China’s 1.4 billion people loom as a tantalizing opportunity for a growing number of craft brewers. And for an increasing number of travelers seeking to experience the country’s iconic heritage sites, it’s becoming easier to find a local craft beer to slake one’s thirst after a long day of exploring.
To introduce the curious beer traveler and intrepid brewer to what I call, China’s Great Hop Forward, I wrote a book. How to Drink Beer in Mandarin is an English-Chinese glossary with hundreds of beer terms translated into Chinese. It also offers resources – like language learning, travel information, drinking etiquette, and a list of China’s craft breweries – to help you put the glossary into action.
When it came time for me to declare a major in university in 1998, I considered my career prospects with respect to my interest in the competition between NATO and the Soviet bloc. A saturated job market for Political Science graduates meant there were few opportunities, so I asked myself, where would the next opportunity be?
With the growing economic liberalization under China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, seeming to follow in the footsteps of the Four Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan), I decided I should study China. Considering the country’s dramatic transformation over the past 35 years, it seems I made the right decision.
I first visited China on January 25, 1992. A sense of unease sat in the pit of my stomach as my train plodded through the Guangdong countryside en route to Guangzhou from Hong Kong. I suppose part of it was the butterflies from venturing outside your comfort zone. The other part likely came from the staff’s uniforms which reminded me of the power officialdom can bring to bear on the perceived wrongdoer, agitator, criminal, or spy. I was going to Red China!
Once through immigration and customs controls at the Guangzhou train station, any trepidation vanished. I was more intrigued by the bustling, smudged streets of Guangdong’s capital. It felt like stepping back in time. You saw it in the primitive utility vehicles, people’s drab clothing, limited consumer goods, and dim street lighting after dusk. It was even in people’s conservative social interactions.
At least the Tsingtao lager was cheap, even when you paid an inflated price way above that charged locals. Visitors had to use Foreign Exchange Certificates set at a higher exchange rate than the actual value of the local currency.
The first time I enjoyed craft beer in China was on the evening of September 17, 2010. After a month of trying to avoid skunked light lager in Southwest China, I boarded a plane for Beijing. Flipping through an English language newspaper a stewardess had handed to me, I saw a notice about a six-band rock concert that evening in the capital.
Wow! Things must have changed since I left Asia in 1998. For as long as I remembered, the Chinese government had been suspicious about rock music. They weren’t above censoring or vetoing big name acts like Bob Dylan, Oasis, or the Rolling Stones. Maybe the social liberalization that I had witnessed over the previous four weeks also extended to this form of Western spiritual pollution.
An inexperienced-sounding band was playing as I entered the club, so I sidled up to the bar to see what was on offer. Scanning the beer menu, my eyes suddenly stopped. Duvel! They had Duvel! It was the equivalent of $8.00 a bottle, but after the previous month’s struggle, I was in the mood for a treat.
As the bartender pulled the familiar white-labeled, squat bottle from the fridge, he reached for a glass. Lo and behold, it was none other than a Duvel tulip. Lest the moment be ruined with a bad pour, I grabbed the bottle and glass to savour a golden moment with some subversive Chinese rock.
A month after returning to Vancouver, I heard from Ratebeer friends that Great Leap Brewing had opened in Doujiao Hutong in Beijing. This was just three blocks from the hotel I had stayed at! Curious, I started researching the state of craft beer in China.
The following year, I was introduced to a Shanghai brewery investor’s classmate who was working as a consultant to Canadian companies wanting to enter the China market. We began discussing how we might tap into this evolving opportunity. The first step, however, was to do some on-the-ground research to better understand the state of the market.
We arrived in Shanghai on November 6, 2011. After the mandatory Maglev entrée to the city, we took a taxi and checked into our hotel. By that time we were getting hungry, so Greg led us to a Sichuan restaurant he knew. For beer, we went with Harbin lager, the lesser of the available macro evils.
You might say that having a beer from an AB InBev-owned northern Chinese brewery with Sichuan food in Shanghai, is not exactly starting off a craft beer trip on the right foot. To rectify the situation, we decided to pay a visit to The Bund Brewery, one of Shanghai’s first craft breweries.
Typical for a Bräuhaus, three house brews were on tap – a Helles, a Dunkel, and a Hefeweizen. While a welcome change to the watery industrial brands, they lacked the crispness and finesse of European benchmark beers. Without the raucousness you find in many Chinese establishments to carry us on, we called it a night.
Fortunately, the rest of our trip revealed more promising developments. We met Leon Mickelson at The BREW in Pudong’s Kerry Hotel one quiet afternoon. Leon was very kind in giving us a tour of his impressive, three-storey, glass-enclosed brewhouse and samples of his two lagers, four ales, and craft cider. All were well-executed, although none aimed to challenge the palate, which was sensible given the stage of the market’s development.
Cultural change takes a patient guide to show the way. In Shanghai, that person was Jackie Zhou. Jackie is an enthusiastic homebrewer with a passion for sharing his love of craft beer. He presides over Jackie’s Beer Nest, a snug beer bar offering a finely-curated selection of local and import craft beer. A person like Jackie is key to bringing the Chinese under the craft beer umbrella.
You also need someone pushing the boundaries. That was Mike Jordan at Boxing Cat Brewery. He found his way from Widmer Brothers to Shanghai via Bryggeriet S.C. Fuglsang. In anticipation of our visit, Mike had chosen to release his Oaked Glasgow Kiss Scotch Ale aged on American oak Cabernet Sauvignon barrels. We spent an all-too-short evening chatting about his experiences in China.
Of all the breweries we visited that November, Beijing’s Great Leap Brewing offered the most Chinese experience. They occupied a traditional courtyard house hidden away in a warren of narrow alleys. American, Carl Setzer, and his Chinese wife, Liu Fang, had converted it into a rudimentary brewpub. While their ales were Western-based, their branding was distinctly Chinese with Chinese ingredients employed in the brews.
Five years since my first craft beer journey to China, the beachhead has grown to encompass much of the country. From Xi’an to Xiamen, Dali to Qiqiha’er, craft breweries have sprung up in the provinces’ main cities. There is even Tibetan craft beer in Shangri-la! Craft brewing associations now span the nation, while homebrewing clubs inspired by Gao Yan’s homebrewing bible, Get Your Own Brew, spawn the next wave of brewers.
Further signs of China’s arrival on the global craft beer stage are the growing number of international beer collaborations its brewers have been involved in and the awards they are winning at competitions. In this year’s World Beer Cup, Boxing Cat was the first Mainland Chinese craft brewery to place in the winner’s circle. Their Ringside Red captured silver in the American-Style Amber Lager category.
As the craft beer trend in China progresses, a growing number of foreign brands are entering the market. Success is not guaranteed. The country’s beer culture is still evolving and regional differences need to be recognized, which is why understanding the language of craft beer in China is essential.