Great Leap Brewery

When I attended China’s first ever homebrew competition in 2011, I was shocked to find that the spectrum of beer stretched from non-potable Asparagus Mint Pale Ale to a Tibetan Smoked Barley Wine (to this day, still the best barley wine I’ve ever consumed). The range of flavors, styles, and ingredients suddenly available mirrored the roots of America’s craft beer revolution in the 1980s, when a cultural transition began inspiring consumers to demand higher quality in their bottles and cans. Similarly, China’s normally ubiquitous mega-breweries were being replaced with local brews like Qingdao Flower IPA, Yunnan Black Tea Ale, Wild Chinese Yeast Sour, Guizhou Smoked Chili Porter, and Koji Red Berry Amber. So what, exactly, did it take for Chinese brewers to catch up with their American counterparts?

I met Henan province native homebrewer, Shi Jue at the 2015 Shanghai Homebrew Competition when I managed a Beijing-based craft beer magazine called Hops. Jue, whose Sichuan Pepper Stout won first prize, explained to me how he first became intrigued with craft beer: “I was tired of flavorless lagers that dominated China,” he said. “In 2015, I read an article on WeChat [China’s largest social media platform] about how there are over 100 kinds of craft beer. I realized I had experienced so little…. Since then, I’ve become fascinated by the fact that I can brew world-class beer in my kitchen. I’m hooked now.”

align:right width:500 credits:"Liu Yi Jia"

The interest in homebrew is a direct result of China’s emerging middle class and their demand for quality: the relatively new luxury market is shaped by a nascent landscape of imported high end cars, wine, food, and just about anything that screams international wealth and influence. I watched an economic transition unfold while living in China from 2008 to 2016, and the country’s new appreciation for craft beer is a small, yet significant reflection.

China’s fixation with imported beer began with the growth of the German beer hall scene in the early 1990s. In China, Bavarian beer halls offer lagers typically described on menus either as “yellow” (blond), “white” (wheat beer), or “black” (dark lager). Sausage platters and scantily dressed women in Oktoberfest costumes round out the package; Paulaner Brauhaus, located in 20 cities across China, typifies the format.

After the influx of German-style bars introduced China to beer beyond light lagers, the Belgians made their mark with a more liberal brewing process, which incorporates fruit, spices, and sugar, and speaks directly to Chinese consumers’ predilection for sweeter, fruitier drinks. The status carried by imported Belgian ales doesn’t hurt, either.

Finally, unlike more conservative Europeans who stick to well-established brewing traditions, American brewers left their mark by pushing the limits and embracing unorthodox and local Chinese ingredients. Their lack of constraints and penchant for creativity have inspired China to redevelop its indigenous brewing culture, which stretches back an almost incomprehensible 9,000 years, when archaeologists found evidence of rice fermentation in Shaanxi province. And just as American brewers in the 1980s sourced local ingredients as part of the American craft beer revolution, so have the Chinese.

For Shangdong native Liu Yi Jia, it’s important to find a distinctly Chinese identity in his craft. “I reject the idea that brewing beer is only a western concept. Brewing is in our history and we have the appropriate ingredients - we just need to be creative,” he says. “My favorite beer is a Sichuan Peppercorn IPA with Xinjiang hops.” Sichuan peppercorn, oolong tea, chrysanthemum, and various Chinese spices are just some of the local ingredients he has used at his brewery in eastern China, less than 300 miles south of Beijing.

align:left width:475 credits:"Tina Huang, Great Leap Brewery"

American native Carl Setzer, brewmaster at Beijing’s Great Leap Brewing, has always believed in the potential for western brewers to experiment with local Chinese ingredients. “In China, you have access to spices that would break your budget elsewhere. But here, they’re like a penny for a pound. You can’t help but see what works and what doesn’t,” he explains. “Chinese consumers see the local ingredients on the menu and get really curious…. If they come in and see one of our beers named after a Chinese character, or it has a spice or a style of tea that they drank when they were kids, it’s easier for them...to pick that one,” he adds. Incorporating Chinese ingredients is now common at all breweries in China, run by locals and foreigners alike.

Nanjing native Gao Yan established Master Gao Brewery in 2012 and wrote the first and only homebrew book in Chinese. For Yan, local ingredients are a means of distinguishing Chinese beers from others produced around the world. “Some of my best beers include jasmine tea, local yam and pumpkin and wheat from Nanjing,” he says. His Mad Ting IPA even uses local hops for a distinct bitterness.

But Gao Yan points out that Chinese consumers are used to relatively flavorless beers, and there is a limit to experimentation when sales are the bottom line. “The unique part of brewing for Chinese drinkers is that it still needs to be somewhat accepted by local palates,” Yan explains. “There are limitations to how creative we can be, but by using local ingredients it’s more relatable. We are still shooting for a good balance…. I keep my really experimental brews for myself and my friends for now. But who knows in ten years?”

It’s not hard to imagine Ken Grossman, founder of Sierra Nevada, or Steve Hindy of Brooklyn Brewery, to have expressed the same sentiment in the United States in the early 1980s.