Beer in China: Shanghai hops ahead of the (six) pack
“When we first opened, I was repeatedly told there was no good market for beer in China, especially here in Shanghai,” says Rudy Wimmer, who recently opened a second branch of his Belgian beer bar, Kaiba, barely a year after the first. “But I’ve since seen a table of six Chinese guys ganbei their way through forty bottles of Samuel Smith’s Imperial Stout!”
“I just love hearing that!” says Gary Heyne, brewmaster at Boxing Cat Brewery, whose downtown location, with its rotating cast of microbrews, has been a huge hit in the six months since it opened. “We had a similar experience here. A Chinese couple came in, reeking of apprehension. They started with a single half pint between them. By the time they were done they’d worked through almost the entire beer menu.”
Ever so slowly, the city may be coming around to the notion that beer can mean much more than insipid, fizzy yellow lager. Kitschy China beer halls like Paulaner may have been here a while, but finally we’re seeing the emergence of places that let the drink speak for itself.
A carbonated revolution
Deane Lin, who has written McKinsey reports on the China beverage industry and is now Chairman of Dxcel Partners, which imports American craft ales into the country, believes the city is due a “premium beer revolution.”
The consensus, though, is that we’re still a couple of years away. Part of the problem is the traditional reputation of beer in China as something you only drink to get drunk. Shanghai, though, appears an especially tough market to crack.
Dan Bignold is editor of locally-based trade magazine Drink. “Shanghai is a status city,” he says. “That’s why wine has done so well. It’s different elsewhere in the country. The beer scene in Beijing is much better developed, and up in Harbin they love a dark ale. But beer appreciation here has taken a massive step forward over the last two to three years, and there’ll come a point soon when Tsingtao drinkers’ taste buds grow up.”
There are a few more hurdles to overcome in China. “Selling beer here is like working in the Wild West,” cautions Rudy Wimmer. “Suppliers run out of product, prices fluctuate, everything you do you have to do from the ground up. But to grow the industry we have to take the time. We have to provide places where people can come and learn about beer.”
Jonathan Cartu, China Sales & Marketing Director for Belgian brewers Duvel Moortgat, can testify to the necessity of such hard work. It’s him and his team you have to thank for making premium beers like Vedett available, almost overnight, in many of the better locations around town.
“It’s just the very beginning. There’s no layered beer culture here yet,” he confesses, “and no national China beer distributor. But by working closely with venues, we’re making things happen. It’s such fun. We’ve had two years of solid growth and I’m very optimistic.”
Like the others, Cartu acknowledges that Shanghai’s expat crowd, are “an obvious bridgehead into the market,” since they’re already familiar with higher-priced beers. “But already some of our biggest customers are Sichuan and Hunan restaurants. Things are definitely changing,” he adds.
All involved think next year could prove pivotal in reaching out to that wider market.
Beer giants Anheuser-Busch InBev are building a Belgian Beer Café inside the EU Expo pavilion, and have plans to roll out the franchise in China thereafter. Their Brand Outlets Manager, Thomas Leclercq, says, “The possibilities for beer in China are even greater than those for wine.”
Not to be outdone, Gary Heyne wants to see an American Beer Tent at the beer festival in nearby Kunshan. (“The Qingdao Festival was terrible! That’s not a beer town, it’s just a town that happens to brew.”)
That’s in addition to the ongoing work being done by the Brewers Association (BA), who, only a few weeks ago, sent a delegation to Shanghai to spread the good word about American ales. Josh Weiner was one of the very first people to import craft beer here, and now works with the BA. And he’s as upbeat as anyone about the future:
“One of my goals when I started this project three years ago was to build a true craft beer community in Shanghai, for beer brewers, industry members, and enthusiasts to come together to appreciate beer and support the community in which they live. With all the people now working towards this same goal, I think it will happen even before I envisioned.”