This might be an odd thing to write a blog about, but I’m writing this as a love letter to an industry I love and a farewell to a company that makes me proud. This might be my last blog as an employee of Great Leap Brewing. I’m moving back to lead an exciting new project for the Beijinger, from whence I came. Warning: it’s emotional people, but it’s been an emotional ride.
It’s October, and it’s the perfect time to review the past year and make a New Year’s resolution. I know it’s not December yet, but we count October as the start of a new year at Great Leap by celebrating our anniversary and the annual Karl Long Challenge. At nine years old, there is a lot to be grateful for this year.
Nine years is a long time, a lot has happened, since the humble beginnings in a hutong courtyard back in 2010. Great Leap Brewing has expanded to four locations, we have started a Mixed Fermentation Program at our Great Wall pilot brewery, we’ve launched our production brewery in Tianjin, and started distributing our canned and kegged beers to over 400 places in Beijing and another 300 across China.
It’s been almost a year since I committed solely to beer and joined the Great Leap team, during that time I witnessed a lot of this in real time – the opening of the Tianjin brewing facility, how elegantly Wiebke and the team ran the brewery; Foo Lanxin joined the brewing team and all the lovely beers she has created since, the opening of Lido; the reopening of my personal favorite GLB #12; the launches of various new beers and new dishes, Chili Cook-off; Halloween party; the Chef and the Brewer; 12 Beers of Christmas; CBAC Beer Festival; BICBF…I could go on.
In the past year, I’ve been to a lot of places, I’ve seen a lot of things, I’ve met a lot of people. I naively thought people would react to good craft the same as anywhere else in the world – friendly, supportive, kind, I have underestimated the struggle and how brutal the battle is the Carl and Liu Fang tackle every day. Most shockingly, the resentments are not only from the massive industrial beer brands who try to overtake the entire market constantly, but also from our own peers, some so-called local beer media who refuse to acknowledge anything related to GLB just because we don’t butter them up. In Carl’s word, China craft beer hasn’t found itself, so it copied what it adores from abroad, not knowing that a copy won’t get you far and innovation is the only thing that will ever establish China craft as a world leader.
I can’t recall how many times I was asked, “now you’re working for that asshole, for real?” with a look that I couldn’t understand, which made me feel that I was the unpardonable traitor Wu San’gui, who allied with Prince Dorgon of the Qing and let the Manchu forces through the gates of the Great Wall, at the end of Ming dynasty in 1644. Well, I am a Manchurian, so deal with it.
I remember at a brainless seminar about history of Chinese craft beer in Shanghai, Carl and I went down just to support them, but were disappointed to find since GLB didn’t donate beers to the event, our part in history was mitigated to a footnote. I can’t imagine how Carl felt at that time – angry, furious, disappointed, or was he used to it? To run it in, there were people coming to say hello to me that ignored the presence of this 187cm tall, bearded American guy standing right next to me. They’d rather ignore the fact that he’s devoted himself to this industry. That he and Liu Fang have given their life to encourage China brewers to be better and more brave, especially in the support of local ingredients.
It always confuses me how Carl can be considered a foreign outsider, but at the same time sound like an ardent nationalist who demands the support of Chinese hops and locally malted barley. How many mornings he and Liu Fang jumped on the earliest train to Tianjin, to build the best and eco-friendliest craft brewery in not only China, but also Asia, to set a model to the rest of the industry to be a beacon that lightens everyone’s hope for the future. He has the bravery to stand up and fight against massive corporations, while finding the time to constantly travel around the world to promote Chinese craft beer, attending various tedious meetings trying to push for reformations in the law, while carrying the whole burden on himself to fight for a space not only for a brewery with over 200 employees and their families, but also all the craft breweries in China… Unfortunately, there wasn’t any applause for him, but envy, sneers, and misunderstanding. Honestly, I wonder how he sleeps with such responsibility and such stress. Every time I watched him being insulted and ignored I wanted to cry and give him a hug. But I know a hug is not what Carl needs. He doesn’t care if people demonize him, he needs people to believe in what he believes – that there’s a future for craft beer in China, but only if we fight for it.
Nobody is perfect, Carl isn’t even comfortable with me writing this. But he promised on my way out I could write whatever I want. And this is it. Carl never hides his straightforwardness, he won’t lie just to make you feel better. If he dislikes you, he will probably tell you in person why, in the hopes that he’s wrong or that it can start a dialogue. I’ve seen him do this multiple times to only see the person create a fake smile, run away only to attack him online later. He’s never minded playing that role. His mindset is if they don’t want to have a conversation about a perception or a conflict, then what is the point of having a relationship at all?
The treatment of Liu Fang isn’t less draining than Carl, her assumed role is woman, mother, wife, but never business partner, never co-creator. It’s like the narrative is that he’s an idiot that got lucky in business and she’s just a wife. Her contribution to Great Leap Brewing is equal and impactful on a daily basis, but she would rather watch Carl do his best to educate than tell people what she thinks of them, (believe it or not it’s a bit more harsh that most are prepared for, be happy it’s usually Carl). I’d be crushed long ago if I were her with so little sleep and so much stressful work. Inspiringly, she’s so energetic and sharp-witted all the time. Carl and Liu Fang are like two sound waves with the same frequency that resonate and magnify, they complete each other. I dare to say without Liu Fang, Carl won’t be who he is today, and vice versa.
For me, craft beer is not just a product sitting lifelessly on the shelves or idly on taps, it is alive, it has feelings and memories, it is made by love and demands love. This labor-heavy industry is never going to be the one to make easy money. I can’t agree with William Yeats more that “in dreams begin responsibilities.”
All in all, faith plants the seed, and love makes it grow. I wish everyone could be true to ourselves, join and express our belief in craft beer, just like, as corny as it sounds, every child in every Christmas movie ever made. And I hope Carl’s belief and aspiration will never die. Because if it does, I don’t know what this world will become.