The summer air in Hong Kong is as sticky as a treacle in the days before a looming tropical storm, and on the eve of our first big typhoon of the year I took the chance to cool down and meet up with James Ling to find how he manages to keep his business sleeves rolled up, while getting elbow-deep into the malts and hops of beer-geekery with curious customers.
We also got a peek behind the scenes of the beautiful restaurant and bar that he keeps ticking called Second Draft—a collaborative project between the creators of Little Bao (now in HK and BKK) and The Ale Project. Their wine list is full of gems from the Cork Culture portfolio, and features some of our favourites from vignerons such as Franck Peillot, Gar 'o' vin, Château Cassini, Etienne et Sébastien Riffault, Madelin-Petit, and Yann Bertrand.
Describe what you do?
I run two beer pubs (The Ale Project and Second Draft), and I try to bring craft beer culture to Hong Kong. It’s all about appreciating the craftsmanship of the brewer to keep improving and redefining beer by breaking standards.
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Nothing. If I could have anything … hmmm … satay beef noodles would be nice, with a runny egg on top. Hot Horlicks too!
Tell us how you slipped into F&B in Hong Kong?
It was really random. I graduated from college and had no “lifetime experience”. I was into wine and liked drinking. My brother came back to Hong Kong from the UK and started telling me about the craft beer culture there, while sharing a couple of samples he has shipped over too. It was the first time I tried craft beer. He then brought me to The Globe (an old Hong Kong pub, and the first to stock a large selection of craft beer) – and I just tried out being a server there! And that’s how I got in. My manager thought I would quit in two weeks, but I stuck around for much longer.
I think after a while people found that I was genuinely interested in beer and had a talent for tasting beer – and I got to try different positions around the pub. Later on I interned at Young Master Ales (one of Hong Kong’s first local breweries) for a few months and I learned about the basics of brewing.
Eventually I joined The Ale Project (TAP), which at first was kind of a DIY project. We were poor when we opened, and had to paint all the walls ourselves and do all the hands-on work ourselves. We couldn’t hire a designer, but we had a basic idea of what we wanted – “organic style”!
We are still seeing how it fits into the F&B scene – but it’s doing quite well! It’s the first time a craft beer bar and restaurant have come together to create something unique. We (the TAP team at the bar, and the Little Bao team in the kitchen) have two totally different perspectives, but in a good way.
What makes 2nd Draft an unique project in the F&B scene?
We are also the first bar to try to push everything to the top in terms of serving quality. For example, Second Draft has three temperature systems for beer. If you serve it too cold the flavours are “locked”. These principles apply to wine, and we believe the same should apply to beer.
What’s the biggest hurdle for F&B?
It’s always the education of the customer when you try something new. Hong Kong island side is harder compared to Kowloon side. [The customers] on the island side believe they are more experienced – and in truth they are – but are often not open to new ways of looking at food and drink. It’s a balance you have to strike every day - to try and guide people through a positive experience while maintaining true to your mission.
What’s the most gratifying part of your work?
When you succeed and gain a strong following. I once convinced one customer to drink a super sour IPA, and they liked it – it’s very, very rewarding.
What does the word goodness mean to you?
Anything good to me always has a compelling story behind it, be it good food, a good venue, and good people of course.
What distracts you a lot these days?
Pokémon GO and politics. Actually, I’m really focused on the Beer Judge Certificate Program right now – I just really want to learn more about beer. I want to master it. I also have a dream to open a heavy metal craft beer bar, but have it be the most welcoming place in the world.