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.”