Sun, Oct 09, 2011 - Page 11 News List

Microbreweries face tough challenges in China

While beer consumption in China has drastically increased, it still lags behind beer-swilling Europe, but don’t tell the few enterprising hops-heads who are brewing up oolong and Sichuan peppercorn ales

By Allison Jackson  /  AFP, BEIJING

Bartenders work at the Great Leap bar and microbrewery in Beijing on July 23.

Warning: Excessive consumption of alcohol can damage your health

Photo: AFP

In a poky room in a backstreet of Beijing, self-taught brewer Carl Setzer uses spicy Sichuan peppercorns, oolong tea leaves and cinnamon to invent beer flavors suited to Chinese tastes.

The burly American runs Great Leap Brewing, one of a small, but growing number of microbreweries in China hoping to entice drinkers in the world’s biggest beer market with their hand-crafted lagers, ales and stouts.

Chinese drinkers buy more than 40 billion liters of beer a year, but the vast majority are consuming cheap, locally produced lagers that cost as little as US$0.50 a bottle.

Snow beer, which is brewed by SABMiller PLC and its Chinese partner China Resources Enterprises Ltd, is the biggest-selling beer in the country, followed by Tsingtao, which is made by one of China’s oldest and best known breweries.

However, Setzer and other microbreweries operating in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai hope to attract China’s growing middle class, who like the taste of foreign beer and can afford to pay 15 times the cost of a local brand.

“You’ve got 50 or 60 million beer drinkers in this country — let’s aim at 10 percent of that and see if we can get a market going for people who want something that is a little bit better, a little bit different,” Setzer said.

Setzer, who says his beer has “flavor” and “soul” unlike local brew, produces 800 liters a week for the hundreds of Chinese and foreign expatriate drinkers who stop by his traditional courtyard for a glass of ale.

Ho Punyu, 34, is a regular at Great Leap Brewing after foreign friends introduced him to the bar’s handcrafted ales a year ago.

“Tsingtao and Yanjing beer taste like water,” said Ho, an investment adviser in Beijing, referring to China’s second-best-selling beer and another brand local to Beijing. “I look at things in term of value — the taste is good, the price is right.”

At the Boxing Cat Brewery in Shanghai, where a pint of pale ale costs 45 yuan (US$7), nearly half the customers are Chinese — which brewmaster Michael Jordan says proves there is a market for top-notch beer in China.

“The business here is in its infancy so there’s a lot of opportunity,” said Jordan, who brews 2,000 liters a week. “It is also challenging because Chinese culture is not used to craft beer — there’s a lot more flavor complexity.”

China has been making beer for thousands of years, according to the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE), but it is better known for its potent white liquor, baijiu, distilled from grains such as sorghum and rice.

Beer consumption has exploded in China. The AAWE, a non-profit organization made up of economists from around the world, said the country consumes 40 billion liters a year, compared with 150,000 million liters in 1961.

However, on a per capita basis, China lags far behind beer-swilling countries in Europe, with the average Chinese person consuming 24 liters a year, compared with more than 160 liters in Ireland and the Czech Republic, AAWE said.

Other estimates put Chinese per capita beer consumption at about 32 liters.

At 5 percent to 10 percent a year, the growth in China’s beer market is much slower than for wine, which is becoming the tipple of choice for those seeking to impress, said Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research Group in Shanghai.

“We expect red wine consumption to be growing 20 to 30 percent a year for the next five years minimum — it’s one of the hottest sectors to be in right now,” Rein said.

This story has been viewed 4962 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top