I first visited China on January 25, 1992. It was also my first time visiting a communist country. Even though the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone had been in existence for nearly 10 years, a sense of unease sat in the pit of my stomach as my train plodded through the Guangdong countryside en route to Guangzhou from Hong Kong. I suppose part of it was the butterflies one may get when venturing outside your comfort zone. The other part likely came from the staff’s uniforms which reminded me of the power officialdom can bring to bear on the perceived wrongdoer, agitator, criminal, or spy. I was going to Red China!
Once through immigration and customs controls at the Guangzhou train station, however, any trepidation largely vanished. Instead, I was more intrigued by the bustling, smudged streets of Guangdong’s capital that, without the gleaming glass and steel of modernity, felt like stepping back in time.
You saw it in the primitive-looking utility vehicles, people’s drab clothing, the limited variety of consumer goods, utilitarian graphic design, and the dim street lighting after dusk. It was even in the conservative social interactions, like when I went to a disco and discovered all the couples dancing were of the same sex because if a young woman was with a young man, she was considered a prostitute. At least the Tsingtao lager was cheap, even when you paid an inflated price way above locals because of having to use Foreign Exchange Certificates set at a higher exchange rate than the people’s currency (rénmínbì, 人民幣).
More than twenty years on, China’s transformation has been nothing short of incredible. It hasn’t stopped yet. Wherever you go, construction is a constant presence. To be sure, development hasn’t been even throughout the country. But in spite of all the problems that get prominent play in Western media, you’ll be impressed with the dynamism of the cities you’re likely to visit.
Communism? It certainly doesn’t look that way at street level. And whereas before the presence of a tourist would often attract a crowd of curious onlookers, today in places like Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, people have seen enough foreigners to be rather blasé about your presence, except for touts, con artists, and pickpockets.
My First Craft Beer in China
The first time I enjoyed craft beer in China was on the evening of September 17, 2010. After a month of trying to avoid skunked beer in Southwest China, I boarded a plane in Guilin for Beijing. Flipping through an English language newspaper a stewardess had handed me, I saw a notice about a six-band rock concert that evening in the capital. Wow! Things must have changed since I moved away from Asia in 1998.
For as long as I remembered, the Chinese government had been suspicious about rock music. They weren’t above censoring or vetoing big name acts like Bob Dylan, Oasis, or the Rolling Stones. Maybe the social liberalization that I had witnessed over the previous four weeks also extended to this form of Western spiritual pollution.
After a dinner accompanied by Yanjing, Beijing’s most popular rice lager, I took a cab to Yugong Yishan, an alternative music venue at the former site of the Duan Qirui government (1916-1918). An historic building, yes, but there was nothing exceptional about the interior. It actually reminded me of Slim’s in San Francisco.
An inexperienced-sounding band was playing as I entered, so I sidled up to the bar to see what was on offer. Scanning the beer menu, my eyes suddenly stopped. Duvel! They had Duvel! It was the equivalent of $8.00 a bottle, but after the previous month’s struggle session, I was in the mood for a treat. As the bartender pulled the familiar white-labeled, squat bottle from the fridge, he reached for a glass. Lo and behold, it was none other than a Duvel tulip. Lest the moment be ruined with a bad pour, I grabbed the bottle and glass to savour a golden moment with some subversive Chinese rock.
My First Chinese Craft Beer
After I had returned to Vancouver, I heard from my Ratebeer friends, Josh and Sunshine, that Great Leap Brewing had opened in Doujiao Hutong, near where I had been staying in Beijing the month before. Curious, I started researching the state of craft beer in China. Given the transformation of British Columbia’s craft beer scene that I’d been actively involved in, perhaps there was a similar opportunity here, but on a much larger scale.
The following year, I was introduced to a Shanghai brewery investor’s classmate who was working as a consultant to Canadian companies wanting to enter the China market. Greg, too, saw the opportunity, and we began discussing how we might tap into it. This eventually led to our idea of establishing a brewpub in Shanghai as the foundation of a larger brewing venture. Greg would take care of finding investment and I recruited my friend, Gary, to lead the setup. The first step, however, was to do some on-the-ground research to better understand the state of the market and learn about the experiences of China’s craft beer pioneers. In preparation, I created an itinerary of brewpubs, craft beer bars, retailers, an importer, and a Yunnan restaurant with a 100-bottle beer menu covering Shanghai and Beijing.
We arrived in Shanghai on November 6, 2011, at 4:35pm. After the mandatory Maglev entrée to the city, we took a taxi and checked into the Gallery Suites Hotel. By that time we were starting to get hungry, so Greg led us to a Sichuan restaurant he knew where I inadvertently ordered dog. For beer, we went with Harbin, the lesser of the available macro evils.
You might say that having a beer from an AB InBev-owned northern Chinese brewery with Sichuan food in Shanghai is not exactly starting off a craft beer trip on the right foot. To rectify that situation, we decided to pay a visit to The Bund Brewery, one of Shanghai’s first craft breweries. After a requisite stroll along the Bund, we found Hankou Road and walked along the deserted street towards the one beacon of light that seemed to indicate some form of life; barely, however. There was only one other group in the brewpub besides the three of us.
As is typical of a Bräuhaus (píjiǔfāng 啤酒坊), The Bund had three house brews on tap – a Helles (mìníhēi dànsè lāgé 淡色慕尼黑拉格), a Dunkel (mìníhēi shēnsè lāgé 慕尼黑深色拉格), and a Hefeweizen (déguó xiǎomài píjiǔ 德国小麦啤酒). Sampling each of them, they were a welcome change to the watery industrial brands. However, measuring them against Hacker-Pschorr Münchner Gold, Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel, or Schneider Weisse, they lacked the crispness and finesse of these benchmark beers. The exuberance I felt when drinking a fresh Weisse at Paulaner in Bangkok, instead of having to tolerate an unremarkable Singha, eluded me at The Bund. Without the raucousness you find in many Chinese restaurants or drinking establishments to carry us on, I took some photos, then we called it a night.
Vanguard of the Revolution
Fortunately, the rest of our trip revealed more promising developments. We met Leon Mickelson at the brewpub in the swanky Kerry Hotel in Pudong one quiet afternoon. The BREW was a test bed for Shangri-La to see if an upscale hotel brewpub would be popular in China, similar in concept to what Kempinski had, albeit their brewpubs were in partnership with Paulaner. Leon was very kind in giving us a tour of his impressive, three-storey, glass-enclosed brewhouse and samples of his two lagers, four ales, and craft cider. All were well-executed, although none aimed to challenge the palate, which was sensible given the clientele and the stage of the market’s development.
Cultural change is a difficult thing. It takes a patient guide to show the way. In Shanghai, that person is Jackie Zhou, an enthusiastic homebrewer with a passion for sharing his love of craft beer. He presides over Jackie’s Beer Nest, a snug beer bar offering a finely-curated selection of local and imported craft beer, as well as his experiments with herb- and snake-infused báijiǔ (白酒). We came bearing craft beer from British Columbia, so we had the pleasure of his company, discussing the state of craft beer in Shanghai, along with samples of his “male” tonics. For the expat-dominated craft beer scene to make the transition to having broader appeal, someone like Jackie would play an important role.
In addition to a guide, you also need someone pushing the boundaries. I think it’s fair to say that American craft brewers set the bar in the current global brewing renaissance with their no-holds-barred philosophy. Occupying that role in Shanghai, was Boxing Cat Brewery. Michael Jordan is not a basketball player. He’s a brewmaster who found his way from Portland’s Widmer Brothers to Shanghai via Bryggeriet S.C. Fuglsang in Denmark. In anticipation of our visit, Mike had chosen to release that day his Oaked Glasgow Kiss Scotch Ale aged on American oak Cabernet Sauvignon barrels. We spent an evening chatting about his experiences in China, while also sampling his seasonal pumpkin ale (nánguā àiěr 南瓜艾尔), his regular Helles, Pils (pí’ěrsēn 皮尔森), Pale Ale (dànsè àiěr 淡色艾尔), and IPA (yìndù dànsè àiěr 印度淡色艾尔). Like North America’s craft brewers, Mike is a passionate participant in the craft beer revolution, dedicated to opening these new horizons to the Chinese.
Of all the breweries Gary, Greg, and I visited that November, Beijing’s Great Leap Brewing offered the most Chinese experience. Unlike the others that recreated a Deutsches Eck or a slice of America, Great Leap occupied a traditional courtyard house (sìhéyuàn 四合院) hidden away in an unassuming narrow alley (hútòng 胡同) near the Drum and Bell towers. American, Carl Setzer, and his Chinese wife, Liu Fang, had converted it into a rudimentary brewpub. While their ales were Western-inspired, their branding was distinctly Chinese with Chinese ingredients often employed in the brews. This filled me with great hope, for I believe that craft beer in China will have truly arrived when it broadly takes on its own local character.
The Great Hop Forward
Facing some challenging roadblocks, our China craft brewery venture faltered. We attempted to put together a larger team, but it failed to coalesce, and so the project faded away. My list of Shanghai and Beijing craft beer establishments from the itinerary that I had created, lay mostly dormant, except for the odd time when I would recommend to craft beer aficionados heading to China, places to go. Nevertheless, my interest in the evolution of China’s craft beer scene remained and I continued to follow developments. Then on June 17, 2013, I decided to start a document to better track the new breweries, brewpubs, and establishments I came across. I thought there may be some potential use for the information, if only to guide me to good beer on future visits.
That November, when I became a brand ambassador for a Vancouver brewery, China loomed in my plans again. My personal goal was to help develop exports to a growth market with large potential, as BC was becoming more competitive with so many new breweries opening up. Utilizing my contacts in Hong Kong and Taiwan, I was able to generate some preliminary sales. Then in March 2014, I went to Hong Kong for Beertopia where our agent had a booth for our brewery. I helped pour samples and chat with festivalgoers. I also had the good fortune of seeing Mike Jordan of Boxing Cat, and Carl Setzer and Liu Fang from Great Leap again.
While my initial efforts showed promise, I eventually realized my employer was not willing to invest any meaningful resources into taking this further. It also became clear that I could only go so far in developing their brand even in our local market. Evaluating my goals and opportunities, I found myself going back to my China craft beer list and reflecting on what I had accomplished in British Columbia as a beer writer and craft beer evangelist. Much of that I had given up when I started my Asian travel venture in 2010. Here was an opportunity to bring the two together.
On November 23, 2014, I decided to turn the document into a book. And so began my journey to write The Great Hop Forward.