There was a time in Canada when if you ordered a coffee, you just told the waitress, “I’ll have a coffee.” If you wanted a beer, you shouted down the bar, “Give me a beer!” Even though a handful of brands were available, they were all just slight variations of the same monoculture. Then Starbucks came along and taught us a whole new language. Since then, ordering coffee just hasn’t been the same.
So it goes with beer. After the United States repealed their prohibition on alcohol in 1933, beer became synonymous with mass-produced, light, fizzy lager. It took the intrepid craft brewers of the late 20th century to remind North Americans of the myriad of other beer styles, challenging palates with ever-bolder flavors. Nowadays the places where you can simply order a “beer” are few — like coffee, a beer demands a conversation.
Drinking beer in modern-day China conjures up deja vu in more ways than one. On a personal level, I feel like I’m reliving the transformation I experienced in North America. But more generally, the arrival in China of the craft beer revolution recalls the introduction of barley to the country thousands of years ago to brew beer for the elite classes.
Three foreign beer cultures are the main drivers behind China’s craft beer revolution. The well-established German tradition is typically expressed as a Bavarian beer hall offering pale or dark lager, and a seasonal brew compliant with the beer purity law — a 500-year-old regulation in Germany that limits the number of ingredients that can be added to beer. Sausage platters, pork knuckles, heavy wooden furniture, and men and women in Oktoberfest costumes complete the package. The ubiquitous Paulaner Brauhaus, located in 20 cities across China, typifies the format.
The Belgians, in contrast, have introduced to China their more liberal brewing process, which incorporates fruit, spices, and sugar. Commonly shunning pronounced hop bitterness and strong aromas, Belgian ales are often gateway beers for the non-purist drinker, as evidenced by the mass-market fruit beers. Although a specific Belgian craft brewery doesn’t yet exist in China, many beer bars in the major cities offer a Flemish-style beer experience with their imported bottles and draught.
New World brewing takes tradition as the point of departure, pushing the limits of drinkability and embracing unorthodox ingredients — one brewpub in Oregon even uses yeast from their brewmaster’s beard! Microbreweries, like the Great Leap Brewing in Beijing and Boxing Cat in Shanghai, have brought this no-holds-barred culture to China, as have Chinese home brewers who were bitten by the bug when living or traveling abroad in Canada or the U.S.
Out of those three cultures, it’s the freedom and drive of the American craft brewers that shows the most promise for China to redevelop its indigenous brewing culture, which stretches back 9,000 years to the central Chinese province of Henan, where Neolithic pottery revealed evidence of a fermented beverage made from rice, fruit, and honey. This recipe was actually recreated by a microbrewery in Delaware in 2006.
However, craft beer in China is still widely perceived to be a foreign import. Go to a microbrewery anywhere in the country and you’re unlikely to find Chinese food on the menu. Similarly, most specialty hops, malts, and yeasts must be sourced from abroad.
But signs of localization are nevertheless growing. Beijing’s Great Leap Brewing, for example, is strongly committed to using local ingredients. They signed an agreement in 2013 with China National Cereals, Oils, and Foodstuffs Corp. to supply all of their base malts. Local tea, Sichuan peppercorn, and chrysanthemum are just some of the other ingredients that have found their way into China’s brew kettles.
For World Baijiu Day in August last year, Beijing-based Jing-A Brewing unveiled a bold, uniquely Chinese beer. Using red sorghum and jiuqu — the plant and yeast used to make China’s notoriously strong spirit, baijiu — the brewery created a very alcoholic hybrid ale.
Consequently, China is beginning to be known as a brewing powerhouse, as evidenced by the growing number of cross-border beer collaborations, and the awards Chinese-made beers have been receiving at international competitions.
Beijing’s Great Leap Brewing and Japan’s Baird Beer microbrewery teamed up in 2014 to create Blind Monk Amber Ale, featuring Sichuan peppercorns, Japanese pepper, and flower hops from eastern China’s Shandong province. In 2012, Boxing Cat Brewery in Shanghai teamed up with Mikkeller from Denmark to create the Bruce ChiLee India pale ale — a beer that included Chinese green chilies and rye malt inspired by Danish bread.
At the 2016 World Beer Cup — held in Philadelphia in May — Boxing Cat was the first mainland Chinese craft brewery in history to place in the winner’s circle with a silver medal. Hong Kong Beer Co. received bronze in a separate category for their English-style India pale ale. This was their second win — the first was in 1996.
And yet despite these promising developments, craft beer has barely registered as far as China’s beer consumption statistics are concerned. One major limitation is a regulation mandating that a brewery cannot gain approval to sell bottled beer from the State Council if it cannot package at least 12,000 bottles an hour — a significant financial barrier for a startup.
Bottled beer must also be filtered and pasteurized to remove the yeast, both of which are commonly shunned by craft brewers since they reduce flavor and mouthfeel — the tactile sensation of the beer. This also makes selling locally produced bottled conditioned beer illegal.
With mass-produced beers having reached the point of diminishing returns in China, craft beer has the opportunity to reinvigorate the country’s brewing industry, as has happened in places like South Korea and my home province in Canada. However, until government regulations are updated to reduce barriers to entry, this entrepreneurial fermentation will continue to languish and fail to reach its great potential.
Correction: A previous version of this article contained an error. The 2016 World Beer Cup was held in Philadelphia, not Colorado.
(Header image: A bartender fills a glass of beer at a bar in Beijing, July 8, 2008. Mai Tian/VCG)