Beertopia 2017 Review: The Best Craft Beer Festival I Couldn’t Afford

Hailed as Asia’s biggest craft beer festival, Beertopia was marked on my calendar for months. After spending that last 5 years in Seoul, this was the first craft beer festival I’ve attended outside South Korea. Now living in Shenzhen, an easy commute from Hong Kong, I fully expected Hong Kong’s Beertopia to raise my craft beer festival experience to a whole new level. 

So, did Hong Kong’s Beertopia 2017 meet my excited expectations?

Not really.

Who is this festival for?

TL;DR: It’s for the rich.

Gweilo was the first sample I had at the festival. Good choice!

Beertopia did a lot of things right, which I’ll point out in the coming sections. However, the big off-flavor here, leaving a metaphorically skunky aftertaste in my mouth, was the price.

Hong Kong is expensive. And hosting an event downtown can’t be cheap. I know that. But the beer (not to mention food) prices were too high for me to truly enjoy myself.

There were several pricing schemes for entry tickets, but if you arrived without an early-bird ticket you’d pay:

Friday night (starting at 6pm) cost $290 HKD;

Saturday (starting at noon) cost $320 HKD.   

These tickets also got you a coupon for 1 free beer, but that coupon was only good with a very limited selection. Plus, most people want to start with some samples. Afterall it is a beer festival and Beertopia advertised that it had more than 500 different beers. How can the average festival-goer know which is the right beer for them without sampling different styles?

Apparently, by spending lots of cash on tokens. I spoke to some breweries’ staff members and was told that booths were forbidden from offering free samples. Instead they were instructed to charge 1 token for a small taster. So the newly arrived ticket holder, even with their beer coupon, would still have to immediately buy tokens to try samples of any beer.

Charging one token for a small taster is not so bad — until you find out how expensive tokens are.

You could only buy tokens in the mathematically elegant prices of 6 for $100 HKD and 14 for $200 HKD. Asking intoxicated people to do that math almost seems cruel. Try drinking several beer and then figure out, in your head, how many times 6 goes into 100 or 14 into 200; especially if you’re a tourist who’s unfamiliar with Hong Kong Dollars (HKD). Not to mention that tokens themselves are easy to discredit as something that isn’t real money.

So here’s the math:

Entry Tickets Friday (6pm – close) Saturday (noon – close)
In HKD $290 $320
In USD (Approx) $37 $41
Drink Tokens 6 tokens ($100 HKD) 14 tokens ($200 HKD)
Price in USD (approx) $13 $26
Price per token in USD (approx) $2.17 $1.86

Of course there’s more efficient ways to hack the beer festival in order to save your money, and we’ll talk about that in a minute. But first I want to point out another downside of buying tokens: what if you don’t use them all? If you’re a light drinker, or if you were soon leaving the festival for dinner, you might not be able to go through the 14 tokens you just bought. Not unless you knew where to blow your money.

Warm Tip: For those looking to quickly blow a ton of tokens, go for expensive imported beers! A bottle of Evil Twin Imperial Biscotti Break (a beer that costs $175 HKD at HK Brewcraft), will take a cool 20 tokens off your hands (Beertopia price: $300 HKD or approx $38 USD).

*Note: It might have been the Evil Twin Imperial Doughnut Break, a slightly more expensive beer at $200 HKD for sale at HK Brewcraft.

I personally spent a lot of tokens at Yeastie Boys, a great New Zealand brewery with beers you can find around Hong Kong. Why did I drink these imported beers? Well, their beers are good. But most importantly I could get a full can of beer for 2 tokens (approx $4.34 USD). Not a steal, especially considering the entry price, but the best deal I could find at the whole festival.

In contrast, my boys from Busan — Korea’s Gorilla Brewing — charged 2 tokens for a sample. It was 5 tokens (approx $10.67 USD!) for a single plastic cup full of beer. But Gorilla wasn’t the only exception to the “1 token for a taster” rule, and they had to pay extra to import their beer on short notice.

A more saddening exception could be found at the “Beer Geek Area.” This was a sort of trailer in the middle of the fest with some really exciting and unique beers from two great local breweries: Yardley Brothers and Young Masters.

Among their selection of heart-racingly novel beers, Yardley Brothers had a 25% abv IPA called The Beast, and Young Masters had two of their new barrel-aged, flavored, imperial stouts. These are the kind of high-concept, expensive beers that make true beer geeks salivate. The price? A whopping 3 tokens (approx $6.40USD) for a small taster. For juxtaposition, I bought a full bottle of Young Masters’ Barrel-Aged Raspberry Stout the previous day at HK Brewcraft for 50 HKD (the exact price of 3 tokens). Here at Beertopia — after paying good money to attend — you still had to pay the price of a full bottle just to get a small taste.

These prices left me wondering: Who is this craft beer fest for?

Charging entry fees and also sharply raising the price of beer way beyond its market price is not a way to ingratiate beer geeks or attract new fans. It’s a way of fleecing super rich Hong Kong locals and tourists.

But if that’s true, then the festival is just a money thing. That’s a sad thought and I hope I’m wrong about it. But I believe that a craft beer festival ought to strike a balance between satisfying hardcore beer geeks and providing both an education and ample opportunity for non-craft beer fans to try lots of new beer, hopefully winning them over in the eternal battle against industrial lagers.

 

Homebrewers and Beer Geeks. They weren’t selling anything that I could see… they’re just there for the love of the craft.

Another victim in all this: the small, independent breweries. If you were representing a brewery with a small marketing budget at Beertopia, good luck! I don’t know how you’d get anyone to pay those prices to take a chance on one of your plainly marketed beers. I imagine it was hard going for some; but that’s just speculation.

Tips to help you hack next year’s Beertopia

For those now weary of attending next year, please read on! I have tons of positive stuff to say. Plus, here’s some quick tips for saving money:

  1. Pack some snacks or lunch. It’s probably frowned upon, but no one checked our bags on the way in. So pack some snacks because the food is at least as expensive as the beer, and the lines were longer.
  2. Don’t underestimate the expense of tokens. Work out the per token price before you start drinking!
  3. Before you start spending tokens, shop around. Some booths charged way too much (5-20 tokens per beer), but others had more sensible prices. I spent a lot of time at Yeastie Boys and Pirate’s Life (2 and 3 tokens per beer, respectively). There were also some good imports where 3-4 tokens got you a tall-boy can.
  4. Remember where you are. You’re on Hong Kong Island next to the Star Ferry. There’s tons of restaurants and craft beer locations all around you. If you’re new to Hong Kong, do your homework. Sure, it sucks to leave a festival you paid money to attend, but you can save money in the long run by eating dinner outside the festival and grabbing some drinks before and/or after you check out the fest.
  5. Save your leftovers. My leftover tokens from Friday worked on Saturday. I don’t know if they were supposed to, but it was a nice surprise! Also, if you have leftover tokens on Saturday, buy some cans or bottles that can easily be packed in a bag. You can drink them another day or pack them in your luggage to take home.
One last tall-boy for the road!

Now let’s set aside the negative criticism and focus on the good! At the end of the day, it was still a big craft beer festival and there was lots to like!

Lots of great beer

TL;DR: Lots of great beer!

Beertopia advertised over 500 beer, but that’s not really the main point. No one is going to taste 500 beer, even if they’re free.

The real burning beer geek questions are: Were there lots of local beer? Were there a lot of different styles? Could I find something that excites me as a beer geek.

The answers are “yes, yes, and yes!”

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There were lots of exciting beers. Aside from the “Beer Geek Area,” I had a blackberry sour, Earl Gray IPA, numerous double IPAs, a New England IPA, a hefeweizen flavored with Chinese peppercorns, Founder’s legendary KBS flavored and barrel-aged stout, and many more!

There was a great representation of Hong Kong beers, some mainland Chinese beers, and even a few Korean beers that I know (shout out to Gorilla and Magpie!). And CraftBeerAsia’s friends from the Philippines, Pasteur Street Brewing. (Edit: Sorry, I meant that Pasteur Street Brewing is in Vietnam. That’s to readers for catching that.) Singapore was represented with Brewlander. There were imports from America, Australia, the UK, Belgium, and lots of other places. I would have tasted more… I just couldn’t afford the research.

Breathing room and seating

TL;DR: Surprising amount of space and short queues.

Probably the most unexpected surprise was how much space there was. Hong Kong rent is perhaps the world’s most expensive and I’m sure that renting the festival grounds was incredibly expensive. Therefore, I expected a mass of people packed into a tiny area. That’s exactly how the Seoul festivals work. Plus, I saw it advertised on the Beertopia website that 2016’s event had an overall attendance over more than 14,000. But I thought there was loads of space and seating.

Fair warning: I didn’t stay late either night. On Friday I quickly lost my appetite for spending money and left at 8:30pm. But up until then, besides a few of the more popular food trucks, I didn’t see any long queues. Even the ticket stalls at the entrance had quick lines.

I had a much better time on Saturday afternoon. I still left early, leaving with friends for some food and more drinks in the Mid Levels around 6pm, but I left satisfied.

I highly recommend that my fellow beer geeks go early to taste some adventurous brews, mingle and take pics in the daylight, then leave the fest to explore downtown Hong Kong in the early evening for cheaper session drinking and food.

Music

TL;DR: Great Celtic music on Saturday afternoon!

To be blunt, I wasn’t impressed with the music on Friday, though I’ll admit to being in a sour mood over the price of tokens.

Around 7pm a band kept trying to get the few people sitting in front of the stage to sing along to their cover songs. Sadly, the band didn’t realize that this wasn’t one of their concerts and the people here hadn’t paid to see them (or music in general). It was a craft beer festival; people paid to drink beer. But the frontman just wouldn’t give it up, putting his band and himself into one awkward, cringe-worthy situation after another.

At this point my mood had darkened and I became resentful of the band. I thought, if the price of these tokens are even a little bit higher because of the expense of booking live music, then BEGONE! Let me drink in silence…

However, on Saturday afternoon I  made use of the picnic tables. While my friends and I chatted and laughed easily at the tables, sipping each other’s beers, a few Celtic-ish cover bands played in succession: and I just LOVED it!

People started to get up, a few  even breaking out into dancing and singing; and everyone cheered and hollered encouragement for the band. One band, I believe it was The Privateers, played the song Barrett’s Privateers — a Canadian folk ballad that privately confirmed to me that someone in the band had to be from my stompin’ grounds of Atlantic Canada.

My Friday evening’s dismay at the imagined music expenses had come full circle as I gave the band a standing ovation. And I wasn’t the only one.

Drop-dead gorgeous skylines

TL;DR: You’re in the middle of Hong Kong. Enjoy it!

Hong Kong is on the shortlist for greatest city on Earth, but one pitfall is its annoying habit of having a huge building (usually a shopping mall) blocking your path. Google Maps showed me a straight-forward path around the block from Central station to the harbor front, where the festival was taking place; but in reality downtown Hong Kong always has a building or an overpass blocking foot-traffic. You have to way routes in the catwalks and through the buildings, which can seem like navigating a labyrinth to a newcomer.

I stubbornly tried to go around traffic in the wrong direction, lost about 6-7min of walking around a big building, and had to backtrack the whole way. When I finally reached the festival grounds I was told that I was behind the main entrance (I approached from Central Station, south of the harbour front). So I had to walk around the perimeter of the festival grounds before reaching the main entrance.

However frustrating this proved, I was awestruck once just outside the festival ground. From the north shore of Hong Kong Island, you get a beautiful across-the-bay view of Kowloon’s skyline, complete with the red-sailed junk boat. Yet you’re also standing in the shadow of the island’s skyline, one of the most iconic in the world, with its mountain peaks visible in corridors framed by majestic skyscrapers. It was stunning and impossible to capture on a smartphone’s camera.

Pulling it all together

TL;DR: The price is high but to many it will still be worth the visit.

Beertopia certainly lived up to its reputation as Asia’s biggest craft beer festival. However, I can’t say it’s Asia’s best. I only have (a great many) Korean beer festivals to compare it to — as well as my own ideal conception of a craft beer festival — and Beertopia falls short in a few key areas. The main shortfall is expense. The second related shortfall is the token system.

However, there are a ton of things that help redeem Beertopia.

The location is just beautiful and, despite a minor inconvenience in walking there, it’s smack-dab in the middle of downtown Hong Kong — one of the most beautiful skylines in the world.

The selection of beer is fantastic for anyone who can afford it.

The amount of space and the lack of long lines made it a dream compared to many of the beer festivals I’ve been to in Seoul.

And the location is super convenient to anyone hanging around Central, walking up to the mid-levels, or catching the Star Ferry across to Kowloon. Because of this, Beertopia is simply one key piece to a whole weekend of drinks, fun, and food in a truly world-class city.

Just bring a fat wallet.

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3 thoughts on “Beertopia 2017 Review: The Best Craft Beer Festival I Couldn’t Afford

Add yours

  1. Excellent review. And we also hope the organizers find a way to show that enjoy quality craft beer is not simply a way to empty the wallet.

    Also note, Pasteur Street Brewing is from Vietnam (not the Philippines as reported here).

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