It’s been a minute or two since I wrote a blog addressing anything other than our most familiar situations. The acquisition of Boxing Cat by Brazilian brewing giant Anheuser Busch InBev has permeated just about every aspect of the Chinese craft brewing industry for the past four months. There isn’t a lot more I can say that I haven’t said already. It sucks. It has left a real void in our brewing community and our industry’s future. Too many young craft brewers think it’s not a big deal, and even more local breweries are positioning themselves to be the next to be acquired and cash out. This is a fool’s errand and an example of why Boxing Cat sold for too little too soon and our industry will suffer from this distraction for another year or two at least.
There is a lot going on that is right in our industry. Both Gao Yan of Master Gao and Pan Dinghao of Panda Brewing have announced major expansion plans. A new brewery opens every couple of weeks somewhere in China and more and more local consumers are being introduced to the concept of high quality, local, and independent breweries. China took home several medals at the Australia International Beer Awards and you can feel the anticipation for what the future means for creativity and real innovation in Chinese craft beer.
At Great Leap Brewing, we have quietly been working on our mixed fermentation project and farmhouse brewery at the Great Wall. Some of you might be familiar with similar projects in America from breweries like Jester King in Austin, Texas, Hill Farmstead in Vermont, and Fonta Flora in Morganton, North Carolina. What we did was a simple preface. We collected different forms of 酒曲 (distiller’s yeast), or the fermentation agent used to ferment the pre distillate for Baijiu, and worked with America’s White Labs to isolate the different components and separate them independently from one another. What we found was a type of saccharomyces cerevisiae, lactobacillus, pediococcus, weissella, pichia, and inert molds. This cocktail of bacteria, yeast, and molds have been curated by distilleries in China for thousands of years. Some different forms of the fermentation agent varied slightly from others but the overall concept is the same, convert as much of the starches into fermentables as possible, then let the bugs and yeasts do their job as efficiently as possible. For brewers it seems like a dirty process. 酒曲 is not something that you should dose in a beer with no plans for distillation. There are too many risks for exposure to package instability and beer spoilage. But if properly isolated and identified, the parts taken individually are quite interesting to someone who is looking to create sour beers that are inherently Chinese.
This is where White Labs comes in. I was introduced to Chris White when I was a young brewer six years ago by Michael Jordan. Chris is an interesting guy. He believes in the balance between science, biology in particular, and the creative expression of craft brewers. He believes that through access to pure yeast strains, brewers will be able to create world class beers and continue the growth of craft beer markets around the world. You have to remember that one of the biggest bottlenecks in brewing history is the lack of access to viable and healthy domesticated beer yeasts. After prohibition in the United States, it was only the breweries that could afford to propagate and store their yeast strains that survived. It used to be known as the heart of the brewery. The proliferation of craft beer around the world is directly connected with the increase in the isolation, domestication, and archiving of yeast strains for the purposes of propagation and distribution. It’s because of companies like White Labs and Fermentis in Ghent, Belgium, that breweries are now able to open in climates and atmospheres that previously would have prohibited the brewer’s ability to have access to high quality yeast strains. These companies are walking in the footsteps of brewing and biotechnology research centers like the Technical University of Berlin’s Versuch -u. Lehranstalt fur Brauerei (VLB) and Freising’s Weihenstephan, amongst others. These schools provided the groundwork for the importance of cataloging and providing common property brewer’s yeasts to breweries around the world.
Great Leap Brewing has never actually bought any brewer’s yeast from White Labs, ever. So when I asked Chris if he’d be willing to help me with our project, I fully expected him to tell me to go fuck myself. This is the common reaction that you get from distributors and vendors in China if you don’t have any plans to buy their products from them but you want to co-author a paper or conduct a research study. There is a culture of, “What’s in it for me?” that has always made me a bit sad about the future of craft beer here. Vendors don’t really understand much about the industry of craft beer, but they want to make money from it, so unless you buy their products they actively tell other brands and breweries that your beers aren’t good or that you are difficult to deal with. So when Chris White agreed to take part in our little experiment I knew it was an opportunity to also show domestic vendors that collaboration with no financial incentive can lead to a strong partnership. I took the samples of 酒曲 to White Labs exactly one year ago last week. Nine different strains in total packed in a gym back and put in my suitcase. I flew into LAX via Tokyo, rented a car, and drove down to San Diego. When I arrived at White Labs, I was greeted in a dark tasting room at midday by Neva Parker and Karen Fortmann. It basically felt like a drug deal. Since then I’ve scaled back my international delivery services due to a specific experience in Taiwan that I’ll get to later, but this was an exciting experience for all of us at Great Leap and White Labs because it gave us the first step down a road that has led us to where we are now. Chris White and I presented on our project briefly at the CBCE in Shanghai last month. The results of our research was an isolation of Pediococcus pentosaceus and Lactobacillus plantarum. White Labs also ran a Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) genome identification on the strains of bacteria, which it then overlaid against a database of microbiological submissions based on regional inputs. The strains of pedio and lacto that were identified in our study were indeed localized to East Asia and China.
Our plan for the use of these bacteria is to implement them in the aforementioned mixed fermentation program. Mixed fermentation is just that, a mixture of different types of yeasts, both saccharomyces and brettanomyces, as well as bacteria both isolated from curated 酒曲 and from spontaneous fermentation through our koelship. We have also started isolating yeast strains off of our own honey and use them in the fermentation of honey into mead. I think whoever reads this blog can see how and why Great Leap is so excited about this program. It gives us the flexibility to experiment with different fermentation methods far away from our clean fermentation breweries in the city. The equipment that we are using for this project is a 300 liter Chinese built brewhouse that we initially purchased for our failed distribution project in 2011. Anyone who is interested in that story can go hear and listen to an in-depth podcast that I did with Kaiser Kuo of Sinica in 2015. We had a new six-barrel fermentation vessel and six-barrel bright tank built by Allied Beverage Tank via Harbin Hande and had our favorite stainless steel engineer build China’s first Koelship since the original Qingdao Brewery ran a koelship for wort cooling a hundred years ago. For mixed fermentation maturation, we rehabilitated twenty-eight Arran Malt Scotch Whisky Barrels.
The process of using wood for mixed fermentation has been part tradition and part economics in the recent renaissance of mixed fermentation and sour beer production. First, Belgian traditionalists believe that the lactic acid bacteria that are naturally present in most oak wood barrels and foeders gives a unique characteristic to sour beers. Keep in mind that souring is as much the presence of total acidity on the palate as it is the level of pH that makes sour beer resilient to certain “bad” bacteria during the enterobacterial stage of fermentation. If your wort is prepared at a pH level of 4 or below, your sour beer will be more resilient to bad bacteria beer spoilers and will be a perfect breeding ground for “good” lactic acid strains. Wood is a perfect environment for this kind of influence as long as your beer has been prepared and brewed properly. The second economical part of the implementation of wood in a mixed fermentation program is that wood is cheaper than stainless steel and therefore is a better vessel for the maturation of long hold tertiary fermented sour beers. The process of rehabilitating barrels is the subject of another blog, but my favorite brewing process instructor at VLB once told me that stainless steel is proof that god loves us and wants us to be happy, because working with wood and cooperage is proof that he hates us.
(Sidenote: There are many different kinds of sour beers in the international history of beer production. To simplify, I personally think it’s OK to divide sour beers into two categories; kettle soured and fermentation soured. Kettle soured beers are interesting in that they use either a lab produced lactic acid strain bacteria culture or and sometimes even easier a yoghurt starter. You basically brew your wort post lauter and intentionally dose bacteria on the hot side in the boil kettle and let it sour over a 48-72 hour period of time, ideally under anaerobic conditions, and then use your boil to kill any bacterial life cycle with heat. This gives a tart sourness but protects the rest of your brewery operations from infection through the application of heat. The other way to sour beers is a less industrial approach that resembles that of wine production, utilizing wood and bacterial cultures in active fermentation or in tertiary maturation. This is both harder to control and less predictable than kettle souring and produces beers that are more similar to those popular in Belgium and northern Europe, namely Lambic and Geuze style beers.)
So, what does this mean for Great Leap Brewing? Not much really, it’s a cool project and is an attempt to take China craft beer forward another step and define what might be a truly unique style of sour beers that are built off of Chinese indigenous bacteria and traditional Chinese alcohol fermentation agents. It’s a popular thing to try and recreate an “ancient” style of beer. Makes for good social media content, but its arguable that since no one is around to validate the sensory validity of ancient beers that are brewed with modern technology, because, you know, those people are all dead. But what is worth the time of innovative Chinese craft breweries is the application of the rich and storied tradition of alcohol production to the growing sour beer market and see how they stand up against traditional and new wave offerings.