How Moonzen Brewery is converting drinkers in HK

HONG KONG, HK

Converting Hong Kong – How the founders of Moonzen Brewery are winning over lager drinkers in the Pearl of the Orient

Interviewed July 9, 2017 BY MENG YANG
At Moonzen Brewery - Hong Kong, HK

Modern and Westernized government, businesses, culture and ideas permeate throughout Hong Kong. Dotted with a modern skyline that’s on par with New York, London or any other major modern metropolis, Hong Kong is a world-class city. Yet, it’s still an old-meets-new city, intermingling with one another; walk the streets and you’ll find a Ferrari parked streetside next to an old beater Toyota. Teenagers sporting ultra-rare, limited edition Nikes, next to a senior citizen in weather-beaten flip flops. And all the old-school charms reminiscent of classic HK martial arts action movies still linger in the background: dilapidated old buildings, push-cart vendors, rickety shops... Towering those tired structures are multi-million dollar malls, condos and international businesses. It’s a city of two worlds, the past and the future.

On top of that, there’s Hong Kong and there’s mainland China. While Hong Kong is democratic and China is communist, both share capitalist interests. Even the language is different, Cantonese (HK) and Mandarin (China). Two completely separate ideologies yet their shared historic and cultural traditions inseparably overlap one other. Hence, the popular “One country, two systems” saying.

And this is what makes beer in Hong Kong so interesting. Craft beer has made its way to Hong Kong and China, but has been grasped on different terms by the former due to its unique history as a former British colony. Although Chinese cultural traditions and influences are shared between HK and mainland China, Hong Kong’s taste for craft beer is all its own. We caught up with Lazlo Raphael and Michelle Wong Raphael of Moonzen Brewery to better understand the HK craft beer scene, how they’re brewing for the local palate, and how their brand pays homage to HK and China’s shared Chinese heritage.

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So, what was your previous life before you started Moonzen Brewery?

Lazlo Raphael: I used to work at a Chinese oil company, and with different oil fields around the world, but the base company was in Hong Kong. I used to work in oil engineering, that type of work. Then, after that, I decided to quit and start this brewery. Then, Michelle joined me here full-time.

Initially it was just you and your wife that started the brewery?

LR: Yeah, I first started, then she was part-time. She used to work at a university and then when we started this, bigger, brewery, she joined full-time. It was two of us at the brewery and then there was an apprentice brewery and a lead brewer, James, then we hired a sales guys.

I first started as a homebrewer and it was a passion then. But then the passion slowly changed to turn into a sustainable business, which was a challenge. I don’t have professional brewing experience. I don’t call myself a Brewmaster. I bring in more engineering experience–and then I have James, he brings brewing experience. So we compliment each other that way.

How'd you make the switch to join Lazlo full-time, Michelle?

Michelle Wong Raphael: Well, I made the switch when we moved to this full brewery. He was pretty much on his own when we were still at the small brewery for a year and half. But then we moved here, I was getting more involved. Initially, I thought “my husband needed a hand,” then I found myself getting more involved and enjoying it and realizing that this was a husband and wife team. So, I quit my job. I used to work in the social science department doing capacity building for non-profit organizations at a university.

I basically went from non-profit...to profit (laughs).

Are you from Hong Kong originally?

LR: I was born in Mexico, but Michelle is from Hong Kong. Her and I started this brewery together and ever since, we've been here in HK.

MW: I was born in Oklahoma, but my mom basically went there to have me. But, my family is all here in Hong Kong.

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The first few years, there was–from the local drinkers–a bewildering incredibility about this beer being made here. Locals were saying, “Why would you make beer here?”
— Lazlo Raphael

So, how long has Moonzen been operating? What’s your day-to-day like?

LR: We've been around since December 2013. This December, 2017, will be our 4th year.

MW: I'm in the background, focused more on administration, sales, organizing, dealing with people. Lazlo's more on the brewery operations side.

It looks like you guys are doing pretty well since you've moved to a big, warehouse space.

LR: Yeah, so far, so good! We used to have a smaller, 100L brewery. It was kinda like a proof of concept–a pilot project. Then, from 100L, we changed to the current brewery which is 1,000L–so, now 10 barrels. Our monthly capacity now is 10,000L.

But, we're open every Friday night for people to join on brewery tours, taste beers and see how the beer is made in our space.

How would you describe the Hong Kong beer drinker?

LR: The interesting thing about HK is that even though it’s ‘technically’ a part of China, they have their own distinct palate and they tend to like certain styles that other Chinese cities–like say Taiwan–might not like. So, it's interesting and it's developed it’s own palate.

I can say, for example, the average craft beer drinker in Taiwan prefers Belgian, Abbey-style beers and tends to lean toward the caramel-y, sweeter side of things. Whereas sweet beers in Hong Kong don't do very well. Here, they tend to go for the refreshing, crisp, or even sour beers. They're much more open to sour beers in HK.

How has your beer been received locally, from the initial beginnings to now?

LR: The first few years, there was–from the local drinkers–a bewildering incredibility about this beer being made here. Locals were saying, “Why would you make beer here?” (laughs) because, some of these drinkers had no idea how beer was made. For example, everyone knows where milk comes from. But, beer? People here don't think about it, it's just beer.

But, there is some sort of mystique about how beer is made. So, we got rid of the mystique of beer and showed people that making local beer is fresher, tastes better and of course, we’ve acclimated it to the local palette.

MW: There're a lot of people that still do not know what beer is made of–it's surprising in HK. One of the questions I get the most is, "Are all these beers different flavors or are they the same?" But, then I realized people were used to Carlsberg having just one beer, Heineken has one beer, Tsingtao has one beer... So, they didn’t understand why a brewery would have eight beer styles.

That's pretty incredible to grasp, when you think about it. It's a cultural and habit shift.

LR: Y'know, most people are still used to drinking low-ABV light lagers and drinking them by the case. The thing about Chinese drinking culture is that it's very different from the US. For Chinese drinkers–whether on the mainland, HK or Taiwan–you always have to be doing something. You're either playing a game with your friends, or talking, or going on long lunches, or eating... It’s not like the US or the UK where you just go to the pub and grab a pint by yourself. That concept doesn't really exist here–to go drinking just for drinking's sake, and not do anything else.

MW: But, beer is such a social thing. I'd get phone calls of, "Hi, I’m in HK. Can I visit your brewery?" Y'know, that never happens to a soy sauce company or a bread shop (laughs). But, beer is unique. People want to see how we make it and we've had requests from people asking, “Can I watch you make beer?” (laughs) Beer has this attraction that is very social and very communal, so it fits right into Hong Kong.

So, how’d you get people on board to initially try your beers?

LR: We started very targeted, getting the beer geeks and beer fans on board.

How'd you target Hong Kong beer geeks? On the US side, we've got beer geeks that are into very niche, rare, hard-to-find, etc. How are the beer geeks out here?

LR: Here, they like beers with fresh hops that we wouldn't normally get. Because if you send a Pliny the Elder or a Stone IPA from the West Coast to HK, by the time it gets here, those aromas aren't as intense or fresh. So, in the same way, HK beer geeks had not experienced what it was like to have the same freshness in beer. So, those were the first few flavors that beer geeks were looking for. But, as they got accustomed to that, then they started looking for more interesting things like Chinese-inspired ingredients in beer or imperial versions or sours. So, that's how the audience has evolved and what they're looking for now.

So, our beers, started with the beer geeks but now they've become a staple of a normal craft beer drinker.

We want to make a beer for every province of China.
— Lazlo Raphael
Beer has this attraction that is very social and very communal so it fits right into Hong Kong.
— Michelle Wong Raphael
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What is the meaning of 'Moonzen'?

LR: 'Moonzen,' in Cantonese, means a two-door guardian that you see just about everywhere you travel in China. So, we thought it was an iconic image of China. It doesn't matter where you go, you'll see it in variations. If you go to a temple in China, you'll always see these door guardians but with different gods. So, we got behind this symbol because they also ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. So, in this brewery, you get greeted by these door guardians but you have different gods with different stories and different beers. That's why we've built a strong mythology between Chinese gods and craft beer.

What are your flagship beers? And, how are you presenting your beers to customers?

LR: The flagship beer is our number one, our Thunder God Pale Ale which is a super clean, crisp pale ale with a little tropical fruit aroma to it. There's no crazy fruits in it; let's just say it’s a beer that'll keep a German purist happy (laughs).

We have an IPA, an amber, a porter, a stout. But, if you explain those styles to some people who've never had a craft beer, they won't understand because they've never heard the concept of an IPA, or some of those styles. So, you need to explain things in terms of sensations. For example, an IPA would be bitter-sweet, and amber (for us) is toasty-caramely, then a porter is a more like a roasted coffee. Once you explain it in those terms, then people will be more likely to try the beer.

So, those gods are our current pantheon of beers. But, now, what we've done is ever since we made Yama, our Sichuan porter, which is our first provincial beer; we want to make a beer for every province of China.

That's pretty ambitious. There’re over 30 provinces...

LR: (laughs) Yeah, I know. It's slowly starting. Why Yama? Yama is the king of the underworld and he passes judgement upon you when you die and also depending on the karma. So, we imagined that beer to be very smoky, very spicy; so the beer is a smoked, cherrywood porter with Sichuan peppercorns and chilis and it gives it a very interesting smell. The balance comes from the sweetness and smokiness of the malt with the spiciness and the numbing from the pepper.

With your beers, you're also floating around a lot of conceptual, thematic ideas. Do you always design your beers with these concepts in mind?

LR: At the end of the day, for us, we create beers with balance. It's never too heavy of this or too light on that.

We've got an Imperial IPA–there's nothing Chinese about it; it's your big, robust American-style IPA that we made for us. But, it doesn't sell well. It moves slow and most drinkers here will probably just have one, or even just 1/2 of it. But, we're doing it for us.

But, for example, after Yama which was our first provincial beer, then we did Fujian province. Fujian province is the number one exporter of Pomelos in the world, so we did a radler of 1/2 IPA and 1/2 Pomelo soda, which is our Fujian Radler. It's called the Dragon King since it’s the Poseidon of the Sea in Chinese mythology; he controls waves and typhoons and lives in an underwater palace made of sea salt. So, there's a bit of sea salt in it. The beers have a lot of linkages to Chinese mythology.

MW: With Yama–which is an 8% Sichuan porter–the funny story was, Lazlo said, "I'm going to do a Sichuan porter," and I said, "Are you crazy? HK is hot 3/4 of the year and you want to do an 8% beer that's spicy? Who's going to drink it?" He said, "I don’t care, you don’t have to like it, but you're going to get a reaction from it... Because if you want a boring beer you can drink a Tsingtao."

So, he was very much into making beers for our taste. And it turned out to be a good decision because it’s one of my favorite beers. It’s not the best-selling beer but if you were to ask me what would be the most representative beer of Moozen, I'd recommend our Sichuan porter. You cannot find that anywhere else–you can have an IPA, an amber ale, lager, etc. But, there's only one Sichuan porter.

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So, there’s a method to his madness.

MW: (laughs) Yes, for our Fujian Radler, it’s a bit of a take on a Gose but less salty. People who 'don’t like beer' like this because they’ve found a beer they actually enjoy (laughs). So, again, it's different palates for everyone. We originally made this beer as a one-off but we decided to keep it because people really liked it in HK, and it’s won a few awards.

LR: After that, we did a Tibetan Saffron Belgian Tripel. Tibetan Saffron has a honey, floral but musty smell to it. The latest beer we did was Yunnan province; we did that with unfermented Pu’er tea. So, it’s a Yunnan lager–very brisk and dry with a tea aftertaste. It’s called South Cloud Lager, we use Kiwi hops in this beer and Yunnan tea. Out of all the beers we make, this I can have like four pints because it’s so easy to drink.

Also, we're doing some fun stuff. For example, we've got a barleywine that we haven’t officially released yet. When you’re thinking traditional barleywine, it’s typically in a wooden barrel. But, here we're using Chinese Shaoxing rice wine barrels to ferment the beer. We have no clue what’s gonna happen but we'll find out in a couple months...

Are there any other creative endeavors you’re involved in?

LR: There's a big craft beer festival in Beijing called 8x8, it's in November where we collaborated with Gigantic Brewing in Oregon. So, there're eight US craft breweries on the West Coast collaborating with eight Chinese breweries. We've got Holy Mountain [Seattle], Parallel 49 [Vancouver], 10 Barrel [Bend]...

How'd this collaboration come about?

LR: As a brewer, you always have these beers that can never sell to the market because they’re too crazy or too weird. So, we decided to have a festival where we just mix crazy and weird together (laughs). This is the first collaborative craft beer festival of its kind in China. Most collaborative beer festivals are in the US or Europe, but this festival will be the first of its kind.

You've put a lot of meaning behind your beers especially with this provincial beer concept. The beers you create pay tribute and respect to Chinese heritage and ingredients. Sometimes, some of the beers we've tried in the US–whenever there's a culturally-inspired beer–it comes off more novel or tacky. But, what you're doing over here, comes off authentic and genuine.

LR: We do these things because we love the culture. I think that's what some craft breweries are missing. For us, I think it’s very important for every beer to have the story.

Your beers also have really great label designs. Do fans of your beer love what you’re doing with the creative packaging?

LR: Yeah for sure, they definitely appreciate it. We're one of the only breweries in Hong Kong that brings in artists and collaborators. Y'know, a collaboration doesn't necessarily have to be with another brewery. It could be any type of creative collaboration. For example, another collaboration we did was with a wood-block artist for a wood-block print for our barleywine. It just helps us make the beer more substantial.

It seems like your consumers are very receptive to these more creative beers.

LR: Yes, they're definitely more receptive than they used to be. Four years ago, every brewery needed a standard American pale ale, standard IPA, and then maybe a white ale and. Then if you wanted to be super exotic, you'd add an amber ale or any type of dark beer which was considered a big risk for drinkers. But now, a brewery cannot just go by those core beers.

The HK market is definitely dynamic and it changes very fast. And, you cannot just rest on your laurels. We are always coming up with new beers, and keep evolving. It keeps pressure on us–but if for example, three years from now, I don't know what style will be trending. But, maybe, we'll still be making more provincial beers, I don’t know (laughs).

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The Hong Kong market is definitely dynamic and it changes very fast. And, you cannot just rest on your laurels. We are always coming up with new beers and keep evolving.
— Lazlo Raphael
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I saw on Instagram, you even made your own special beer glass, right?

LR: Yeah, so we worked with an industrial designer to make our own custom glassware and this was for our Belgian Double Mushroom Dubbel. There are two types of Chinese mushrooms in it and it’s very interesting and we included a storybook with this beer. It tells the story of the beer.

The gourd shape, in Chinese mythology, has a magical property to it. Sages would carry immortality elixirs in it and had wine in it. Plus, in the past, there weren't bottles, so it was the only drink recipient you could use. So, it’s something we made as special edition.

And as far as designing a beer for the weather in Asia... There's a wet season and a dry season, yes?

LR: Yeah, we go with the Lunar calendar. So, for Chinese New Year, we make our Lunar Barleywine, which we ferment for six months then we secondary ferment for another six months. We have the Dragonboat Festival, so we try to release with those festivities. We also have different seasons like the summer solstice, fall equinox. So, we try to release with that calendar. We don't do Thanksgiving, July 4th, etc.

In the summer, people just want refreshing and tropical aroma beers. During summer season, we stop kegging our dark beers for example because we know that only one or two bars will take it.

So, where can I find your beers? Only in Hong Kong or elsewhere in East Asia?

LR: Right now, our beers are in HK market only. It’s very challenging because Hong Kong has a lot of market saturation from the big boys like Carlsberg, Heineken, AB InBev–and I'm sure same thing in the States, where they'll give you a cash incentive if you have all their beers on tap. And of course, craft breweries can't afford to do that because of anti-competitive behavior and it stifles innovation.

Craft beer is still limited in Hong Kong. It hasn’t yet reached the mass market it has like in the US, where you can have an IPA anywhere, at a supermarket, etc.

So, how do you guys market your beers?

LR: To be honest, most of it is word of mouth and I think, the quality of the beer helps a lot. Besides that, I think it’s just hard work. (laughs) Hustling.

MW: We're mainly available at bars and hotels. Retail is very selective; we'll sell at a premium retail shop and the bottle shops. But, that’s it.

For example, getting our beers into hotels and restaurants, it’s very selective. A bar manager or hotel manager might’ve never had craft beer before, but customers seeking craft beer will ask for craft beer. So it’s very case-by-case. But, I think when your hotel is full of tourists who want to try the local Hong Kong things and a manager wants to provide these local things, then it’s easier to get our beer in.

How about actually brewing in Hong Kong? What challenges do you have to address?

LR: Well, Hong Kong water is very soft but the building pipes are very old so we had to build a pipe directly to the city source. It's safe to drink the water but you have to ensure the building pipes are good.

Also, the reason why there’s so many small breweries blowing up in Hong Kong is because it’s actually quite easy, definitely easier than China. You have brewpubs in China but not independent production facilities where you can bottle, keg, etc. In Hong Kong, you can be tiny and start selling bottles.

MW: But, the Hong Kong market is still learning and still maturing so the rules can change. It's much easier to enter Hong Kong market with bottles rather than kegs because not many people have draft systems.

LR: Plus, we've been bottling our beers for about one year now. Having bottles definitely opened more markets for us, whereas kegs is probably bigger in the US for volume. But for HK, I don’t think they’re ready for cans like it is the US yet. Cans aren't as well received right now, it's seen as a lower quality beer. I like cans but the market in HK isn't ready for cans because of perception.

So, for most Westerners who are familiar with brewery tours, what's a brewery tour experience like for Hong Kong locals?

MW: It’s a whole new world (laughs). For some people, it’s very overwhelming because HK is a city that is very alienated from industrial production processes. So, for them to see this can be like Disneyland or Willy Wonka.

Is there a homebrew community in HK?

LR: Yeah, there is. It's definitely more divided into International ex-pats and locals. There're four homebrew shops in HK and the thing is space is an issue. So, in HK, 1-gallon kits are popular but a little less serious compared to the US. It’s still a new hobby.

How'd you get started brewing, then?

LR: There were no homebrew shops when I started. We had to import everything. The grains, hops, everything. Bottles, for example, we used to go to a Korean restaurant to recycle their bottles, wash the bottles, etc. We started very grassroots (laughs). We've passed that stage in HK where you have to be ashamed of homebrewing. Y'know, having your homebrew in the bathroom, collecting bottles from a restaurant...

MW: When we first started, every night, we would go to this Korean restaurant and I'd say to them, “I work for the university and am working on a sustainability project, can I take your bottles?" They were very friendly and they'd give us all their bottles, beer bottles, soju bottles, kimchi jars (laughs). So, we'd go there at the end of the night, collect the bottles, bring them to our shower, hot water, soap and spend the weekend scrubbing.

LW: Back then, it was just a hobby so you could say, "Hey, try my beer, I made it in the bathroom (laughs)!"

 

 

-THR-

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*this interview has been edited for clarity

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Photography by Meng & Tiffany Yang.

Authored by Meng Yang, collaborator for The Hop Review. Meng is a designer and illustrator from Detroit, Michigan. He and his wife, Tiffany Yang, are also the creators of THR's ‘DETOURS’ series.