You’re background is old school, yet you’ve managed to make the transition to what the new guys are doing. Is your background as unusual as it sounds to me?
There aren’t a lot of people that have done every side of the street imaginable. I started with an old regional brewery, I went to the original craft brewery—but it was still an older brewery. I’ve been with the big guys, and back with the regionals again. I appreciate both sides: I like the specialty formulations and those kind of beer, but at the same time I really appreciate the big guys’ expertise. I’m a blend of both.
From your perspective, what are the strengths and weaknesses of the different sectors where you’ve worked professionally?
The weakness on the craft side is that, initially, you had people who were just so pleased that their beer had more flavor than Budweiser, without realizing that half of those flavors were off-flavors. Now the craft brewing industry has gotten so much better. You have some very good ones, although you still have some guys who were homebrewing yesterday and think they can parlay that into professional brewing tomorrow.
I don’t really see a big schism between mainstream and craft production…or at least there shouldn’t be. Whichever camp you are in, both brewers should be trying to make a consistent product with an absence of flavor faults no matter what the desired profile might be. Developing full-flavored beers is fun and challenging, while making consistent mainstream beers is in many ways more difficult, not the least of which is because any off flavor is going to stick out like a sore thumb.
Which aspect of brewing is most fun for you?
I still like formulating specialty beers. In fact, with Pabst, I just made the first specialty beer in Mainland China. There’s almost no ale in China: I had to smuggle the yeast into the country. I formulated a special high-gravity ale called “1844.” It’s all malt, and we use caramel malts from Germany. The initial aging is dry-hopped rather heavily. Then we do a secondary aging in new uncharred American oak whiskey barrels. We bought 750 brand new barrels to the tune of $100,000. This is a very special beer; it’s retailing for about over $40 U.S. for a 720 ml bottle.
There’s an audience there for it?
There’s the nouveau riche, and in China, perception is everything—look at me, I’m rich. Then also, there is another group that may be part of our market, and that’s state banquet dinners. Normally, you’d drink brandy, and this beer kind of has the look of brandy—it’s a reddish-brown color, but it won’t hurt you as much.
The beer combines a new flavor and a Western status symbol. Apart from the prestige, how are you selling these new tastes?
It’s new on the market, so I’m not sure exactly how it’s going—I have very little to do with the sales side. There is a TV commercial that’s quite attractive, that uses old still photos of the early days of Pabst, back when they used wooden barrels there.
What’s Pabst’s story in China?
We were the first foreign brewery in China, since the liberation in 1949—as it’s called there. We’re doing about one and a half million barrels there. Our first brews were, I believe, 1993; I didn’t get there until 1998. At that time, the largest-selling foreign brand in China was Pabst Blue Ribbon.
So now you’re the peripatetic brewmaster for how many breweries?
My title with Pabst is Brewmaster and Chief Representative-Asia. We have one brewery in southern China and one in northern China. I’m in and out of Lhasa, and I work with our craft brewery in Hilo, Mehana Brewing, that brews some of our draft Primo for Hawaii. And I live in Kyoto.
China is a huge beer market? What are consumers there excited about? What possibilities do brewers see?
Because it’s such a huge market, every major brewer is there. Like I said, when I was first there in ’98, we were the largest foreign brand in China. In ’99 when you had the downturn in the Asian economy, people fled for their lives. Fosters cashed out and I think lost $65 million U.S.—which to me is real money. But now with the growth in the Chinese economy, every major brewer is in there with both feet. And so while our volume has increased some, everyone else has increased exponentially because they have so much more money. However, a lot of them aren’t making money, because it’s a very cutthroat market. There’s beer out there is very, very cheap.