Although it feels like there’s a new brewery in Vancouver every day, it may surprise you that the fastest growing beer market is China.
Jackie Zhao is the owner of Shanghai Bar, one of the first bars in China to carry a selection of European and North American beer. As one the few places where Chinese drinkers can taste beers from around the world, Zhao takes great care to help his customers find the beer that’s right for them, and he takes his role very seriously. “If they say, ‘oh whatever,’ I say ‘No, no whatever,” says Zhao. “You pay money. If I choose the wrong beer, you’re not happy” (pri). The results speak for themselves – when Zhao opened at Shanghai Bar’s original location in 2007, the four-seated venue had a line-up around the corner every night, despite the fact that the bar was missing a crucial component – a bathroom. Shanghai Bar’s popularity is evidence that Chinese drinkers are beginning to move towards more innovative and complex styles.
China’s most popular beers, Snow Beer and Tsingtao, have a reputation for bland and watery flavor. Chinese drinkers even joke that they drink these lagers to rehydrate themselves after a night of hard alcohol. So it’s really no surprise that places like Shanghai Bar have sparked an interest in craft beer – and it shows. The number of bars in Shanghai has doubled since 2010, according to Forbes and Shanghai is getting ready for their third-annual beer festival, where brewers from around the country gather to show off their brews. But while craft beer has skyrocketed in popularity, craft brewing has been slower to catch on.
Yan Gao is the man who literally wrote the book on Chinese craft beer. His novel, Get Your Own Brew, is a how-to guide for homebrewers and an inside look at the difficulties in starting a Chinese microbrewery. Opening Oktoberfest Brewery hasn’t been easy for Gao, from the headaches of importing ingredients to the challenges of harvesting them locally. He even jokes that brewers would smuggle American hops in with their luggage to avoid China’s strict importation rules. But no matter troubling the red tape of craft brewing is, it’s getting easier to find good beer in China.
In the spirit of innovation Oktoberfest Brewery has played around with locally sourced ingredients to give their beer a more Chinese feel. Sichuan peppercorns, purple rice, jasmine, lychee, and Tibetan barley are all flavors you can expect in Gao’s beers. He even surprised himself when a sour beer with locally harvested yeast became an overnight success.
Gao and other Chinese craft brewers are working on shipping their beers to North America. Let’s hope it’s not too long before we can reach for one of these beers at the BCL.
CAMRA Vancouver Contributor