hotels as Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong and Island Shangri-La, Hong Kong, and brightening the beer menu at numerous cafés and restaurants. Bottles and 32-ounce crowler fills (takeaway only) are available at the Wong Chuk Hang brewery Monday to Saturday, too. The brewery’s two showcase venues, however, offer the deepest dives into the impressive beer catalogue.
On the Kowloon side of Hong Kong, Mong Kok is and certainly feels like one of the most densely populated areas in the world. A heaving jumble of street markets, sneaker shops, fashion boutiques, electronics stores, nightclubs, and food, food, food, it’s the type of place where a traveler can get happily lost (or at least distracted) for hours, as I did on my first trip to Asia many years ago. It isn’t, however, a place in which one opens a proper beer bar, or at least it wasn’t until Dugar partnered with a few other like-minded entrepreneurs in 2014 on TAP—The Ale Project. “TAP was about bringing this whole idea to a neighborhood like that where nobody else would dare to do it,” says Dugar.
Just as booze inherently tastes a little better when consumed in the vineyard, distillery, or brewery at which it’s produced, TAP scores a home-field advantage on its unique location alone. Like, say, the Bionic Brew taproom in Shenzhen or the Bangkok Mikkeller Bar, this is that brand of “hidden” destination bar that you love to find and don’t want to leave—and the nightly crowds do tend to linger and get a wee bit messy. “I think as a single venue that it still sells more craft beer than anywhere else in Hong Kong,” Dugar says. “I mean, they go through a crazy amount of beer. People are drinking pitchers of imperial stouts!”
Let the good times roll, Mong Kok.
YMA, other Hong Kong breweries, and a selection of imports that has in the past included such breweries as Brouwerij Rodenbach, Buxton Brewery, and Kaiju! Beer feature on the 18 keg taps, and the 50-odd bottle list includes a particularly strong variety of barrel-aged stouts, sours, and saisons. Sandwiches like the Dongpo Pork Burger (braised pork belly with Dongpo sauce, Japanese naganegi, and cabbage in a brioche bun) highlight the small but considered food menu.
Back on Hong Kong Island in Tai Hang, it’s the food that is turning heads as much as the beers at Second Draft, a partnership between Dugar, two of his TAP cohorts, and celebrated chef May Chow. Chow, who’s also the mastermind of Hong Kong (and Bangkok) hotspot Little Bao, was named Asia’s Best Female Chef 2017 in the annual Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in December. Furthermore, to Dugar’s surprise Second Draft won the Hong Kong Tatler’s Readers’ Choice Award for “Best New Restaurant Opening of the Year.”
Second Draft already had quite a buzz before the awards poured in—now it’s just bonkers. “It’s insanely packed these days,” he says. “Nobody would have imagined that a beer bar would be nominated, let alone win. I didn’t expect that at all.”
In the kitchen, Chow flaunts her culinary prowess in such inventive savories as ma po burrata (creamy burrata dressed in spicy chili and served with pork ragout), pork belly and octopus in nam yu broth, grilled squid with red miso, and crab noodles. As for the booze, there are three hand pumps and 20 keg taps, with each beer chilled into the one of three controlled temperature ranges that is most appropriate to its style. YMA beers feature prominently, of course, but as at TAP there’s space to share with peers in Hong Kong and beyond.
“There’s an emphasis on local beer, and particularly for all the sessionable styles that don’t travel well. There are very strict rules on there being a balance of styles, too,” Dugar says. “What I’ve found at some taprooms that have a larger list is that there’s no beer that’s close to the mood that I’m in right now. It could be heavily IPA one day, heavily sour the other day—it shouldn’t be liked that. There should be nice diversity and active curation.”
The wood program, the temp-controlled taps, the emphasis on quality, the spirit of experimentation—it’s easy to see how Young Master Ales earned its place at the head of Hong Kong’s craft table. “My ambition is for us to be world class,” says Dugar, “and for Hong Kong to have a world-class beer scene. Not just ‘it’s a good beer scene for Hong Kong’ or ‘it’s a good beer for China.’”
If You Go
Young Master Ales is located on the ground floor of the Sungib Industrial Centre at 53 Wong Chuk Hang Road in Hong Kong. Merch, bottles, and crowler refills are available there every day but Sunday; email email@example.com for hours and to inquire about Saturday afternoon brewery tours.
TAP—The Ale Project is located at 15 Hak Po Street, Mong Kok, Kowloon, Hong Kong. Open Tuesday to Thursday 12pm – 12am, and Friday to Sunday 12pm – 2am. Closed Monday.
Second Draft is located at 98 Tung Lo Wan Road in Causway Bay, Hong Kong. Open Tuesday to Thursday 12pm – 12:30am, Friday and Saturday 12pm – 1am, and Sunday 12pm – 12:30am. Closed Monday.
Click here for a full list of all venues in Hong Kong that serve Young Master Ales.
All photos, except for of the TAP-The Ale Project board, provided by and published with permission from Young Master Ales.