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.