Ongoing beer festival toasts domestic craft breweries
An ongoing festival in Beijing not only points to the present of the country's craft beer but also to its past and future.
The small group of Chinese brewers didn't fully realize what they were creating when they met in a small conference room in Jiangsu's provincial capital, Nanjing, three years ago-that is, the country's first craft brewers' association.
They talked about membership fees and setting up a board instead of selecting a salaried chairperson.
More fundamentally, they agreed upon a definition of a Chinese craft brewery.
Craft Beer Association of China members must have absolutely no ownership by commercial companies, produce no more than 500,000 hectoliters a year, use Chinese water to produce beer in China, and be able to legally do business in good standing and to provide taxable receipts for goods and services.
"People always say that what takes 20 years in America takes five years here," says Carl Setzer, founder and brewmaster of Great Leap Brewing in Beijing.
"The development of craft beer in America to the point where they had an industry definition took about 20 years. And here it has been about five."
He was in that conference room that night in Nanjing, and became one of the CBAC's founding members.
"We start at 0 percent and, as an association, make compromises in our own best interests," Setzer explains.
"But we shouldn't sell our souls before they have any value."
The CBAC entered operational limbo for a period after AB InBev acquired one of its founding members, Boxing Cat Brewery in Shanghai, in the spring of 2017.
After 18 months, board members decided to resume according to the format agreed upon in the initial meeting in Nanjing and consequently met in Yunnan province's capital, Kunming, recently.
"We made the commitment to regain the trust of our members and all those that meet our definition of craft beer in China," Setzer says.
"It's more of an association that tries to encourage others in education, training and quality-control aspects because those are the areas where trade associations have the most value in China."
The next 12 months' plans call for the CBAC to open membership without dues for a year and to sponsor a craft beer festival in Beijing attended only by independent domestic craft breweries.
A total of 37 breweries from around the country are attending the CBAC's first beer festival from Nov 16 to 18 at TRB Copper restaurant.
The weekend is spread out across four three-hour drinking sessions. Each features 37 unique beers-meaning a total of 148 different beers will be presented throughout the event-and snacks prepared by TRB. The companies' founders and brewmasters will also discuss their products with beer lovers.
"This is one of the largest conglomerations of independent Chinese craft breweries to ever be under one roof. So, it's certainly not something to miss," Setzer says.
The CBAC's event's host is Great Leap, which has organized successful festivals previously.
"When we made our announcement that we are going to do this festival... that the tickets were incredibly affordable, and it will be the best collection of craft breweries available in China, the reaction from a lot of media was that it should be free," says Setzer, who was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, and first came to China in 2004.
"Unless you earn the customers' respect, you don't deserve praise. But I looked at the list, and I said, 'there is zero shame on the list'. As a customer, I'd pay 150 yuan ($21.6) for a three-hour session."
Setzer thinks it's an opportunity for young breweries to present their works to the market and learn from experienced counterparts. The CBAC is planning on hosting a conference to share technical aspects of the creation and fermentation of beer, as well as trade and bar management. When Setzer founded Great Leap in 2010, there were only three craft breweries on the Chinese mainland-one in Shanghai, Boxing Cat, founded in 2008; Great Leap in Beijing; and one in Nanjing.
Shanghai had six breweries by the end of 2011. But Beijing had just opened its second one.
About 30 new breweries have opened in the capital since 2015, while Shanghai hasn't gotten a new taphouse since Boxing Cat's acquisition.
"That's what happens when commercial beer is involved," Setzer says.
Setzer has firmly turned down acquisition offers.
He says he understands Boxing Cat's decision to sell their brewery to a commercial brand since he's friends with the owners.
"It wasn't any laziness or failure. It was literally just they were tired," he says.
"Back then, we founding members of the CBAC thought nobody is going to want to join an association that requires independence if their goal is to get bought by a commercial brewery. But that's not the reaction we've seen."
China has around 300 independent breweries. About 70 have joined the CBAC.
"That's the reason why we are confident that if we put the exact representation of the demographic of Chinese craft beer in one room, people are going to realize it's not a joke," says Setzer.
"We want the CBAC to represent that we are all standing on top of a rocket ship, but the reason why it hasn't taken off yet is because the older brands in China don't trust each other. So, let's trust each other."
Setzer believes there's more than enough room for craft brewers to develop in a market with commercial breweries and imported brands.
"But everyone knows deep down that the true future of high-quality, independent beer is the local breweries themselves," he says.
"There was a very long and important history of the connection of the creation of alcohol to Chinese culture."
One mission for the CBAC is to show that imported hops aren't necessarily better.
"The more people that support local hop growth, the more varieties are going to be grown here and the more varieties of Chinese craft beer can be created," he says.