Craft beer in China - where's it headed? / by Thomas O'Malley

This article about the state and fate of craft beer in China was first published in Higher View Magazine. 

China has two extremes of alcohol consumption: baijiu and beer. The first: a clear, grain-distilled spirit older than Buddhism with a kick like a Bactrian camel. The second: industrially produced lager.

Beer in China traces its youthful origins to breweries set up by Russian and German settlers at the turn of the 20th century. Today it’s homogonous, abundant and affordable. Three words anathema to the connoisseur of craft beer. But fear not, for China is toasting the arrival of the microbrew. U.S. and European craft beer imports are at a record high. Western-run brewpubs like Shanghai’s Boxing Cat, The Brew and Doctor Beer, and Beijing’s Great Leap Brewing and Slow Boat are expanding operations. Pretty soon pairing your braised sea cucumber with a chilled glass of pumpkin stout will be par for the course, right?

Steady on. Like drinkers of any creed, the Chinese are loyal to their own brands. Take one example you might not have heard of. Snow is the world’s biggest selling beer. It’s about 2.8% ABV, making it an oft-enjoyed water substitute at meal times. It costs peanuts. (And washes them down pretty well, too). The toughest obstacle craft beer faces is convincing the Chinese consumer that there exists a luxury product that is still called beer.

Luxury is hardly a new concept in China, of course. From the Tang to the Qing, people demanded the finest craftsmanship in their silk and ceramics. But in today’s era of the brand, success means making a product with a story that Chinese consumers can rally behind. Up to now, too much of the craft beer being produced in China has relied on imported ingredients, concepts and marketing angles.

The good news is that companies are bucking this trend. Great Leap Brewing’s beers are local from the bottom up, using Chinese hops and malts, and flavourings like Sichuan peppercorn, Fujian tea and Shandong honey. “Our beers reference Chinese literature or history,” says American-born founder Carl Setzer, “and the Chinese name always comes before the English on our labels.” In Shanghai, after three years mostly targeting the expat market, Boxing Cat brewer Mike Jordan is starting to experiment with local flavours like his Bruce ChiLee IPA, made with Chinese green chillies. Le Ble D'or, a recent Taiwanese brewpub brand, have opened a cavernous flagship in Suzhou. Change is afoot, but it’s a long road to revolution.

So what of the future? Japan offers an interesting case study, also dominated by monolithic German-inspired lager brands introduced in the 19th century. In 1994, the market was deregulated, permitting small-scale commercial brewing. At the time there was a single microbrewery in operation; now there are more than 200. Venerable sake makers are today creating award-winning, Japan-centric beers by combining their mastery of fermentation with local ingredients like yuzu and sweet potatoes. In some circles, 2012 in Japan is being dubbed the ‘Year of Craft Beer’.

So if it took the neighbours a couple of decades to succumb to the microbrew, China’s plucky band of craft beer pioneers can take solace from that, and know that growth will only come carefully, cautiously, one glass at a time.