What is a craft beer revolution? Why does it happen? What sets the stage? What fuels it and what limits its potential?
A craft beer revolution is a dramatic change in a country’s beer culture, and is typically marked by change from mass consumption light, fizzy industrial lagers to the appreciation of real beer. These “great beer awakenings” are most dramatic in countries that are disproportionately dominated by monopolies of a single style, usually light, adjunct-laden lagers, whose presence is so ubiquitous, that the general population is scarcely aware of the existence of anything else. What is missing, simply, is choice. Culprits for this lack of choice stem from highly successful corporate mass marketing campaigns and legislation that favors their stranglehold on the market.
Prohibition dealt (Volstead Act of 1920) the American craft beer industry a lethal blow. Before then, beer was mostly produced and consumed locally (although the invention of ice cars on trains allowed for distribution). By the end of prohibition in 1933, only the largest breweries were able to stay in business by producing malted grain, malt extracts, and even soda pop, and numbered under a hundred; a far cry from the nearly 2000 local breweries that existed in the late 1800’s. Companies with their newly-instated brewing licenses easily dominated the market with their beers, and increased profit margins by loading them up with cheaper adjuncts, including up to 50% rice, and watering them down. Beer was no longer beer. The tax man was also partially to blame, and many beers needed to be 3.2% ABV or less. The 1970’s saw a time of huge market consolidation, as competitors were bought and scrapped, or rendered obsolete, reducing the number by the end of the decade to 44. Industry experts predicted the number of breweries would soon be down to just 5.
Across the pond in England, people were getting fed up, and rightfully so. CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) started in 1972 to bring back real ale. In the late 1970’s, Jimmy Carter legalized homebrewing in the United States and the craft beer revolution was beginning to take shape. Many homebrewers opened up microbreweries, unleashing remarkable creativity and that saw revivals of traditional brews from other countries and an evolution of new styles such as Anchor Steam beer. In the 1980’s and 90’s, the industry saw double-digit growth, and the craft beer revolution was in full swing.
China parallels the United States’ “pre-revolution” period in many ways, but for entirely different reasons. The lack of choice had nothing to do with a dry period; it got this way wet. Beer is proudly the most widely consumed beverage in China after tea. Surprisingly, more beer is produced in China than anywhere else in the world, with Tsingdao firmly holding the largest slice of the market share, and Yanjing holding an astounding 85% of the market share in northern China. The beers’ light alcohol (2.5 – 3.5%) and Chinese drinking culture favors its consumption in mass quantities and it’s cheaper (and safer) than water, a big plus in a country with questionable water quality.
As China continues to open up to the outside world, craft beer is slowly infiltrating into China, and locals are starting to take notice. Beer importers like Vandergeeten and DXCEL are stocking the shelves with an impressive selection of imports and deserve as much credit for getting Chinese access to craft beer as the microbreweries. Speaking of which, 2010 witnessed the opening of Great Leap Brewery in Beijing, and with that, support of the homebrewing culture. Carl Setzer, their brewmaster, taught several homebrewing classes, and machined miniature versions of his brew system for his students. Homebrewing is the true catalyst in any craft beer revolution.
If China is to follow the USA’s footsteps in the craft beer revolution, then Chinese need to have their own grassroots movement, and now Chinese now outnumber expats in the Beijing Homebrewing Society, which is a harbinger of good things to come. The year 2010 also saw China’s first Chinese language book on homebrewing. Gao Yan’s “Get your own brew” arms Chinese homebrewers with brewing knowledge, DIY know-how, and even supplies on taobao. After several months of homebrewing gatherings, the Beijing Homebrewing Society made its public debut at the 1st Annual Beijing Craft Beer festival in June 2012, and then held its first Homebrewing Festival in December. The exuberance and electricity in the air were palpable, and the cheers to the winners speeches (each participant took home a prize) had the aura of a pep rally. The Chinese made it fun, and everyone went home feeling they were part of something special.
Despite this good news for beer in China, there are sobering limitations. The biggest obstacle restricting the craft beer revolution is questionable quality of raw ingredients, lack of basic infrastructure (refrigeration and space), and ultimately, the law. Under current law, real beer (and yogurt for that matter) are not allowed to exist. If China-produced bottled beer tested positive for yeast, or any other microbiologicals, it will fail to meet quality control standards for production and distribution. Yogurt receives equally unfair treatment: it must be pasteurized, and robs consumers of any probiotic benefit. The laws are unjustified because no pathogenic bacteria have ever been found growing in beer.
Chinese bottled beer is either filtered, pasteurized, or both, stripping them of yeast (and lots of hangover preventing B vitamins) that destabilizes or removes flavors the brewer intended to have in the finished beer. Internationally produced beer is allowed to have yeast (e.g bottle-conditioned Belgian ales such as Chimay, Rochefort, Westmalley are all here). The double standard is unfair to China’s microbreweries. Put this way, China deserves to have its Yanjing, Tsingdao, Harbin, and Snow beer everywhere… but why punish the people?
Is real beer banned in China? Absolutely not. Kegged beer is not held to the same standard as bottled beer (so some wiggle room is allowed for yeast). Unfiltered Tsingdao is offered at the main Qingdao brewery tour, but they can’t bottle it for distribution. At least not yet. Any licensed restaurant or microbrewery can produce beer on-site, or, depending on licenses, brew off-site and distribute to themselves.
Yes, these are the early days of the homebrewing and craft beer movement in China, and is probably reminiscent of the beer scene in the USA in the 1970s. As China’s microbreweries and homebrewing culture continues to grow (there is an estimated 1000 homebrewers and counting), so will support for new policies to accommodate the movement, and the craft beer revolution will sweep over China.