Beer in Hong Kong – Part Three – The Oriental Brewery 1908-1912

Martyn Cornell has kindly given permission for extracts from his article, A Short History of Beer in Hong Kong, to be posted on our website.

The article was published in the Journal of the Brewery History Society, Brewery History, Issue 156, 2012

Martyn has his own blog, Zythophile – Beer now and then, linked below.

Despite its title the article is quite lengthy and packed with information. This third extract begins in 1908…

“The Imperial Brewery quickly had a rival. The Austria-Hungary consul continued:-

In contrast, in the New Territory, in Lai Chi Kok [in New Kowloon], a large brewery (The Oriental Brewery Ltd) was established, which is expected to start operation in June 1908
and is set for a preliminary production of 150,000 barrels. It is very gratifying that a company from the Fatherland has secured a contract to supply various valuable materials for its operation. The engines and boilers have been procured from England and Germany and from the home country of the founders, America.

In the past year hops and malt were imported only inmodest quantities, as the production of a single brewery (the Imperial Brewery) meet only a small sale. Since, however, the nascent second, much larger brewery, Oriental Brewing Co Ltd, is reportedly expected to be operational inthe course of 1908, a brisker demand for these two articles, in which our monarchy is undoubtedly competitive, will soon manifest.

(Rather tardily, the Hongkong [sic] Legislative Council never got round to passing a law allowing the licensingof breweries in the colony until May 1908,(34) just in time for the Oriental Brewery’s opening.)

The ‘American promoters’ behind the Oriental Brewery were led by an Englishman, Alfred Hocking, who wasborn in Cornwall, England in 1852 and emigrated to the United States as a young man. After several years he moved to Hawaii where he ran a lumber mill and a sugar plantation before starting the Honolulu Malting and Brewing Company around 1898, building a brewery on Queen Street in 1901 which became famous for Primo lager. The land for the brewery in Lai Chi Kok was acquired in the spring of 1907, being purchased by the Hong Kong architects Leigh and Orange on behalf of ‘a large brewing firm who intend spending over a quarter of a million dollars on an up-to-date brewery’.(35) The master brewer was reported to be a graduate of the Brewers’ Academy in New York, and its specialities were going to be ‘draught beer and stout … but beer will also be bottled for export’. (36)

Oriental Brewery ad. Hongkong Telegraph 21 Nov 1911

Oriental Brewery ad. Hongkong Telegraph 21 November 1911

The Oriental Brewery opened for business in 1908,(37) with a capacity of 100,000 barrels a year, using brewing equipment imported from the United States, including glass enamel steep tanks made by the Detroit Steel Cooperage Company.38 It was evidently state-of-the-art: the equipment supplier, Fred Goetz of the Goetz Company of Chicago, wrote in 1912:-

As an American manufacturer I am almost ashamed to say that the brew house we equipped with the fewest vessels for its capacity, the most convenient methods for handling water, steam and power, the best arrangement for the master brewer to observe all operations from one floor, the most modern mechanical and labor saving devices, the best materials and simplest and most efficient driving machinery, was installed far away in Hong Kong, China.(39)

There were rumours of yet another start up in the spring of 1908, when the British Beer Brewery was reported to be planning to establish branches in Singapore, Batavia, Bangkok and Hong Kong.(40) In the end, however, only the Singapore branch seems to have been built, opening late in 1908 and brewing Pilsen and Munchen lagers, and stout.

The Imperial brewery looks to have collapsed under the weight of either the new competition or its own failings, and by 1911 the Oriental Brewery was being described as ‘the first successful brewery in Hong Kong’, ‘competing successfully with Japanese and Tsingtau [sic] beers’. (The Tsingtao brewery, still at that time operating under the name of the Anglo-German Brewery Co. Ltd., had been started in the eastern Chinese city of
Qingdao in 1903. Qingdao, called Tsingtau in German, had been seized by the German Empire in 1897 for use as a naval base. The brewery, which had a fair amount of its equity owned by Hong Kong-based Britons, changed its name officially to the Tsingtao Brewery in 1915 as a result of Britain and Germany being by then at war. It was sold to the Dai Nippon Brewery Company of Japan in 1916, Qingdao having been captured from Germany in November 1914 by Japan, Britain’s ally in the First World War.) The Oriental brewery, which had Hugo Charles Ehrenfels as its general manager (and the magnificently named Charles Bearwolf as company secretary), also had its own ice plant, ‘competing for the ice trade with the Hong Kong Ice Co’. The ice plant which had a daily capacity of 25 tons, ‘was furnished by the York Manufacturing Co, York, PA’.(41)

Hocking returned to Honolulu in 1910. Early in 1911 the Oriental Brewery’s beer was on sale in Singapore, 1,600 miles away,(42) where those with a ‘plebian taste’ were recommended ‘the excellent brands of the Oriental Brewery of Hongkong, who set themselves out to suit the Far Eastern taste in beer’. Its advertising slogan was ‘The Beer that’s Brewed to Suit the Climate’, and one of its brands was ‘Prima’, echoing the Honolulu brewery’s Primo brand.(43) The brewery had a visit from a group of tourists staying at the King Edward Hotel in March 1911, ‘the first time that a direct attempt has been made to interest passing visitors in Hongkong’s industries’, according to the Hongkong Telegraph, which added: ‘We hope the practice will become more general’.

Just 19 months later, however, in October 1912, the Oriental Brewery Limited was in liquidation. The receiver, S.T. Waterman of Des Voeux Road, Hongkong, told the Hongkong Telegraph that ‘to the best of his belief’ creditors would be paid in full, and there was ‘a very good chance’ that the brewery plant would be removed to Manila, in the Philippines, where there was ‘plenty of room for a good brewery’.(44)

The whole business was put up for sale by the receiver early in January 1913, as a going concern.(45) It was described as ‘the finest and most completely equipped Brewery, Bottlery and distilled Water Ice Manufacturing plant in the Orient’, a two to four-storey building and two two-storey godowns (warehouses) sitting on a site 1,015 feet long and 175 feet deep. The equipment included a 150-barrel (American measure) copper kettle, a bottling plant capable of filling 80,000 bottles a day, corking and crowning machines, and 1,100 oak barrels, as well as two steam launches, the Aloha, 65 feet long, and the Oriental, 75 feet long, which came with an insulated hold ‘for handling Ice, Beer and other cargo’.

It was announced early in March 1913 that the brewery had been purchased:-

by Mr Arratoon V Apcar of Messers Arratoon V Apcar and Co, Hongkong … on behalf of a syndicate of which Mr Apcar is a member. There was at one time a likelihood that the brewery would be shut down altogether, but owing to the enterprise of the new syndicate, the fine plant will continue to work as before, and beer of an excellent quality will be placed on the local and China markets. It is the intention of the purchasers to bring experienced brewers from Haiphong and other towns who will be able to improve the quality of the brew.(46)

Early in May 1913, rumours started circulating in Hong Kong that the brewery had been purchased by a firm in Manila. Arratoon Apcar, whose family were originally Armenian merchants, via Bombay, insisted to the Hongkong Telegraph that there was ‘no truth whatever’ in the reports, and he ‘cannot imagine how the story got out’.(47) Just a week later, however, it was announced that the brewery plant had, after all, been sold to a syndicate from Manila, led by Antonio Barretto, cousin of ‘Don Enrique’ Barretto, the man who founded the San Miguel brewery. The Barretto syndicate had the Oriental Brewery’s equipment dismantled and shipped from Hong Kong to the Philippines.

Enrique Barretto, who had left the brewing business, and had been working in the office of the clerk to the Supreme Court of the Philippines, was appointed general manager of the transplanted Oriental Brewery, which was re-erected in Nagtahan, in the San Miguel district of Manila. Enrique Barretto told the Manila Cablenews newspaper that he was ‘highly pleased to get back into the brewing game’, and an ‘expert brewer with his assistants’ would be imported from Germany to take charge of the brewhouse. The brewery plant had an annual production capacity of 14 million litres of beer – 85,500 imperial barrels – while its ice plant could make 130 tons of ice a day, Barretto said.(48) (The business hit a slight roadbump when local residents tried to get an injunction against it being built, but their case was dismissed by a Filipino court, the judge declaring that ‘while the brewery might create a nuisance residential rights must give way to commercial interests’.(49) In 1919, however, the Oriental Brewery was bought out by its near-neighbour, the San Miguel Corporation, owner of Don Enrique’s original Manila brewery, and it later became the Royal Soft Drinks Plant.(50))

The transplanting of the Oriental Brewery left Hong Kong once again without a brewery of its own.”…to be continued

References:

34. Hongkong Daily Press. 15 May 1908. p.2.
35. China Mail. 2 May 1907. p.5.
36. Straits Times. 8 February 1907. p.6.
37. United States Department of the Interior National Park Service National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form for Alfred Hocking House. 30 October 1984, at pdfhost.focus.nps.gov/docs/NRHP/Text/ 84000246.pdf, downloaded 15 April 2012.
38. Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record. (1913) Vol 10, No. 20, 17 May 1913. p.34.
39. Goetz, F. (1912) ‘A Dissertation On Brew House Machinery’, Report of the proceedings of the Second International Brewers’ Congress held at Chicago, 18-21 October 1911. Vol. 1, p.619.
40. Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser. 29 May 1908. p.5.
41. Industrial Refrigeration, pub National Association of Practical Refrigerating Engineers.(1910) Vols. 38-39, September. p.132.
42. Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser. 31October 1911. p.5.
43. Hongkong Telegraph. 28 March 1911. p.5.
44. Hongkong Telegraph. 1 October 1912. p.5.
45. Straits Times. 9 January 1913. p.16.
46. Straits Times. 4 March 1913. p.8.
47. Hongkong Telegraph. 7 May 1913. p.1.
48. Hong Kong Daily Press. 15 May 1913. p.3.
49. Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser. 15
April 1914. p.233.
50. http://www.lougopal.com/manila/, retrieved 23 June
2013

See:

  1. The Brewery History Society website The Society was founded in 1972 to promote research into all aspects of the brewing industry, to encourage the interchange of information about breweries and brewing, and to collect photographic and other archive information about brewery history.
  2. Martyn Cornell’s blog, Zythophile – Beer now and then

Related Indhhk articles:

  1. Beer in Hong Kong – Part One – the early days up to the planned opening of its first brewery
  2. Beer in Hong Kong – Part Two – The Imperial Brewing Company Ltd
  3. Oriental Brewery – “The beer that’s brewed to suit the climate”
  4. Hong Kong Brewers and Distillers -The Opening of the Sham Tseng Brewery
  5. Hong Kong Brewers and Distillers – The Sham Tseng Brewery 1930-1935
  6. Lady Southorn’s hop shovel – Hongkong Brewers & Distillers 1934
  7. The Imperial Brewing Company formed 1905, commenced operations 1907
  8. Wo Fat Hing Distillery, Lung Wo village

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