Our Aussie Exports series has so far featured Australians who have moved overseas and are working in beer. This month, we change tack slightly to bring you insights from Tracy Gan, a Hong Kong native by way of Queensland who now spends her days importing Australian beers to her craft beer store. Literal Aussie Exports, if you will.
How are you involved in beer in Hong Kong? How did that come about?
My husband Danny and I started importing and distributing craft beer in Hong Kong back in 2012. We just moved to Hong Kong from Brisbane and were looking for something different to do. Hong Kong was a craft beer desert back then.
While having never worked in the industry, we were exposed to some craft beers while living in Queensland. We were introduced to the guys at Mountain Goat by a friend and their distributor in Singapore, and that is how it all started.
Now The Bottle Shop is one of the leading importers with a large and distinctive portfolio of craft breweries that we distribute to trade and retail. We are the largest brick and mortar retail store of craft beers and craft spirits in HK, and we run a wide ranging online store. Just last year we opened a craft beer taproom to showcase the international brews that we bring in, and we pride ourselves in how we store and serve the beers.
What is your connection to Australia, and how have you explored that through your work?
Danny grew up on the Gold Coast and we met at university. We worked there professionally as architects for a decade before deciding to head to Hong Kong to expand our horizons. Our background as designers obviously means we have a love for anything craft and we love to support products made by passionate people. Back then there wasn’t a strong representation of Australian craft products in Hong Kong and we are really proud to have brought some of the best Aussie breweries to the overseas market.
Besides active participation in any beer related (or non beer related!) events, we also strongly encourage breweries to send their representatives over here for visits. The reason for this is so that the brewery we represent can better understand the challenges we face as craft beer importers, working alongside other importers as well as the growing number of local breweries.
Breweries who choose to export should understand the challenges of logistics, consistency of supply, the development and level of maturity of the overseas market compared to the Australian market, and how the strength of their brand matters.
Can you describe the beer scene in Hong Kong for us?
Hong Kong is still a really young market that has only really started to grow from two years ago. We went from one craft brewery started by a home brewer to now nearly 20 in the space of two years. There are really only two to three qualified brewmasters (expats from US/Aus or Germany) in Hong Kong at the moment, and a number of young local breweries who come from a homebrewing background are trying to find their feet in terms quality control, by striking a balance of getting the fundamental core styles right while also trying to experiment with local ingredients. Of course, the challenge is always to maintain financial viability at the same time.
Due to low entry barriers to market, (there are NO taxes on beer or any alcohol less than 30 percent ABV – get that!) the number of importers has seriously increased exponentially in the past two years as more and more people try to cash in on what they see as the next trend. Wine importers start to throw into their shipping containers some pallets of beers from breweries who are conveniently located near the wineries they import. Food importers start to bring in some beer, as they befriend some brewer while on a work trip overseas.
Local bars and restaurants, initially resistant to the product due to the high product costs, are now more open to listing a craft beer on their menu as consumers start to demand it. But one of the biggest challenges in the industry right now is getting trade people educated about craft beer in terms of storage, beer service and draft systems maintenance. Industry professionals like importers and some bar managers are working hard to push forward on further education.
A core group of industry professionals including ourselves founded the Craft Beer Association three years ago and we now have a much expanded number of members. The Craft Beer Association meets once a month to discuss industry happenings, organise events for members, and just generally share experiences.
Are more Hong Kong residents exploring craft beer?
Initially a very expat driven market, it is now starting to filter out to the local residents. Hong Kong is a very international city, and its residents have a very adventurous palate. As with how they approach food, the Chinese love and appreciate a large spectrum of tastes and texture, and other international residents are pretty much the same.
Compared to an average Aussie down at his local pub, a typical Hong Kong resident will not drink five or six pints of the same beer, he/she is likely to drink five or six pints of different beers.
What are Australian breweries like to work with? Is there anything they have to do differently for the Hong Kong market?
Aussies are amazing people to work with in any industry, and the people in the brewing industry are always professional, fun, earnest and have a fantastic sense of humour.
I believe breweries who plan to export should understand the differences between drinkers in their domestic market, and an Asian market like Hong Kong.
Drinking habits, palate differences, cultural backgrounds, cultural affinities, to name but a few, all contribute to choice of purchase and consumer consumption. Breweries may not necessarily have to do anything different as Hong Kong does not require special labelling on bottles or additional paperwork on duty as there is none.
But as with all markets with an insane amount of competition, breweries need to understand that pricing for an export market like HK has to be competitive, or else volumes will be forfeit. As with any imported commodity, marketing and promotional materials are also essential for brand awareness, though breweries should work closely with their distributor to understand what will work best in an Asian market.
What do you see in the beer scene in Hong Kong that could work in Australia?
That’s funny because I’ve always thought so hard about what would work in HK from Australia but not really the other way round. I’ve met and spoken to a few sales persons who work in beer in Australia and I think the challenges are very different. One sales manager remarked that it was a lot easier to sell beer in Australia than in Hong Kong!
But one thing I have noticed in Hong Kong is that the drinkers in Hong Kong who appreciate craft beer are those who simultaneously love craft spirits. Hong Kong has a really developed cocktail scene as we have many visiting mixologists or overseas trained mixologists, and we have had some great working relationships with some of these people.
On a recent visit to Australia this year I noticed a big growth in craft distilleries and product offerings in bottleshops. Perhaps there are collaboration opportunities from that perspective, whether it be brewing, or simply being listed in venues who might care as much as their beer as about their spirits.
Is there much knowledge or understanding of Australian beer in Hong Kong?
There is not. The American beer scene is a lot more developed than the Australian beer scene. Some well travelled residents could name the macro breweries, but when it comes to craft the knowledge is very much limited.
It would only be the Australian expats who drive the beer sales at the start, though we have had some good success with some of the breweries we bring in. Again, it all comes down to building brand awareness and local presence, and trying to find some kind of cultural affinity between the Australian brewery/beer and the locals.
Do you intend on coming to Australia, and if so, what would you look to do here?
We visit Australia every other year, usually to see family or attend GABS, where we can meet everyone from the breweries we represent in one trip. But every time we come we love to visit local breweries, new or existing, bottleshops, craft beer bars, eat at the latest places, and of course to meet more people.
What's your most treasured beer memory from your travels in Hong Kong or elsewhere?
I’ve had many lovely memories, it’s hard to pick one as the best. But perhaps one of the funniest is when Brendan Varis from Feral Brewing visited our taproom in Hong Kong without giving me a heads up. I’ve never met him before, and when he asked our bar staff about meeting me, we all thought he was just another beer supplier wanting to ask about putting his draft on tap.
I hid in a corner pretending to work on my laptop (OK, not very good form, I admit, but it had been a long week), and he came up to me, shook my hand and introduced himself. All I could do was stare at his pink shirt and mutter: “Get. Out.” incredulously.
What beer tips do you have for people visiting your part of the world?
Some noteworthy breweries to visit in Hong Kong would be Young Master, Black Kite, Moonzen, Lion Rock, and Kowloon Bay Brewery.
Venues would include our taproom The Bottle Shop Central, The Globe, Roundhouse, The Ale Project, Second Draft.
Thanks Tracy! You can read the rest of our Aussie Exports series here.
About the author: Kerry McBride is a reformed journalist who has taken the well-trodden path from Wellington to Melbourne. Her love for bad puns is matched only by her love of hoppy beers and Hallertau Funkonnay.