While enjoying a nice Southern California morning the other week, a conversation with a friend who had spent the last 7 years of his life living in China quickly turned from surfing to beer (as Aleheads conversations often do). We were discussing the burgeoning beer business and how it is gradually catching on in places that one does not usually associate with beer, such as Central America and Japan. I mentioned how cool it would be to be a “beer pioneer” in one of these places, sent by the hop gods to rescue a population from the bland, mass produced pale lager that had come to define their regions beer, earning the respect and admiration from locals and expats alike.
The conversation then went something like this:
Me: “I bet China would be an interesting place to open a craft brewery. I wonder if it would catch on, or how people would react to beers that are so drastically different from what they are used to.”
Friend: “Oh, they totally have those in China. They have for years.”
Me: “Really!!?? When I think of Chinese beer, all I know about is the Tsingdao and Yanjing bombers that they sell here. They do craft beer!!??”
Friend: “Oh yeah. They love it. It is also really big among the huge ex-pat community there. The craft beer reminds them of home.”
Me: “I must try this beer you speak of.”
My interest peaked, I did a little research during work hours and sure enough, discovered that craft beer is not only a thing in China, but that it also has a few well established players such that have been doing it for a while and doing it very well, especially in the Shanghai region.
I was introduced to some of the good folks at Shanghai’s Boxing Cat Brewery, who agreed to give Alehead Nation some deeper insights into what it is like running a small craft brewery in one of the fastest growing post industrial countries in the world. I spoke with co-founder Lee Tseng and brewmaster Michael Jordan about the path to craft brewing in the Middle Empire and where the future will take China’s beer scene.
What motivated you to open a small brewery in China? We have a lot of readers around the world who hope to someday open a brewery (myself included) How does one make this leap in a foreign country?
I wish we could tell you that we hatched a brilliant and elaborate plan and executed it just as we planned. However, the truth was that like many other businesses it was a matter of being able to do something we truly loved that we felt was missing in a market at the time. I was a Shanghai veteran that dabbled in many different industries including real estate, retail and F&B before meeting Kelley Lee, who came to Shanghai to open her own restaurant. We were originally thinking to do an American bistro until by coincidence we met Gary Heyne, who was a brewmaster brought into Shanghai to do another project. However, the other project for him really tried to short change him upon his arrival, so he did not want to work with them after 3 months into his contract. However, as he had fallen in love with a woman here, that he ended up marrying, he had a great reason to look for another project in China! Enter Kelley and I with our American bistro idea and our mutual love of craft beer, and that’s how the three of us decided to begin the creation of Boxing Cat Brewery in the fall of 2007.
China is a place where you have to overcome many hurdles before opening up a brewery. The current laws make it very difficult to obtain a production license, so you’re limited to in house use only. Past that initial hurdle, you also have limited access to quality ingredients for the beer itself. Therefore, a lot of flexibility and creativity in sourcing is required, and of course part of the fun is to incorporate as many local ingredients into the beer making process as possible to ensure freshness and something fun! Finally, one should definitely do their due diligence on the state of the market for your particular product, the paperwork required to enter the country on a work visa, as well as the requirements to set up your own company.
The craft beer trend in the states is moving towards more extreme beers. Bigger, hoppier, more challenging to the palette. What sort of styles are Chinese craft beer fans embracing? Could you see a similar pattern happening there?
The China market really cannot be looked at in US market terms. A closer comparison would likely be more along the lines of Mexico’s craft market development, or I would likely guess what is currently happening in the South American markets. Of course I do not have first hand info on those markets, but what I mean is that the Chinese locals are still very much a light beer drinking culture. The paradox is that as a nation they are the largest consumers of beer worldwide, but their per capital consumption is quite low compared to the top ranked nations overall. Most of the time they prefer drinking very light and watered down commercial offerings, poured into small glasses (5oz I would guess) so that they can drink it in one gulp over dinners or meetings, and amass as many bomber bottles as possible before nights end to show how good their tolerance is. Naturally, this type of beer drinking preference will take some time to adjust to drinking heavier and more flavourful beers for taste / profile rather than to “ganbei”, which which is the local way of saying cheers before downing the glass in one gulp.
Boxing Cat Brewery has tried to bring the American craft beer movement to Shanghai in true representation with bold and hoppy profiles. In the 4.5 years that we’ve been around, we have seen a steady increase in local patronage. They are so far more responsive to a combo of fruitiness and hoppiness rather than straight hop action. Belgian styles are well received by the China drinking crowd on the whole due to their sweetness. Also, our best selling beers are lighter ales or german style lagers such as our Right Hook Helles or our Standing 8 Pilsner. However, I am proud to say that we’ve also had tremendous success with our Sucker Punch American Pale Ale, as well as our TKO IPA with the local crowds after they’ve warmed up to the idea after training their palette on the lower hopped beers.
I think for hoppy beers to really make a dent, it will take quite a bit of time through hard work and lots of education. However, market success for craft beer isn’t about making one style popular only, so we’re not too concerned about converting the masses to big and hoppy beers at the moment. Our current game plan is to really develop recognition of our core brands and educate our customers to let them decide for themselves which beer path to take moving forward through our different beer offerings.
China is home to a lot of different macro-lagers with little taste and big budgets, not unlike the states. How are people making the transition from big beer to craft brewing?
It’s really a small and niche market right now that is trying the craft products. However, with such a huge population a small niche is still more than enough for us to work with. Over the past 3 years the bottled import selections have really improved in quantity and quality. There are lots of imported craft beers now in bottle form, and a large chunk of those are American, with also a large chunk of Belgian styles as well. These beers are mostly sold at venues where the clientele is predominantly expatriate based. Importers are also bringing in certain popular brands such as Rogue in kegs, so we’re very excited to see this trend growing. I should say that I am really only speaking about Shanghai and Beijing, but I fully expect that the overall market will see a great improvement in both the quality and quantity of choices over the next 2 years.
We often run beer festivals to give people lots of chances to try out craft beers in a fun and non-intimidating atmosphere. Hopefully more quality breweries that care about the beer will be opened here to help educate the masses as a whole alongside our establishment. There’s only a handful of breweries like us right now, and it’s a lot of work, but we’re hoping that it will be well worth the good fight down the road.
Is there much of a homebrewing scene in China?
There are some good people trying to cultivate that culture here, but local interest is very sparse thus far. Its nowhere near the interest found in Japan and Taiwan right now, as most people don’t care for craft beer enough on the local level. A lot of patrons visit because they think its hip but truth be told they might not like the products enough to want to learn about making it just yet. However, with more educators and better resources (specifically better and cheaper access to good ingredients) I believe that will grow into something significant. We are also trying to cultivate this culture as well through some in house events and brew house visits. We hope, for the sake of all craft beer lovers in China, that this situation will be vastly improved in a couple years time!
What sorts of beers do you guys produce? What tend to be the customer’s favorites? I read on your site about the I-10 Corridor flavors that you embrace in your food. Do you design beers to pair well with the smokey, bright southwestern flavors?
We tend to brew a lot of different styles throughout the year, approximately 25 in total. The beer range is very diverse as our we aim to be in the leading innovator of beer in China. I follow some trends globally and really enjoy seeking out new beers whenever I travel. I brewed in the US for about 15 years and then spent some time in Denmark so it’s easy to connect with other brewers to see what they’re doing. Traveling leads to some inspiration or an idea of how we could implement a certain beer style and then incorporate a local ingredient. An example is a beer we call Tripel Threat. It’s a Belgian Tripel using imported Belgian malts and Belgian yeast. We add a local spin by using some Sichuan peppercorns, fresh ginger and pear rock sugar. This provides a bit of heat/spice and ginger zest in the profile with the beer being refreshing and uber drinkable at 7.8%. We brew this beer in the Spring and have done so the last 3 years. People really crave this beer so it’s fun to watch them enjoy the beer when it becomes available. We’ve done another beer using Kaffir Lime leaves and lemongrass based around a wheat beer. We’ve brewed a Mango Ale that was also used to make Mango Ale Ice Cream for a brewmaster’s dinner. We do some barrel aging in Jim Beam Barrels shipped over from the US. We’re also experimenting with sour beers in some wine barrels that have become flavor neutral after a few different beer turns. Some other styles we produce include a Double IPA, an Imperial Stout, Saison, Wet Hop Beer and a “Mole” inspired porter. The favorites really vary depending upon the season. The Belgian Witbier is very popular in the warmer months. Imperial Stout and Southpaw Winter Warmer (brown ale with orange peel, coffee and star anise) are popular in the Winter. Overall our best selling beer is Right Hook Helles as it’s a light flavorful beer that quenches your thirst when it’s hot and humid. TKO IPA comes in near the top of our sales and it’s very American in style using Cascade and Simcoe hops along with a dry-hop addition of Amarillo hops. This is something I’m very proud of and think it reflects the opportunities for craft brewing in China!
I think our menu focusing on Southern Americana Cuisine suits well with the beers we make. We are in the process of redoing our menu and we will suggest a beer pairing with certain items on the menu. We have a coffee braised short rib with goat cheese grits that is amazing. Southpaw Winter Warmer or Donkey Punch Porter matches this beer very well. Some of our lighter salads have citrus notes so Sucker Punch Pale Ale (w/ citra hops) compliment this dish very well. We have a few dishes with some heat and smokiness so Ringside Red is an amber lager that balances out the heat. The lighter beers such as Brawlin’ Belgian Witbier or Right Hook Helles are well positioned and can pair nicely with many items on our menu. Of course we have some luscious Southern desserts so the King Louie Imperial Stout or one of our Bourbon Barrel Aged beers pair perfectly with these rich chocolatey dishes.
Chinese food is some of the finest cuisine in the world, as the flavor profiles and ingredients are truly unique. Can you recommend any pairings for traditional Chinese dishes?
The flavor profile in Chinese food is very diverse. The range of ingredients is amazing and can inspire a brewer to think of some interesting beer ideas. While this provides inspiration it’s almost impossible to walk into a Chinese restaurant that has a nice beer selection. As Lee mentioned earlier, the drinking culture in these places is different from the culture we’re trying to create in our locations. Sometimes, Chinese restaurants allow outside beverages to be brought in, and I’ve brought in a Rogue Amber Ale beer that has gone well with Hunan spiced pork ribs. Some other dishes such as duck can be rich so a beer such as hoppy red ale like 5 am Saint has worked well. Ultimately I would like to play around with more Chinese food parings. I need to start bringing growlers of Boxing Cat Beers to these dining occasions to see what works best!
Special thanks to the good people of Shanghai’s Boxing Cat Brewery for taking the time to speak with me and answer my questions. If you find yourself in China, specifically Shanghai, make sure you swing by and check out their fine brews. You can find them on Facebook and Twitter as well.