Leaping the Great Wall
China embraces craft beer
Finding Great Leap Brewing is a distinctly Chinese affair. The journey to the vanguard of Beijing’s nascent craft brewing scene involves leaving a historic tourist strip and wending your way into the old residential city. Here, eccentric old Communist China lingers alongside evidence of the country’s new capitalist dawn, encapsulating what makes life in the country known as the Middle Kingdom so textured.
Pass deeper into the narrow alleyways formed by traditional hutong houses. You will probably have to stop and ask a toothless crone for directions. Expect her to look in bafflement at your badly translated address before guessing what you’re after and pointing you in the right direction. Things will continue to look less and less likely until you reach a funky-smelling communal toilet. As with many of these Beijing institutions, the convenience bears a notice written in “Chinglish”—the nonsensical cross between Mandarin and English that plagues local signage. “CAUTION DAOP DOWN, OVNTILATING” you’ll be warned, above pictures that suggest you shouldn’t enter unless you’re wearing a gas mask, biohazard suit and safety harness.
Thankfully, it all becomes worthwhile as you turn and see Great Leap’s premises opposite. It’s the place that really kicked off these exciting times for discerning drinkers in the capital. An intriguing marriage of America and China, the brewery tap room is in an old-fashioned, converted courtyard residence, and customers can get tasty keg beer with such local ingredients as Sichuan peppercorns and Chinese tea.
Young Cleveland native Carl Setzer established Great Leap in October 2010, and his inventive ales served in a rustic setting have proved a hit. Slow Boat Brewery soon followed, with General Manager Chandler Jurinka and brewmaster Dan Hebert sending their first kegs of American-style classics off from the brewery just north of Beijing in late 2011.
From a Whisper to a Roar
They are not the first to bring craft beer to the Chinese people. Shanghai already had the Boxing Cat brewpub, and Typhoon Brewery has been whipping up a whirlwind of cask ale since 2009 in Hong Kong, for example. But Great Leap and Slow Boat are more notable in that they are gunning for far broader distribution than just their own taprooms. That will most definitely be achieved later this year, with Great Leap’s output set to increase from 1,000 hectoliters annually to 15,000. Its partnership with German operation Drei Kronen will see Great Leap beer sold in bottles and on draft in bars across Beijing and beyond. In addition, Great Leap will open its own second retail location in Beijing. Here in the capital of a very revolutionary country, a craft beer revolution is fermenting.
To understand how and why this is happening in 2012, you have to go back to 1978, when China’s political “opening-up and reform” opened the doors to capitalism and foreign cultural influences. Shops and restaurants began to appear, but, understandably, it has taken a while for business conditions and consumer tastes to develop to the state where artisanal craft beer is appreciated.
As far back as the early 1990s, a large number of German-style brewpubs and beer halls backed by the likes of Paulaner have attracted Beijing’s nouveau riche, for whom quaffing exotic European liquids is as good as a Rolex on the wrist for showing they’ve made it. These places also happen to be oases of decent beer among huge-selling domestic Chinese brands that range in quality from serviceable to toxic. Many Chinese have joined the huge number of tourists and Western expats in calling for more good beers. Meanwhile, the hospitality infrastructure and expertise in big cities has developed to where more international beer brands and start-up brewers are willing to enter the massive but unproven Chinese market.
A sign of the times was when Czech Pub opened in Beijing in April 2011, serving three varieties of Staropramen on draft. The management had found it difficult to persuade one of the Czech Republic’s famous breweries to put its cherished product on a boat to the other side of the world and risk hard-earned reputations in the hands of untrained bar staff and unappreciative customers. Eventually, Staropramen accepted.
For Czech Pub Manager Marcel Buchar, it’s simple. Customers in China are demanding more quality and variety in their drinks, and there is unquestionable appeal for world-renowned premium products. “I am not afraid to serve Czech beer on Mars, on the Moon, because it’s the best,” he says. “Between us and good U.S. beer, there’s plenty of room in Beijing.”
The fact Buchar has recently added imported draft and bottled beer from the Czech Republic’s Bernard Brewery alongside Staropramen indicates his confidence is well-placed.
Seizing the Initiative
Things really got moving, though, when a change of seasons made sitting in Great Leap’s courtyard bar more attractive. The brewery’s local media attention raised its profile and helped things boom from mid-2011.
You might think taking the first hop, skip and jump toward Great Leap was nerve-racking for Carl Setzer, now 30 years old. But, as he tells it, he almost stumbled upon what has become a successful business. “We did this with not particularly high expectations, without a lot of economic motivation,” he explains. “I was a manager for a consulting company in China. Brewing was a hobby I had been doing at home for about a year when my wife suggested we should try something bigger.
“Originally, I wanted to do Great Leap as a private club for friends, but I saw very quickly there was a need for what we were producing. Within months, I had resigned from consulting to do this full time. And when we decided to do distribution, it was based on bar owners coming in every week and asking us to put beers into their places.”
Setzer believes China’s beer market is in a similar situation to the one faced in America 20 years ago. Tastes are starting to develop away from conventional branded lagers, and good times are coming for discerning drinkers and the brave craft brewers prepared to be first on the scene.
For this reason, he is far from afraid of the competition presented by Slow Boat, actually welcoming it as more momentum behind diversified beer. “I come from Cleveland, home to 400,000 people and 17 microbreweries. There are 20 million people in Beijing. Don’t tell me my business is going to go under because someone else hangs a shingle,” he says, adding that he is making beer tailored for Chinese drinkers, while Slow Boat’s seem more designed for expat thirsts.
“Everyone’s going to benefit,” Setzer says, “because any future micro that opens will reach someone I couldn’t. That person is going to be intrigued, Google ‘beer in Beijing’ and end up coming to one of my bars or buying my bottles.”
The guys at Slow Boat agree. “This is the right time for microbreweries in China,” says Chandler Jurinka, who first came to the Middle Kingdom as a student, way back in 1993, after growing up in suburban Washington, D.C. “When Dan and I started talking about opening a brewery, Great Leap didn’t exist. The day Carl opened, we were both elated and a little disappointed. We thought we were going to be first, but then we also realized we must be along the right track if someone else was doing what we were doing.”
It’s also true that Slow Boat has slightly different ambitions from Great Leap. While Setzer makes wacky China-accented brews, Dan Hebert is happy to make the straight-down-the-line United States classics he loves. “Growing up in Oregon, that’s what I know,” he says. “Because they’re exotic, the beers appeal to Chinese on that level alone.”
Perhaps more importantly, Jurinka and Hebert are hoping a long search for their own bar will result in a more polished, Western-style venue than Great Leap’s—“a bar/restaurant that wouldn’t be out of place in the Pacific Northwest, with customer service, great food, professional finishings, 12 taps and comfortable seating,” as Jurinka puts it. In the meantime, Slow Boat beers are pouring full-time at a handful of Beijing venues, and—like Great Leap—the brewery shows off its beers around the city’s bars via regular “pop-up events.”
Homebrewers Join the Fray
Whether or not Slow Boat has found a downtown HQ by the time you read this, there are likely to be more start-ups following these brewing forerunners. With awareness about craft beer raised, aficionados in Beijing have come out in force and formed what is surely China’s first homebrewing organization. The Beijing Homebrewing Society has held monthly meetings since February.
They are disciples of Great Leap, Slow Boat and the world’s more venerable brewers, and are spreading the word. The club aims to convince others of the joys of brewing, as a craft beer scene builds up in China. The group’s president, New Yorker Jake Wickham, explains: “I like to be in the middle of a beer movement, watch it grow from the ground up. It is very gratifying to be raising passion and beer IQ among the general public.”
Who knows, Beijing’s next commercial craft brewer could be among the society’s ranks. Maybe the city will even see its first micro of note helmed by a Chinese national—there are a number of local beer fans at the meetings.
This drive behind homebrewing is also largely thanks to Great Leap. Wickham had been wanting to start the brew club for two years before Setzer made it worthwhile by supplying brewing kit and ingredients to those interested. Such supplies would have been difficult to source in China (and small bags of brown powder in a suitcase difficult to get past customs officials).
Homebrewing simply didn’t exist as a hobby in Beijing until this year. But there is now strong appetite for learning the fine art, judging by the prices people are paying for the homebrewing courses Great Leap has begun to offer. As Setzer is not concerned about professional competition, he is open to giving people a pastime that could have them drinking experimental brews in their kitchens instead of his bar. “Some of the people I’ve taught have become our most loyal customers,” he says. “That’s maybe because they learn how hard it is! But also it’s a case of introducing people to good beer, the principle that students will teach their friends, who will become interested.”
Brewers vs. Chinese Bureaucracy and Conservatism
Certainly, there was a spell where it was useful for Great Leap to develop ways to make money other than by distribution. When Setzer ran afoul of licensing authorities last year, it was just the latest development causing observers to wonder how far a foreign-led beer movement can develop in a country that is notorious for its bureaucracy and conservatism.
Some would classify the lawmakers as wary of letting foreigners have too much influence. Expat barmen tell tales of hospitality businesses where Chinese have been allowed to aggressively oust their Western partners (incompetence, the theory goes, closes most of them soon after), or where bars getting too big for their britches have been shut down overnight. Such concerns must have flashed through the minds of the people at Great Leap when they were ordered to put the brakes on fledgling distribution in 2011.
Long before Setzer had partnered with Drei Kronen, he had a first stab at scaling up production. He established a brewery near the Great Wall, applied for distribution rights and, presto, Great Leap beers started to appear on bars outside of his hutong venue. But then, in the wake of several milk safety scandals, there was a reshuffle in the government bodies responsible for licensing food and beverage distribution. Setzer was forced to rethink.
He picks ups the story: “Last year, in March, the health and safety bureau were stripped of their ability to license production facilities, and that’s who we had applied with. Our license application was canceled.
“The rights to give licenses then passed to the quality and technology bureau. They said: ‘We’ll expedite your license for this little space [the original brewpub], but that will be it. Or you can have your beer tested right now and try to qualify to go big. If it fails, you’ll be in a lot of trouble.’ That was the decision we had to make in November.”
It’s a barely concealed secret that some disreputable domestic businesses would have covertly continued distribution unlicensed. But that was not the path for Great Leap. “There are always ways to lie in Beijing, some bottled water manufacturer who can tuck your beer under his bottles and distribute it for you,” Setzer says. “But that’s not the fugitive life I want for my wife and kid.
“You have to make a decision. Did I leave a six-figure corporate job to be a bartender, or did I leave to build a brand and a future for beer culture in Beijing? I left to do the latter.”
So he opted for the make-or-break choice of accepting the test from the new gatekeepers. The brewery chief explains: “In the back of my head, I was terrified. Even if the beer came back qualified ‘Good,’ they don’t have any responsibility to tell me that. They could say it was contaminated just because they don’t want the headache.”
Thankfully for Great Leap Brewing and Beijing’s beer drinkers, the refreshingly honest approach paid off. “We had dinner with the bureau right before Chinese New Year,” Mandarin-speaking Setzer remembers. “Lord knows I’ve never been complimented by a government official before, but they said: ‘You were really helpful when we came to tell you about the changes in regulation.’ They even told my wife: ‘We’ve never seen a brewery this size be this clean.’”
Great Leap’s product was passed as “Excellent” and, the company’s expansion into distribution is restarting on a much bigger scale. The site at the Great Wall has ceased operating. The deal with Drei Kronen has given rise to The Bavarica Brewing Co. Its first kegs of Great Leap beer are due by October, and its bottles by December.
As Great Leap and Slow Boat grow, the chances of finding excellent, well-stocked bars in Beijing and other Chinese cities are sure to improve for visitors and residents alike. Here’s hoping the development of beer culture in China can go hand in hand with the development of the country as a whole. And maybe even its public toilets.
Nick Yates spent years reporting on the drinks market in his native England before 2010, when he moved to Beijing. His beer column appears in the city’s Time Out magazine.