In 2013, shipments of American craft beers jumped by more than 70% in the Asia Pacific region
Famed "phantom brewery" Mikkeller recently opened its first Asia beer bar in Bangkok
TAPS is one of the first bars in Malaysia to break convention by importing its own beers
The craft beer revolution is dead. Microbrews are no longer a trend.
They’re increasingly the norm, as more and more new microbreweries join the fray, increase brewing capacity and expand distribution to corners of the globe thirsty for something more than the local mass-produced lager.
The rapid change in beer-drinking tastes is particularly stark in the Asia Pacific region, where in 2013 the American Brewers Association reports that shipments of American craft beers jumped by more than 70% compared to the previous year.
Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand account for the biggest demand – and that’s just for American beer.
So where are the best places to drink beer in Asia these days?
Here’s a beer drinker’s top 10.
1. Mikkeller Bangkok (Bangkok)
Mikkeller, the so-called “phantom brewery” based out of Copenhagen, was co-founded in 2006 by high school science teacher Mikkel Borg Bjergso.
Pioneering a practice now adopted by nimble brewmasters around the world, Bjergso brews all Mikkeller beers – more than 100 different types per year – at trusted host breweries across Europe and the United States.
He takes an experimental approach to recipes that are often used just once – like the Beer Geek Vanilla Shake (Bourbon Edition), which was aged for eight months in old bourbon barrels.
Combined with their unique flavor profiles, the limited availability of many Mikkeller beers has contributed to a cult following.
When Bjergso floated the idea of opening a Mikkeller bar in Bangkok, importer Jakob Rasmussen jumped on the opportunity.
Opened in January and modeled after the bright, cheerful design of Mikkeller & Friends bar in Copenhagen, Mikkeller Bangkok is the brand’s first bar in Asia.
“One of the requirements from Mikkel is that his bars be destinations,” says Rasmussen.
Roughly half of the bar’s 30 taps – the most on tap anywhere in Bangkok – are allotted to Mikkeller beers, including the exclusive house brews Sukhumvit Pilsner and Sukhumvit Brown.
Birra del Borgo (Italy), To Øl (Denmark) and Baird Beer (Japan) are notable breweries that have also made draft appearances.
Mikkeller Bangkok, 26 Ekkamai Soi 10, Yaek 2, Bangkok; +66 (0)2 381 9891
2. Great Leap Brewing (Beijing)
Born and raised in the United States, brewmaster Carl Setzer embraces his adopted home country at Great Leap Brewing (GLB), the first microbrewery in Beijing when it launched in 2010.
Even in the hands of an American expat (and his Chinese wife and co-founder, Liu Fang), GLB is a proudly Chinese operation, from a focus on local ingredients to an intimate 12-tap tasting room located amid the winding lanes of a traditional hutong.
“We are in love with the concept of the localization of craft beer, specifically as it relates to China,” says Setzer.
“We use locally malted barley, locally grown hops and coffee beans, organic date honey from an apiary at the foot of the Great Wall, Sichuan peppercorns and Chinese rock candy.
The hope is that inclusion of these ingredients in our recipes will result in a uniquely Chinese product.”
Setzer brews more than 40 different beers a year, with the goal of introducing at least one new beer every month at the original hutong location and GLB’s newer, larger flagship brewpub on Xinzhong Street in the city’s Chaoyang district.
One of his latest concoctions is the Hidden General IPA, a sessionable ale (light, low in alcohol content) brewed with Chinese Qingdao flower and American Simcoe hops, then infused with dried chrysanthemum flowers and roasted Iron Goddess of Mercy oolong tea.
Great Leap Brewing, Original No. 6 Location, Doujiao Hutong #6, Beijing; +86 10 5717 1399
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3. Boxing Cat Brewery (Shanghai)
Shanghai’s Boxing Cat Brewery (BCB) is similarly helmed by a transplanted American brewmaster making his mark on Chinese soil.
Open since 2008, BCB’s core and Boxer’s Choice brews have scored six medals between the annual Asia Beer Cup and Australian International Beer Awards.
“We take a North American approach to craft brewing and use the highest quality ingredients sourced from many different countries,” says brewmaster Michael Jordan.
“This means our beers are not ‘dumbed down’ just because we’re in China and in a market that is new to craft brews.”
Jordan annually tackles more than 35 different styles of beer, from a seasonal spiced pumpkin ale to year-round signatures like Donkey Punch Porter, a silky smooth dark amber brewed with ancho peppers and cacao.
The Bruce Chilee IPA, which Jordan says had a “green chili flavor with mild heat, along with some hop flavor and floral aroma,” was the result of an email exchange with friend Mikkel Borg Bjergso (of aforementioned Mikkeller fame).
Six beers are on tap at both of BCB’s American-style gastropubs.
The Yongfu location, with its street-facing outdoor courtyard, is the better one, though at both the beers are far more interesting than the venues.
In April, BCB spun off sister brewpub Liquid Laundry, which features 15 taps and an on-site brewery.
A third flagship location is planned for the fall.
Boxing Cat Brewery, Yong Fu Location, 82 Fu Xing Road West, Xu Jia Hui District, Shanghai; +86 21 6431 2091
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4. BrewDog Roppongi (Tokyo)
Depending on your point of view, Scotland-based BrewDog creates either the world’s most gimmicky beers or its most daring – or both.
Sold-out The End of History, for example, is a whopping 55% Belgian-style ale that was priced at nearly $800 a bottle and packaged in taxidermied squirrels and weasels.
Prince William and Kate Middleton’s royal wedding was commemorated with the cheeky, limited-edition Royal Virility Performance, an American-style IPA brewed with, ahem, herbal Viagra.
Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, beer drinkers around the world are paying attention.
This year BrewDog added new fermentation tanks, a fifth mash tun and a canning line to its brewery in Aberdeenshire to help meet demand.
It now has 16 flagship bars and one bottle shop across five countries; more are on the way in Belgium, India, Italy, France, Germany and Norway.
Opened in March, BrewDog Roppongi is the brewery’s first foray into Asia.
The Tokyo outpost is a bi-level space sporting the same spare, industrial design favored at all BrewDog bars.
Many furnishings were imported from the UK, including gymnasium flooring in the cold room and chairs stripped from an old movie theater.
At least half of the bar’s 20 taps are earmarked for BrewDog beers.
“One thing we take very seriously is our mission to ‘share the passion’ about craft beer,” says David Croll, CEO of BrewDog Japan and importers Whisk-e Limited.
BrewDog Roppongi, Saito Building 1/F, Roppongi 5-3-2, Minato-ku, Tokyo; +81 3 6447 4160
5. Goodbeer Faucets (Tokyo)
BrewDog Roppongi is one of the newest kids on Tokyo’s craft beer block, but it has well established company.
Craftheads, Craft Beer Market and Baird Taproom Harajuku are other recommended microbrew bars – Goodbeer Faucets might be the best of the bunch.
A short walk from Shibuya station, the cozy 40-tap space offers an elite selection of Japanese, American, Belgian and German beers.
Made in collaboration with Japanese breweries Baird Beer, Brimmer Brewing and Atsugi Beer, the bar’s seven house beers include Yuzu Dream, an easy-drinking seasonal made with lemony yuzu fruit, and Endless Brown Ale.
“It’s an English-style brown ale with up to five different varieties of malts,” says beer manager Eldad Bribrom. “It’s a bit sweet and hoppy, but with 5% alcohol it’s highly sessionable and not too heavy, which is why I named it Endless.”
Goodbeer Faucets also has one of the most efficient tap systems.
An engineer who advises many of the country’s microbreweries on operational best practices, owner Teruya Hori built an automated system that essentially uses one tank filled with hot water and another with detergent to quickly clean several tap lines at once.
Two hot water cycles are run after every shot of detergent to avoid potential beer contamination.
Goodbeer Faucets, Shibuya Crossroad Building 2/F, 1-29-1 Shoto, Shibuya-ka, Tokyo; +81 3 3770 5544
6. Smith Street Taps (Singapore)
JiBiru Japanese Craft Beer Bar and The Great Beer Experiment are among a wave of specialty bars that have elevated the island’s craft scene.
None are as uniquely Singaporean as Smith Street Taps.
Launched in January by local bottle shop owners Daniel Goh and Meng-Chao, this hidden pop-up bar at the Chinatown Complex Food Centre is the first and currently only hawker center stall serving exclusively draft beers.
In its early months of operation, Smith Street Taps has poured several beers never before seen on draft in Singapore – e.g., a Mint Chocolate Stout from Japan’s Sankt Gallen Brewery and Porter from Norway’s Nogne O – and hosted tap takeovers for Stone Brewing Co., Magic Rock Brewing and others.
Eight taps are on hand, each with custom handles fashioned from walnut and maple by U.S. tap makers Bearded Boy Design.
Goh’s nearby hawker center shop, The Good Beer Company, complements the draft beers with a fine selection of bottled brews.
Aside from a more flexible lease and cheaper rent, Goh and Meng-Chao chose the location to help visitors pair beers with Singapore’s famous hawker fare.
“Try satay with a maibock, like the Rogue Dead Guy Ale, or a strong Belgian pale ale like Delirium Tremens,” says Goh.
“The sweetness of the strong maltiness in these beers goes so well with lightly charred and smoked meats, and also complements the peanut gravy that the satay is dipped in.”
Smith Street Taps, 335 Smith St., Chinatown Complex Food Centre, #02-62, Singapore; +65 9430 2750
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7. The Roundhouse (Hong Kong)
Space comes at a premium in this wildly popular Soho watering hole, particularly on weekend nights when it can be near impossible to find somewhere to sit or even comfortably stand (and, sometimes, to track down a server).
Of course, there’s good reason why The Roundhouse, which features 25 taps of craft beer, packs ‘em in nightly.
The tap list is both the biggest and best in Hong Kong.
In the first half of the year, brewmasters and representatives from Baird Beer, Boxing Cat Brewery, Great Leap Brewing, Hong Kong Beer Co. and Young Master Ales participated in “meet and greet” events in tandem with tap takeovers.
A house pale ale, the Roundhouse Smoky Baby Prototype #1, pairs nicely with chef Austin Fry’s American-style barbecue menu that includes beef brisket, homemade sausage and smoked beef short ribs.
For a proper Hong Kong craft beer crawl, you can also stop at longtime craft-beer mainstay The Globe, just around the corner from The Roundhouse, and at nearby Tipping Point Brewing Co., which pours its own microbrews straight from the tank.
The Roundhouse, 62 Peel St., Central, Hong Kong; +852 2366 4880
8. BREW – Beers & Ciders (Bangkok)
Ten years ago Chris Foo couldn’t give away the Belgian beers he was importing to Bangkok.
At the time the import selection was mostly limited to a handful of German wheats.
Convinced that craft beers had a future in The Kingdom, Foo took matters into his own hands and in 2004 opened HOB – House of Beers, the city’s first proper craft bar, which has since expanded to six city locations and one in Chiang Mai.
Nowadays, Bangkok’s craft beer market is flourishing, with importers like Beervana, Hopsession and Smiling Mad Dog introducing some of the world’s best microbreweries to more than 100 bars and restaurants.
Whatever local importers can get their hands on will be available at BREW – Beers & Ciders, Foo’s second, insanely successful beer venture which, he says, has “a Friday night every night.”
This is no exaggeration.
Though BREW itself is a tiny, nondescript bar with limited seating, it shares a central courtyard seating area at Thonglor’s trendy Seenspace, an eating-and-drinking hotspot heaving with an expat-heavy crowd of the young, fashionable and affluent.
While BREW’s bottle selection is unsurpassed in Bangkok, here the vibe is far more clubby than your average beer bar.
View it as the best of both worlds: a frat party-like atmosphere outdoors and quieter pub indoors.
Foo says Bangkok’s beer culture has come a long way, but is still in its nascent stages.
“There is a bit more interest in the easy-drinking craft beers that are around 5% alcohol, with a little bit more bitterness than your standard lagers, but not as much in your IPAs,” he says.
“Most of the market is not yet mature enough for your ‘super beer-geek beers,’ like porters and imperial stouts.”
BREW – Beers & Ciders, Seenspace, Thonglor 13, 1/F, Bangkok; +66 2 185 2366
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9. Brewerkz - Riverside Point (Singapore)
Ahead of its time upon its debut in 1997, the granddaddy of Singaporean microbrewing still offers one of the Lion City’s best overall beer experiences (and selections).
Taphouse by Brewerkz, a laid back watering hole in leafy Dempsey Hill, is the brewery’s latest and arguably most comfortable space.
But its flagship venue, a massive sports bar and restaurant sprawling along the Singapore River in the slightly tacky Clarke Quay area, has the widest variety of beers.
Here each of Brewerkz’s five signature brews are always on tap – including the hearty, full-flavored Oatmeal Stout – along with up to seven seasonals and two guest beers, one of which is usually from fellow Singaporean microbrewers RedDot BrewHouse.
You’ll also find a well-curated list of bottled beers from more than 20 international breweries, though be prepared for mild sticker shock: a 22-ounce bottle of Evil Twin Femme Fatale Brett, for example, is roughly $20, while 25-ounce bottles of Brewery Ommegang’s 3 Philosophers are around $25.
Speaking of pricing, it’s worth noting that Brewerkz beers are cheapest from noon-3 p.m. and, predictably, most expensive from 8-11 p.m., with prices rising as the afternoon wears on and falling again after 11 p.m.
If you need an excuse to have a beer with lunch, this is it: a 16-ounce pint of India Pale Ale costs about $6.50 until 3 p.m., but is more than double that price during prime drinking hours.
Brewerkz, 30 Merchant Road, #01-05/06, Riverside Point, Singapore; +65 6438 7438
10. TAPS Beer Bar (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)
It’s a family affair at TAPS Beer Bar, a Kuala Lumpur craft bar celebrating its third anniversary in September.
Owned and operated by a group of close-knit cousins – one of their fathers, a Shell engineer, designed and built the bar’s 14-tap draft system – TAPS is one of the first bars in Malaysia to break convention by importing its own beers and declining exclusive distribution agreements with the region’s dominant macrobreweries.
Co-owner Alvin Lim says the first year was a roller coaster ride and there were times when he questioned the bar’s viability.
But business has picked up as more and more curious locals wander inside.
“In general, Malaysians drink the big, mass-produced beers because of the cheap price point, but we have seen the number of craft beer drinkers increasing,” says Lim.
“When we get first timers we start them with something light, like a Mountain Goat Steam Ale or Hitachino Nest White Ale, then move them to something with a stronger taste, like an amber ale, IPA or stout.”
In June TAPS debuts its second location, in the upscale suburbs just outside central KL at 1 Mont Kiara Mall.
TAPS Beer Bar, One Residency, Jalan Nagasari, Kuala Lumpur; +60 3 2110 1560
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Brian Spencer is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Singapore.