Header image courtesy of Annette Chan
Welcome to On the Job With, a new interview series on Localiiz that chronicles the highs, lows, and unexpected quirks of various lesser-explored occupations around Hong Kong. From office security guards to street cleaners, every job has more to it than meets the eye. For our inaugural interview, we chat to Conor Hogan—the head brewer at an acclaimed local craft beer brewery—about what it is like to brew beer for a living.
“I studied computer programming [at first] and I hated it. When I was 17 or 18, I was buying beer knowing that I had failed my exams and I thought I would just ask for a job in the bottle shop. The guy told me to come in the following day and just left me there by myself; I was managing that store within a year, and it ended up being one of the best bottle shops in the city. We started off with maybe 20, 25 beers—within 12 or 18 months, we had about 200 beers on the shelf. I was allowed to order whatever I wanted as long as it sold, so I got really into beer that way.
“I got really into wine as well, so after three or four years of [the bottle shop], I travelled around the world doing vintage work in wineries for another four years, working in 10- or 12-week stints processing fruit and transferring fruit to make the juice for wine. At 27 or 28, I decided to switch to beer and moved home to live with my parents while I studied for my brewing diploma. After the first year of studying, I got an internship with Galway Bay Brewery.
“Working with beer is a lot harder than wine, actually. Beer is a lot more susceptible to contamination. Wine is a little bit more forgiving, definitely in the initial stages where I was working anyway. But there’s hardware stuff like pumps and transfers that carries over from wine to beer. If you understand how to clean a tank here, you’ll understand how to clean a tank there.”
“Everybody wants to be in the brewhouse, they think it’s the sexiest part of brewing. It’s important, but it’s definitely not the most important part. Anybody who comes into a brewery is just going to be cleaning, cleaning, cleaning for the first three or four months. From there you go on to packaging, kegging, bottling, more cleaning, more packaging, and then after about six to eight months—if you’re good enough—you get to do a bit of cellar work. That’s when you start understanding how fermentation works and learn about the science of beer.
“It can be six months or another year of progression until you get onto the brewhouse. We do try and get everyone to do every role. After you try someone else’s job, you go back to your main role with more understanding of what this other person deals with every day, and then you have a little bit more appreciation for them.”
“The first thing to note is that the brewery is really, really hot, all the time. It’s one of the sweatiest, hottest jobs; you need to enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy brewing, the wages do not pay enough for you to do it. You do get an infinite amount of free beer, which is great, but it’s very hot, hard work.
“I think something unexpected happens every day in the brewery. Two weeks ago, our glycol—the chemical we use to chill our tanks—went down over the weekend. One of the most important things in fermentation is that your tanks are kept at a set temperature, otherwise, it can cause a big problem in the primary fermentation. Glycol is normally at zero degrees, but when we came in on a Monday, it was at 32 degrees.
“We were lucky there was no beer in primary fermentation at that time, but if there was, we’d probably lose the beer. So then that puts everything on the schedule back. If you can’t brew today, you can’t package today—then there’s a lot of logistics with the tanks. So it’s all like dominoes. If something goes wrong in one section of the brewery, it affects every other aspect of the brewery.”
“The lead brewer is more hands-on with brewing, but the head brewer and operations manager have to put out a lot of fires. We also have to taste a lot of beer as we go. We would typically reuse the same yeast up to 10 or 11 times, but if you taste a beer when it’s two or three days into fermentation and there is a slight flaw or it is not behaving as you want it, then all of a sudden you can’t use that yeast anymore.
“So then we have to find a new pitch source for yeast, which changes the schedule, which changes the cellar, which changes the brewing, which changes the packaging. I think it can be a little bit frustrating for the packaging guys and the brewing guys sometimes when the schedule changes one or two days after they’ve looked at it. The schedule that goes up on Monday rarely stays the same for the week.”
“Every country has contract brewing, but in Hong Kong, it makes a lot more sense for people to contract brew. Packaging is one of the most expensive parts of brewing, so it helps to have a really good piece of equipment. But that equipment is incredibly expensive, so if people have a core beer they produce a lot of, they can contract somebody else to brew that. They set the recipe and they can come and taste the beer in the fermenter and before we package it, then they can make notes on how to tweak the formula, too.”
“We take a pH reading of our water every day and it’s exactly the same every time. If your pH varies a lot, then that really messes up your beers. The weather does make a difference with barrels. When I first came here, I didn’t think we could do barrel ageing, but we have 60 barrels that we store without temperature control and I’ve had to throw out very, very few. For an imperial stout, what that means is that it just ages a lot quicker. What would normally take 12 months to develop flavour in Europe would develop a lot of wood character in just three to six months in Hong Kong. But if you left it to age for a year here, it might be too much.”
“For most base recipes, I have a pretty good idea of what each malt does at this stage, and what percentage of malt I want to create with that flavour. We have a general idea for the next 12 months of what style of beers we want in each month, and then we vote on a suggested style—our brewery really tries to be employee-driven, so everyone gets one vote. Whoever’s suggestion wins gets to make that beer, and then I help them come up with the concept.
“We give new beers an extra four or five days in the tank, and then we do dry-hop trials—about four or five trials in a day. In the space of two or three days, we will have figured out which suggestion for dry hops was the favourite, and it’s a different person who recommended it every time. It could be someone who has only been in the brewery for a week, but their suggestion was the most popular, so it gets made.
“I love looking through our spice suppliers’ order list and picking out things I have never used or heard of to experiment with. If we have leftover ingredients, you know, we can take them home to cook with. We just got some chillis in to go in an imperial stout, and there’s also another beer we’re doing with coconut. We recently gave away a fridge to a local bakery and asked if we could borrow their oven for 30 minutes to toast some coconut. We brought them some beers as a thank-you but then we saw they hadn’t touched the ones we gave them with the fridge…”
“Everything starts with milling. We mill the malt because we want to access the sugars in the middle of it. After that it goes up through the auger mill, then the mash tun—that’s where we lock in the fermentability of the beer. The temperature there is very, very important—one or two degrees higher or lower changes the beer quite a lot, so it’s very important that your tank is jacketed and maintains the temperature.
“We heat it up to 78 degrees to denature all the enzymes and then we transfer it to the lauter tun, which is a separation vessel. It’s where you leave behind all the grains, and then you transfer all the liquid into the kettle, which is where you add your hops and spices. We add some yeast nutrients in there as well, which helps with the fermentation, and protofloc, which helps drop out any proteins and polyphenols. Then it goes into the whirlpool to clarify, through a heat exchanger, and into the tank to ferment.
“Fermentation is really complicated—that’s the process where a science degree is most helpful. If somebody has an engineering degree and zero brewing qualification, but they just like beer, there’s a high chance I’ll hire them. Most people don’t actually have qualifications. Qualifications are useful for getting you a job, but a lot of the stuff I learned was not beneficial for me when I actually started brewing. I learned more in my first six months here than I did in my previous year and a half of studying. It was a little bit of a baptism of fire here. I did home brewing for about a year, not that long. But my dad used to do home brewing before as well, way way back when I was a child, I remember dad making this absolutely awful English bitter.
“A brewery’s all about multitasking—you get to start one job, then you get to start another job, and maybe one more job, and then make sure you don’t screw up the first two.”
“I got a lot of stick for having an Asahi at our anniversary party. There was a queue of a hundred people and I didn’t want to queue, so I went to 7-Eleven to get a lager. In Hong Kong, we have some of the best commercial lagers in the world. We have Suntory Premium, Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo, all available in 7-Eleven. Lager is hard to make, so I appreciate a good lager and I don’t have a problem with it.”