Three years ago, a small group of Chinese craft brewers met in a small second floor conference room at a restaurant in Nanjing. What we were discussing was something of such future importance that were we aware at the time we would have taken ourselves much more seriously. This was the start of China’s first craft brewer’s association.
Out of everyone that attended that first meeting, only nine of the brands had even been around for longer than three years. Those brands would eventually make up the provisional Board of Directors. (This is an important point that we’ll get to in a bit.) A vocal minority could see what was about to happen in Chinese beer, China craft, and international economics.
The first topic discussed was dues. Money. Membership fees. We all weren’t sure why, however it became clear that dues were needed in order to hire a General Secretary. A Chairman. A leader. Most craft brewers don’t like being led. It’s why most people are attracted to craft beer. Being told what to do sucks. Young trade associations don’t need a leader; rather, they need consensus and a definition of purpose. However, it became very clear that in order to reach that goal, it was going to take a lot of effort. We walked away from that first meeting with an idea of where we stood in terms of a range of opinions and stances. From that, we built an agenda. A salaried chairperson was exchanged for a provisional board. The dream of a sponsored and supported association was exchanged for a legal entity established in Hong Kong. The definition was set similar to the United States Brewer’s Association with some Chinese caveats:
1. Zero percent ownership by commercial beer.
2. 500,000hL yearly maximum production.
3. A professional brewer using Chinese water who produces beer in China.
4. Legal. Legally able to do business in good standing and be able to issue tax receipts for goods and services sold.
These defining characteristics were not necessarily easy to agree to. The original proposal was to mimic the US definition that allows for a maximum 25% ownership of your brewery by a commercial brewing entity. 0% was also proposed, and the reasoning was simple. The American Brewer’s Association gradually worked up to 25%, and so should we. We start at 0% and as an association make compromises in our own best interests, but we shouldn’t sell our souls before they have any value. That makes us naive and dumb. The majority of those present supported that idea and were excited by what it meant as well as the message it sent forth.
The rest of the discussions were quite easy, that is until we got back to the nagging question of who makes decisions for us. Who leads our group? The idea of a commissioner or a paid chairperson came back up. This would’ve killed us, but fortunately it did not come to fruition. The hardest thing that we all walked away with was that we were too young for a hired leader. We needed a board. We needed consensus. We had an opportunity to move forward, put our pettiness aside, and work for a better future. We had senior leadership who had seen craft beer grow in China and gain identity. Our board should be comprised of people whose experience could help guide us to some sort of positive organization.
For membership, egalitarianism is fundamental, but for leadership, only a naive fool thinks the absence of experience is in some way equal to its presence. Because of this, we decided that three years was enough of a requirement for a seat on the provisional board. So there you have it. We met, we discussed. We walked away with consensus and definition. We walked away with shared leadership. Nevertheless, for the next two years we struggled to find trust in each other or in our collective intentions.
We met another two times as a provisional board and set up a nonprofit association in Hong Kong with Gao Yan (Master Gao’s), Lee Tseng (Boxing Cat), and myself as the three shareholders. We drafted content and were ready to open up for membership. Then something happened in early 2017 that would put our best intentions on hold for over a year. We lost, by our own definition, one of our most senior members and calming voices. After one phone call in the spring of 2017, Lee Tseng told me personally – and soon the entire industry – that Boxing Cat Brewery had agreed in terms with ABInBev to be acquired.
What we were left with as an association was apathy. If the end game is to sell to a commercial brewery, then why agree to be a part of a trade association that will eventually exclude you post acquisition? We also experienced bitterness. It’s easy to do nothing. It’s easy to complain, to backbite, start rumors, and blame otherness. We had opened membership, asked for dues, and then did nothing. At the very moment when we should have said with a clear voice that we will define ourselves and we will continue to support small independent craft breweries, our own organization fell victim to discouragement. The result was silence and lethargy.
After an 18-month silence, the Craft Beer Association of China decided once again that something needed to be done, we just didn’t know what that should be. After a meeting in Kunming that was not totally unlike that initial meeting in Nanjing three years earlier, we made the commitment to regain the trust of our members and all those that meet our definition of craft beer in China. We’ll do this by actually doing something.
The plan for the next twelve months is for the CBAC to open membership for one year to anyone that qualifies and signs up, free of dues. We will then organize and sponsor a craft beer festival in Beijing that will be China’s only truly independent craft beer fest for consumers to come and try Chinese craft beer without any importers or distributors in attendance. Think of it as a first attempt at a Great Chinese Beer Festival. Preparation is already underway. We currently have 30 breweries signed up and the date of the festival set for November 16-18, 2018.
Members who opt to join for the 2018-2019 year will be invited to attend and represent their beer in person. In place of dues for their membership, we simply ask for support. Send eighty liters of your best beer and come to the fest with the hope that your participation and presence will add more value than at any other time in the short history of Chinese craft beer. The profit from the festival will become the budget for future events for the 2018-19 year. If we join together and make this a success, then we will have the fiscal means to sponsor a nationwide CBAC sanctioned beer competition, a trade show, and an education summit.
All of us – every member of the CBAC – know that we could have done better three years before. We also could have done better after Boxing Cat’s acquisition. But we are happy to say that our future is still our own and we hope that others in the Chinese craft beer community will come and join the CBAC and make it clear with a unified loud voice that Chinese craft beer will be defined by those who have sacrificed the most to make it a reality.
IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: There are still spots available for the CBAC festival in November. If you are interested in joining the CBAC and attending, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org