Brewery based in one of the world’s most significant trade hubs
Saturday 28 August 2021
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Ones to Watch
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Dominating the Hong Kong craft beer market with a 60% market share, it’s hard to believe that Gweilo only started brewing six years ago. But like everything else in the country, the rise of craft has been swift and thrilling, propelling this ambitious young brewery onto the international stage.
The idea for Gweilo came to founder Ian Jebbit in a dream (I kid you not), in which he was given a can of ‘Gweilo’ beer and thought it was a fun name. Fortunately, he still felt the same when he woke up, and immediately went to register the trademark.
“I’d actually been working as a trademark lawyer in Hong Kong for about four years by that point, having moved over from the UK,” he says.
“Gweilo was the first trademark I’d ever registered for myself, and I actually had to do it in my wife’s name, because I wasn’t technically allowed to hold any trademarks personally. At the time she bet me HK$100 that I wouldn’t do anything with the mark, so that kind of motivated me too.”
Having brewed with his dad since he was a child, Ian already had a clear idea of what he wanted to do on the beer side, and it wasn’t long before he was contract brewing locally. But there was still something missing. It wasn’t until a drunk night out with some of his wife’s teacher friends that Ian met Joe Gould – the boyfriend of one of her colleagues – and the pair clicked immediately.
A designer with a background in branding, Joe was also a massive craft beer fan, who was likewise frustrated by the lack of decent options in Hong Kong. They met up for lunch the next day and, in Ian’s words, “the rest was history”. Launching in 2015, Gweilo was quickly picked up by two big supermarket chains and the national airline Cathay Pacific. By 2017, it had moved to a new 20,000 hectolitre brewery and effectively dominated the local craft market.
“Five years ago when we started, very few locals had any experience of craft beer,” says Ian. “We would go to a festival and people would bring back their IPAs, complaining they were off because they were bitter. In 2017-18! That’s changed a lot though. There’s been a lot of imported stuff from Omnipollo, Mikkeller and loads of others. So now there’s a real diehard Hong Kong beer geek community, a real appreciation for craft.
“We actually curate the imported craft selection for one of the big supermarket chains here; we’re up to about 50 lines with them now, across 350 stores. It’s a lot of work, but has had such an impact. They’re in the process of rolling out completely refrigerated sections for craft beer, in all their stores. It will take a couple of years, but they’ve committed to this journey with us.”
In terms of its own beer, Gweilo’s core range is pitched as an everyday, easy drinking beer in the American or new European craft mode, but employing hops that have Asian characteristics – lychee, mango, floral notes – to complement Asian food. There’s also an experimental range which has grown in importance as the local market has matured, to the point where Gweilo now runs its own experimentally-focused brewpub, adding to its sites around the country.
Based in one of the world’s most significant trade hubs though, there was no way the relatively small local market was ever going to be enough for an ambitious brewery like Gweilo, so it wasn’t long before Ian and Joe began setting their sights on other markets to conquer. Logistically though, here was a problem.
“Brewing in Hong Kong is expensive – there’s no getting away from it,” says Ian. “To give you some idea, just owning a 10,000 square foot brewery with all the storage was about £40,000 a month, before you’ve brewed a drop. But that wasn’t all; we get a lot of imported stuff here, and a lot of it is already knackered. Like you get a lot of cheese that’s a bit too ripe, fruit and veg that’s a bit tired and battered. We don’t want our beer to be that irrelevant Asian can sitting on the shelf in a UK or US supermarket that people just buy once out of curiosity.
“So, how do you overcome that? You brew locally. So we looked at contract brewing, but that’s tricky and ultimately doesn’t really give you any kind of market presence – just a lot of beer to shift. So that’s when we started looking at partnering. Because of our position here, we’re able to offer a foothold in the Far East, so we’ve been able to set up what’s become a network of partner breweries in several markets. That way, our beer is always fresh, distribution is taken care of and we have instant relevance.”
Here in the UK, Gweilo’s beer is brewed and distributed by Vocation, with similar arrangements in place with Heart of Darkness in Vietnam and Rocky Ridge in Australia. I’m curious though – aside from Ian and Joe’s obvious emotional attachment to the UK, why put so much energy into setting up half way around the world in a market as saturated as ours?
There isn’t an everyday premium Asian craft beer in the UK that’s readily available at an affordable price
“A lot of people have asked that,” replies Ian. “My standard joke is that my dad wants to drink my beer. But actually, if you think about it, there isn’t an everyday premium Asian craft beer in the UK that’s readily available at an affordable price. And that’s in a country with a large and growing Asian population, where Asian food is the number one takeaway. That whole market entirely is dominated by macro beers, so we believe there’s a real opportunity to win over people who currently drink Asahi, Tsingtao and Kirin and start them on a craft journey.”
As much as it’s positioning itself as an accessible craft alternative to bland, macro Asian beers though, it doesn’t take much chat before the beer geek side of Gweilo begins to surface. This more experimental spirit has come much more to the fore since the appointment of head brewer Charlie Johnson a couple of years ago. Based in California, Charlie’s own brewery, the Ronin Fermentation Project, is the kind of wilfully obscure, indulgent craft outfit that serious craft fans adore. It’s some of this energy that Charlie has brought to Gweilo.
Joe says: “The reason for bringing Charlie on was really to elevate our limited batch range, to push the boundaries in terms of the experimental beers. There’s really two sides of the business now: there’s the everyday accessible, go-to beer of our core range, and then the absolute polar opposite of that, where we do as much crazy, fun, engaging stuff as we can. And as part of that, we just opened a 150 seat venue here in Hong Kong, which has its own five hectolitre microbrewery, which we call our brew lab. One of the other upsides of working with all these different breweries in Australia, Vietnam, the UK, Belgium, the US is that we’re getting a lot of input, knowledge and inspiration. So, spanning all of those markets, from a creative standpoint, adds a lot into the melting pot of our brewing.”
A true one to watch, there’s seemingly no limit to Gweilo’s ambition. Pairing razor-sharp commercial savvy with an experimental heart and commitment to putting quality beer into the hands of anyone and everyone, the brewery’s explosion into the UK beer scene feels like just the start of its story here.
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