Twenty minutes is all that separates Hong Kong from Shenzhen in mainland China, a mega-city in its own right after four decades of ceaseless, rapid expansion. The true gap between the two neighbors can't be measured in miles or minutes, though. Instead, the gap is measured in deeply rooted political, social, and cultural systems and ideologies. At times it may seem like an insurmountable obstacle, an infinite span. That's the case here and now in 2019, as violent protests rage on one side of the border, while thanks to state-controlled media and social media blocks, millions of citizens on the other side of the border may hardly know about them. Can craft beer help stitch these two wildly different worlds more closely together?
"Beer has brought people together for thousands of years and was a catalyst of human civilization," says Rohit Dugar, founder of the Hong Kong-based Young Master Brewery. Indeed, sitting down and breaking bread or sharing a drink has been a way to heal wounds and soothe perceived injustices between aggrieved parties for as far back as you can trace. So it is that Young Master, already with a contingent of successful Hong Kong locations, as well as an outpost in Singapore, has made its first foray into mainland China with Goon Goon, a brewpub in the Upperhills development of the Futian district in Shenzhen.
All that talk about bridging gaps between cultures isn't really what Young Master is seeking to accomplish, though. "We are in the business of making great beer and not politics," Dugar says. However, it is the backdrop in which that business is being done, and therefore in a certain way, like it or not, it's an inevitable part of the discussion.
Young Master produces an incredible array of different beers, with mixed ferments, barrel-aged beers, seasonal offerings, limited runs, and special collaborations all alongside a core rotation. It continues to brew all of its beer in Hong Kong, distributing to its other locations from a central point of production. Capacity is currently at roughly 1 million LPA, with about 15 percent of consumption taking place at its own half-dozen taprooms, and the bulk being more widely distributed.
"Outside of dealing with administrative issues like different sets of regulations and market dynamics, at a personal level it is actually fairly seamless [to operate a business in both Hong Kong and Shenzhen]," Dugar says. "We are really close to Shenzhen and it's an easy commute and one we can do frequently."
As if to prove the point, Dugar drove over to Shenzhen from Hong Kong to meet me at Goon Goon one night in September, as I was exploring the city for the first time. It's a close enough drive that he was planning on heading straight back after dinner, but my mind and my palate were both curious, and the conversation and beers each continued flowing in kind, so eventually he wisely decided to stay put for the evening.
When Young Master debuted six years ago in Hong Kong, it was at the very cutting edge of the craft beer movement in the city. A first-of-its-kind operation, there are now several dozen craft breweries across the territory. Having found its foothold there, and spawning a trend, the Young Master team is now seeking to follow a similar blueprint in Shenzhen.
"It quickly became apparent to us that Shenzhen, with its thriving design and creative culture coupled with proximity to our home base, is the perfect place for our maiden China launch," Dugar says. "It doesn't feel like a southern Chinese city."
The demographics and culture may seem a fit, although it's important to note that it's all in a place that's entirely lacking any type of established beer culture. They're not just trying to get consumers to switch from big beer to craft beer—they're looking at an entire paradigm shift in tastes.
What that lack of established beer culture in Shenzhen really means and what it uniquely provides, however, is a clean slate. You don't have to overcome preconceived notions or traditions if there aren't any. And you don't have to displace favored breweries if you're the first on the scene.
By deploying local flavors in their beer—you might find ingredients ranging from salted lime to tea to lychee—and matching the beer with cuisine that both matches the tastes of locals and the profile of the beers, it's an easier sell than you might expect.
The trick is simply getting people in the door. In sprawling Shenzhen, a monstrous metropolitan area, people often entertain at home. That's why Goon Goon is designed as an informal gathering place and neighborhood watering hole, a welcoming hangout where friends can gather.
"It's in our company's DNA to be very bespoke, both in the beers we make and the taprooms we develop," Dugar says. "In our home market in Hong Kong as well, we have four taprooms that are very distinct in their own way and adapted carefully to their hyper-local environment."
In practice, for Shenzhen that means a dozen of the brewery's offerings are served on tap, with goses and sours alongside IPAs and pilsners, all ably standing up to food ranging from house pickles and chicken mousse to fried pork knuckle or tripe. "In the case of Goon Goon, we're incorporating influences from all over China into the food we serve there," Dugar says.
"Shenzhen is a city of migrants from all over the country and its local cuisine reflects the breadth of flavors and cooking techniques seen across all Chinese provinces," he continues. "Whether it's preserved chicken gizzard with flavors from Sichuan or whole chicken cooked with salt-cured lime commonly found in cha chaan tengs in Hong Kong, the food at Goon Goon takes beer hall dishes and thoughtfully incorporates flavors and techniques from all over China."
The more you eat, the more you want something good to wash it down, and vice versa. Goon Goon has also hosted beer pairing dinners, showing that good food and good beer can go hand-in-hand, an entirely new experience for most locals. "People here don't associate good food with good beer," says Jessica Kwok, Young Master's business development manager. They're starting to now, though, and they're heading to Goon Goon to try it.
Kwok is Young Master's point person in Shenzhen. "My job is to explore what's possible for us in mainland China," she explains. Besides the day-to-day operations in Shenzhen, she travels across China, visiting different markets and attending beer festivals and events. What she's found is an enthusiastic and devoted niche of fans—the same people appearing at pop-up events day after day for another brief taste of craft beer culture, for instance. It's that type of hands-on, grassroots style promotion and engagement that is helping Young Master grow its presence in Shenzhen, while also casting a wider net across China, too.
"We're intending to make our beers more widely available on the mainland, and we're working on further developing the community and overall the craft beer culture," Dugar says.
"Overall we believe that young, craft-curious consumers in southern China remain underserved and the overall ecosystem around craft beer needs a lot more nurturing," Dugar says. "We are fortunate to have an opportunity to contribute to this development at a relatively early stage. While all the building blocks needed for development of a vibrant craft beer ecosystem exist in Shenzhen, they all need nurturing to reach world class standards, something we believe will happen in a relatively short period of time."
Dugar believes the younger population in the city, and the city's status as a tech hub, both will help the brewery find its footing there. As for bringing people together, Kwok points to the same, as well as the overarching ideals of their consumers at large. "I think it's the beer community. People are more open-minded," she offers.
Maybe a craft brewery with a footprint on both sides of the border has absolutely no bearing to the larger issues at hand. "The underlying issues [between Hong Kong and China] are very serious, and they have to be resolved one way or another," Dugar says.
But maybe a few beers can occasionally go a long way, too. In a place where beer is still on the fringes, a real community is formed by the like-minded people who engage with an establishment such as Goon Goon.
"Of course, beer is supposed to be fun," Dugar says. "Our focus will remain the same: to make great beer. And we hope it plays a part at the micro-level in bringing people of all backgrounds together."