The Story of Chinese Craft Brewing

By January 16, 2018 Blog No Comments

Craft beer in China is bubbling up.

After years of building, the largest beer-consuming nation on Earth finally has a multitude of beers it can be proud to call its own. After launching our own range of Chinese craft brews this year, we thought it would be interesting to look into how it all began – and where it might be headed.  

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The Master himself – Gao Yan

There are worse places to start than with the guy that is sometimes been called the father of Chinese craft brewing – Gao Yan, AKA Master Gao. After living in the U.S. for 15 years, Master Gao returned to China in 2008 and quickly set about starting his own craft brewery. After publishing his own book – Get Your Own Brew! – Gao went public with his first bottled beer and what some have called China’s first ever craft beer, the Baby IPA.

From there, it wasn’t long before the craft bug bit the cities of Beijing and Shanghai. In Shanghai, Michael J. Jordan and Kelley Lee’s Boxing Cat grew from humble brewpub beginnings in 2008 to a local craft institution.
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京A taproom in Beijing

The capital’s craft brewing scene, meanwhile, is already the turf of cult heavyweights. Microbreweries like 京A, Arrow Factory, Slow Boat and Great Leap – to name just a few –  have sprung up all over the capital producing beers that could compete with the leaders anywhere in the world. Many of them now sell their bottled brews throughout the country.

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The team at Arrow Factory Brewing, Beijing

And it’s not just in the biggest cities, either. Out in Wuhan (in central Hubei province) Jiang Qi, founder of 18 Brewpub, is making one of China’s finest and most acclaimed IPAs (the Tiao Dong Who) after turning down job offers from Budweiser and deciding to go it alone. Or take Wang Rui, the man behind Chengdu’s Chengdu Harvest Brewing Company (the first small brewer in China to get a keg license). Though brewers have obviously been finding ways to ply their craft for longer, that this milestone came so recently shows how young China’s craft scene really is.

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The guys behind 18 Brewpub, Wuhan

Over a few short years, things have changed rapidly, too. “When we started most customers wanted stouts, wheat beers and English ales. However, that changed quickly when the IPA craze came to China,” says Thomas Gaestadius, one of the guys behind Arrow Factory Brewing (founded in 2012).

There has been a flood of new talent, too. As Aaron Lee of Shanghai’s SONG Craft Beer (founded in 2016) points out, “The guys that have been doing this the longest before this was a thing are still going strong but there’s a bunch of new comers spearheaded by a new generation of younger more worldly Chinese people”.

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Aaron Lee & the SONG Craft Beer team, Shanghai

So, what does the future hold for Chinese craft beer? It depends on who you ask, but some things are pretty easy to agree on. “More Chinese craft breweries will get investment,” Tom says, “and be able to scale up with both production and distribution”.

It’s not all just about big names and big money, though. What’s in your bottle might actually start tasting different, too, in some pretty interesting ways. “I believe China will develop its own flavors that Chinese people prefer. I think each region will develop beers that suit the flavors of the foods they eat”, Aaron from Song says.
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Bottles of Arrow Factory’s Blonde on Blonde Belgian Ale

“The US developed it’s own preferences different from European brewing and kick started its own craft beer “Revolution” and China will do the same.” There will also be some exciting variations across the country, too, he predicts. “Each region is the size of a country with preferences and cultures as diverse as Europe. What someone from Sichuan likes differs from someone from Dongbei or Guangdong likes”.

This has it’s own challenges, of course. There will need to be more research, more investment and likely more raw materials grown in China before that happens.
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A freshly poured 京A Worker’s Pale Ale

But it’s already happening. Breweries like Great Leap, 京A, Boxing Cat and more have used local ingredients like Sichuan pepper corn, red sorghum and flowers in their beers. Others, like SONG, aim to specifically cater to Chinese palates, creating light beers that will go just as well with hotpot as a Tsingtao – but pack way, way more flavor.

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A SONG IPA paired with a perfect bowl of noodles

With so much going on, it’s hard to tell what exactly the future will hold. The one certainly, though, is that it’s going to keep tasting a lot better.

Bottles by many of the breweries listed above – and many more – are available now for instant delivery on the BottlesXO app in Shanghai and Suzhou. Click here to download.