When I wrote a post about the growth of the craft beer market in Shanghai in November of 2012, I thought it was pretty simple (read here). The Chinese have been brewing and drinking beer for more than 9,000 years. So they know what they are doing and I was sure they were not about to change habits just for a few Western microbrews. “Westerners bring craft beer to China and the Chinese generally like it,” could have been my headline. End of subject. But I was wrong. I recently returned from two months in the U.S. where I had surgery for a broken leg, and found that the craft beer world has exploded in Shanghai and in China during in my absence.
I should not have been surprised. The Chinese have an insatiable taste for all things Western and they like to drink a lot. So craft beer is a perfect match. As a friend in the beer industry here pointed out, it only makes sense that high-end, well-made beer would succeed in China better than cheaper products because the Chinese already produce a lot of lower-end beer (Harbin, Snow, etc.). You are not going to sell a lot of Budweiser here because they already have lots of variations of it, and have been consuming it for a long time. The Chinese are looking for something different, and here come the craft beer drinking Americans with products like big, hoppy, high-alcohol West Coast IPAs that require serious concentration and attention when consuming. Of course the Chinese are going to drink this stuff up.
In truth, it has not been just the last two months. The growth I have seen in craft beer in my four years in China has been insane. I’ve been fortunate to become friends with several of the people leading that charge, including The Brew Girls. They are Di Di and Jill, two Shanghainese women who believe that beer brings us all closer, and are working to create a Shanghai craft beer community. (I don’t know how I could love what these two are doing more.) Di Di is the brewer of the two and makes beer wherever she can, whether at her home or a friends brewhouse. Jill runs the events side of the Brew Girls and organizes DIY beer events and pop up parties all around Shanghai that often times are located wherever they park their car (thebrewgirl.com). These two alone are significantly moving the needle on the craft beer movement here.
The Brew Girls also are supporting many of the new beer-centric places opening in Shanghai. They include Reberg Brewpub which appropriately serves that famous American dish, beer can chicken. It also serves all of its takeout beer in cool, metallic twist-off cans (rebergbeer.com). AD1926 recently opened at 206 Danshui Lu and the beer and food are focused on Belgium flavors. Kaiba has opened its third location at Taikang Terrace and is serving many American craft beers on tap like Kentucky Ale IPA (kaiba-beerbar.com). Daga Cafe and Brewpub, with 20 craft taps, just opened on Fuxing Lu, right next to one of my favorite breweries on the planet, Boxing Cat, which recently debuted its third location, in Hongqiao (boxingcatbrewery.com). Not to be outdone, Shanghai Brewery just opened its third location, this one on Donghu Lu in Xuhui (shanghaibrewery.com).
It’s not just breweries and beer pubs getting into the craft beer action here. Spread The Bagel (spreadthebagel.com), arguably Shanghai’s best purveyor of bagels, just opened its second shop in Xintiandi and, at this one, they are also serving Boxing Cat beers on tap. (I can think of no better breakfast combination.) Nearby, my friend Bernard Lau has opened Drink Up, a bottle shop adjacent to Tianzifang that carries more than 200 types of bottled beer, most of it craft (169-4 Jianguo, near Ruijin Lu). Doghouse Gourmet Hotdogs, which just opened their second location in Hongmei Walking Mall in Hongqiao, have started selling many different kinds of Western craft beer with their incredibly creative dogs (doghousegourmet.com).
In the basement of the very posh Shangri-La hotel in Lujiazui, a unique, craft beer-focused venue has recently opened called the Exchange Bar and Grill (shangri-la.com/pudongshangrila). It is unique in that it has a financial district theme and looks like a trading exchange, where the commodity is craft beer. There are dozens of beers listed on a big board, just like stocks at the exchange, and the prices fluctuate in real time with the demand for what is on offer. If a particular beer goes for 30 minutes without selling, its price starts to slide. When the price drops into the red, it’s time to buy. If the price moves up into the green, demand has increased for that beer, and it may be time to switch brands. It’s a big, plush space with six different finance-themed rooms that is a great place to get craft beer at a good price, if you are paying attention.
The demand for craft beer is growing outside of Shanghai as well. Another good friend in the beer business in China is Leon Mickelson, a Kiwi who until recently was the Brewmaster at The Brew at Kerry Hotel in Pudong (thecookthemeatthebrew.com). Now, as a consultant, Leon is in the process of helping develop and open new brewery restaurants for the Shangri-la hotel group in Beijing and Hangzhou. These projects are driven by the Chinese (and expat) demand for all things craft beer.
As if Leon is not busy enough, he has also started a new business called Cider Republic, in partnership with Mike Huang, who owns Doghouse Gourmet Hotdogs. They have decided that the China beer market is also ready for hard cider and they are brewing it in an old German castle in Shandong province. (I don’t make this stuff up.) Leon has set himself up with the necessary brewing equipment to turn out copious amounts of good, 5% ABV cider that is now being sold in more than 40 bars and restaurants throughout China. Cider Republic’s bet is that the Chinese palette is ready for slightly sweet, hard cider that goes down as smoothly as juice. Using produce from China, which grows more than 50 percent of the world’s apples, makes the cider a local product, which is also a selling point. So far, according to Leon, the cider is moving well with both Chinese and expats alike.
I can rattle off new craft beer producers and locations in China all day, but the real proof of this revolution is AB InBev, formally Anheuser Busch, and the largest beer brewer in the world. I’m personally not a fan of Budweiser and have watched warily as AB InBev purchases small craft breweries throughout the U.S., buying their way into the market. They recently formed a craft beer team that is focused on both the purchase of breweries, as well as production of their own small-batch beer. I guess this is the natural progression of any industry, where the big gobble the small. I was heartened when I heard AB InBev has hired my friend Di Di, the aforementioned Brew Girl, to handle brand marketing for craft beer products in China. She won’t stand for having more Budweiser served in China, just good, well-made craft beer.
Di Di’s first task is to fly to the States and figure out how to bring Goose Island Brewery of Chicago, which AB InBev recently purchased, to China (gooseisland.com). She is of the belief that, with the marketing and distribution muscle of AB InBev behind them, the craft brewers that they partner with here will have wider access to Chinese consumers. I trust Di Di with my life (and beer) and will give her the benefit of the doubt on this one. The Goose Island kick off, which begins this May, will be the first time a craft beer gets such a big-time launch in China. This kind of introduction shows how serious the big players in the industry are about bringing craft beer to China.
Di Di guesses that a new micro brewery or brewpub opens in China at the rate of once a week. I don’t know if that’s correct but I will say that since we moved here in 2012, many, many Western-style beer bars and restaurants have opened. Master Gao, a true beer god to Chinese and expats alike opened the Nanjing Craft Brewing Company in 2013. It is a mecca for the craft beer crowd, producing some incredible brews such as his Baby IPA (usa.chinadaily.com). Like so many Western-oriented products and places in China, microbreweries have been given some interesting names, such as Tipsy Face Brewery in Beijing, and Bionic Brew in Shenzen, both of which opened in 2015. And I can’t forget to mention the granddaddy of Chinese microbreweries, Great Leap Brewing Company, which was opened in Beijing in 2010 and continues to expand throughout that city and the country (greatleapbrewing.com).
All of this is just one more piece of evidence that we are more alike than we may think. It turns out one of those things we both want is good, well-made beer. Westerners brought craft beer to these shores and now the Chinese are doing what they usually do when they like something — they are going big with it. It may take China some time to surpass the U.S. in the overall quality and consumption of craft beer, but man, they sure are giving it a go. All I can say is that it’s a great time to be a craft beer lover in China.