Interview with Yan Gao, China’s Beer Guru
Go onto Amazon.com, and you’ll find hundreds of books telling you how to homebrew. However, how many are in Chinese? Until May, the answer was none. Now, however, the answer is ONE- Yan Gao, owner and brewmaster of the Oktoberfest Brewery in Nanjing, has written the first all-Chinese language book about how to homebrew. Hops recently sat down with Gao to ask him a few questions about his book, brewing, and the Chinese beer market.
Yan Gao has been making waves in the beer community recently. Owner and brewmaster of the Oktoberfest Brewery in Nanjing (started in Oct. 2008), Gao has written the first all-Chinese book about home brewing, which was published in May. The book explains the chemistry of beer brewing, along with advice on how to do it on one’s own. Hops took Gao aside recently to ask him a few questions about life, beer, and brewing.
Where did you grow up?
My home town is Nanjing. I left Nanjing when I was 18. Later I went to University of Puerto Rico for graduate school and settled in Providence, Rhode Island. Then I came back [to Nanjing] in 2007.
When did you first decide to brew your own beer?
Commercially in China [my first brew] was in 2008. I failed to find any craft beer in China and the imported ones were too pricey. I was running a pharmaceutical research company and all of my knowledge of Chinese herbal fermentation were actually from my home brewing knowledge. So, I was thinking, maybe I should go straight to brewing. In 2008, a friend bet me if I brewed, he would sell it at his bar, and that’s how I started a brewery in Nanjing. My first brews in China were a 20hl all barley brown ale and a 20hl IPA, both heavy, hoppy and bitter. I loved them. However, the market didn’t take it too well.
Tell me a little about your new book.
The title of the book is called “Get Your Own Brew”. It is the first and only home brewing book published in China so far. The book starts with my personal experiences of craft beer, and explains why we should home brew. After some paragraphs to coax readers into home brewing, in the second section, I give them a crash course to show how easy it is to brew at home. In the final section, readers will learn how to evaluate beer and how to select what beer to brew. In the later part of that section, there are ten recipes from which readers can learn how to adapt to their own brews. There is also an appendix for beer nutrition as well.
I tried to make the book easy to read by skipping some technical points on purpose. The language style is casual, with humor and sarcasm, without losing the need of being scientific. For example, when I explain how yeast produces alcohol, I wrote, “Yeast consumes sugar, gains energy and produces alcohol. Therefore, as a matter of fact, all alcohol produced from fermentation is really just the excrement of the yeast, yuck!”
This book has more than 100 beautiful hand drawings and photos contributed by two friends: Bjoern Walter and Wu Shuang, and I took the guts to do the art design myself. It turned out pretty beautiful.
Why did you decide to write it?
The main reason is to give locals “shock and awe”. I want them to understand beer and understand that what they are drinking today is not real. The second reason is purely commercial. After a couple years of marketing craft microbrews to Chinese people and failing, I started to realize that the Chinese don’t take craft beer as much as people do in the States. If I educate them one by one, as I was doing then, it would take me forever to incubate the climate. I always believe the more they know about beer, the more they will like our beer. I needed something fast and effective.
Who do you hope will read it? What do you hope it will accomplish?
Anyone can read it. However, I think the first wave of readers will come from people who have some education degrees, some money and some leisure time to waste. This group consists of white collars, engineers, artists, and entrepreneurs. In short, this group is the elite of today’s China society, 30-40 years old. They are interested in learning and good at making changes. In addition, they are quite influential among their friends. I hope this book can plant the seed and the readers will help it grow. Eventually, I hope China will like craft beer.
Hopefully, this book can milestone the starting point of China’s craft beer movement.
Was it difficult to get it published? What was the hardest part about writing it?
The hardest part is to gain reference books in China. I had to spend a lot of time verifying my writing from different sources.
Another difficulty came from photos. There was no photo of hop flowers available to me because I couldn’t find any hop flowers in China. I finally had the flowers hand drawn by my artist. By the way, Wu Shuang did a great job in drawing all the illustrations in the book, very artistically.
What are you brewing now?
We have two regulars, brown lager and pilsner. All beers we brewed have been adapted to local taste buds. Brown lager is a double bock, having the maltiness and the sweetness, but not too much bitterness. The pilsner doesn’t have enough bitterness as it is supposed to, but keeps the aroma and spices in its taste, very fragrant.
This year, for some brew pubs, we have added an American IPA and Dry Stout to expand our product line. Our drinkers have definitely widened their knowledge and are willing to try more. Again, we omitted the bitterness but kept the aroma and fragrance from their original recipes.
What beers do you plan to brew in the future?
I really want to make our beer a world class beer brewed in China, so I always try to use Chinese elements and ingredients to make them special. I am going to brew oolong beer and jasmine beer. Sweet and sour could be a good challenge as well. I also want to try Tibet barley and Tibet water to brew a craft beer. That will be something in the future.
Do you see craft beer becoming as popular in China as it is in the West?
I believe so. The market in China is like an island full of residents who don’t wear shoes.
How do you think Chinese microbreweries will be different from microbreweries in other countries?Taste-wise, Chinese drinking culture is built around the nasty baijiu. Unlike Westerners who are used to beer [and have been] for hundreds of years, beer in China is relatively new. Strong beers will be hard to market if the Chinese stick to drinking beer after baijiu. So, I think even craft beers will not be as strong as their counterparts in the West. China always has had more herbal spices than western countries so this just gives the creative brewers more ingredients to play with.
Price-wise, not as often as the Westerners can the Chinese afford craft beer. For example, in the USA, craft beer is only 30-50% more than industrial beers, but in China, it will be two to three times more expensive than the regular ones. For the money, more people will still choose low end beers. Chinese microbreweries will have some difficulty at the beginning. I believe one day the craft beer’s price will go down if the quantity can increase, but the time needed to shorten the gap is unpredictable.
On the bright side, China has a gigantic consumer group. It has been proven that this group can consume the entire nation of France’s wine production and entire nation of Italy’s Gucci bags. Anything can happen. It took the USA 20 years to cultivate the craft beer culture, it may take China 5-10 years.
What’s your favorite beer? (aside from your own, of course)
Hmmmmmm…… it evolves from time to time. Corona, Newcastle, Sam Adams, Magic Hat, Long Trail, Newport Storm. I guess anything hoppy and well aged. Nothing particular at the moment.
What’s your favorite snack to go with beer?
Spicy duck necks. Man, they keep you going.
Article by Jessica Smith