When I moved to Hong Kong a year and a half ago, I feared a return to a drinking life overflowing with pallid, tasteless beers—and this time, no toga parties. So I was happy to discover the East End Brewery, (852) 2811 1907, where discriminating beer connoisseurs can sample microbrews from around the world, such as California's Anchor Steam, or the tangy Aldrich Bay Pale Ale and the full-bodied Too Soo Brew, both made by the award-winning Hong Kong SAR Brewing Company. Brewpubs like East End and microbreweries like Hong Kong Brewing are expanding around the region, as Asian beer drinkers discover what the rest of the world has already learned: if you're going to get sloshed, do it with taste.
Julie Bradford, editor of the U.S.-based All About Beer magazine, says the microbrew boom stems from "an interest in tradition, flavor and quality, and as reaction against globalization." Few Asian countries have embraced the trend like Japan, where the economy may be stuttering but bargoers are still eager to spend their yen on a pint of jibiiru, or craft beer, from one of the country's 300 or so microbreweries. And we're not just talking about local favorites; the popular Yona Yona Ale from Yoho Brewing in Nagano and Hitachino Nest Beer of Kiuchi Brewery have both won awards at international beer competitions. Microbrew aficionado Yasuhiro Tani got hooked while living in Texas; now the 46-year-old accountant only buys jibiiru, often over the Internet. "Regular beer is generally popular but banal," he says. "Craft beer is so various in ingredients, flavors and styles that there's always something new that breaks the conventions of what beer is."
Many of Japan's breweries have pubs nearby or on the premises, so patrons can sip their jibiiru fresh from the brewer. At the T. Y. Harbor Brewery Restaurant and Bar in Tokyo, (81-3) 5479 4555, gleaming aluminum tanks of premium beer fill the cavernous interior. Manager Masato Tajima recommends the original Tennoz pale ale, which goes well with the restaurant's Californian cuisine.
At Singapore's popular expat-heavy Brewerkz, (65) 6438 7438, micro has gone macro. The 840-sq. m brewery, opened in 1997 by the son of a teetotaling Methodist minister, makes 10 different original brews, from Singapore Pale Ale to Oatmeal Stout to Millennium Lager, available in a yard-size glass for a whopping $20 apiece. Like many other large brewpubs, Brewerkz also sells its microbrews in take-out bottles—but only on the premises. "We haven't pushed it to the greater world because I don't want to compete with the 900-lb. gorillas," says managing director Devin Kimble.
John Docherty, general manager of the Hong Kong SAR Brewing Company, can relate. He knows how difficult it is for microbreweries to find their niche in a macrobrew region. Founded in 1996, his is one of the oldest microbreweries in Asia and does most of its business supplying Hong Kong pubs with exclusive microbrews; he began exporting its popular Dragon's Back Ale and Premium Gold Lager outside Hong Kong only a few months ago. Though the company has expanded its production, the focus is on providing diversity to local tipplers stuck in an unimaginative market. "With most bartenders, if you ask for a Hong Kong beer, they'll give you a Tsingtao," sniffs Docherty.
There's no risk of such an insult at the East End Brewery, where patrons can enjoy the fruits of a revolution that began when American drinkers rebelled against a macrobrew industry whose idea of choice was "tastes great" versus "less filling." And did I mention the best thing about East End? It's right across the street from TIME's offices. Happy hour calls.