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.