When we started Great Leap Brewing, Liu Fang and I didn’t expect much. I was working in a job that no longer appealed to me, and Liu Fang was 10 weeks pregnant with our son. It wasn’t a calculated decision. For those reading this who are weighing whether or not to quit their job and become and entrepreneur while expecting a child… don’t. It’s a stupid decision and you can wait a year to make your move. We originally built out our #6 location to serve as, what my former employer would’ve described as the “Hut”. There is a bar in Santa Clara, California that shares the same name. My former CEO, quite possibly one of the most gregarious and jovial guys that I’ve ever met, insisted that he relive his college experience and establish a “Hut” in every city where he had business operations. As the General Manager of his China office and Director of East Asian Operations, it was my responsibility that there was a place in Beijing that served as a base for social whatnot.
I couldn’t find that amongst the bars that were in operation at the time. That’s not to say that there weren’t great bars for Beijing in 2009. I could name a few, but most are closed. They just weren’t that cool to guys that were coming from Seoul, Dallas, SFO, and DC. They were good for Beijing. There was a difference between good for Beijing and just good because its actually good. During the process of trying to find a place to entertain information security nerds and colleagues, I also realized that I didn’t like paying a premium for beers that were so old that they had already lost my respect. That’s the origin story of #6. A story of pivoting. I started making beer at home and liked that process more than my actual job and we found a spot that we could make a home away from home for my peers. The fact that that location was right in the middle of two of Beijing’s best foot traffic areas was not really a factor for Liu Fang or I at the time we signed the lease. We saw it as a quiet place where we could brew some beer and drink with friends during their short reprises in Beijing.
When you get down to brass tacks with most brewery owners around the world, that story is the same. You don’t lay down a ten-year plan to bring craft beer to China. No one in our industry has ever been that strategic. A lot of the origin stories for my peers wreak of desperation and comic book exaggeration. You get a lot of the, “yeah, Great Leap Brewing opened in 2010, but I was already six years into crafting my market study and grand strategy for blowing everyone’s fucking minds!” That’s a real eye rolly statement, but it sounds better in a Chinese cultural context, than admitting “I walked into a place I respected and decided I wanted to do that as well.” In our current market, its better to pretend that a market leader doesn’t exist, in order to avoid having to explain why you aren’t the market leader. The tallest tree in the forest needs to be cut down, as it were.
But that isn’t why craft beer is so appealing every where else in the world. Its appealing in every market where it has truly taken root because it gives the consumer that there is a sense of community and a connection to the idea of “local.” Craft beer for the most part is the extension of wanting something better. Its not about wanting money. Money is a pleasant byproduct of years of loss and frustration. I often say that if you are looking to make great beer, you’ll make money, if you are getting into craft beer to make money, you won’t make either. There are relatively no limitations in craft beer on giving it a try and jumping right in. As an industry, internationally, we need to demand not only quality, but respect, and not only respect from the international community, but from each other. Every time I repeat how we started, I do it out of respect for everyone that supported us at the beginning and everyone since. Every time I read fairy tale of exaggerated none sense I can feel the chains as we all get held back another year or two from experiencing what Chinese craft beer can truly be one day. Its disrespectful to lie about who you are or what you are doing. It makes us all look like amateurs.
It’s a quagmire by definition though. I come from a culture and society that encourages justice and peer evaluation. Modern China is a different beast. You lose face if you point out that someone else is lying or exaggerating. You also open yourself up for manufactured criticism and ostracization. You can’t ruin other people’s fun. Especially if you aren’t welcome in the first place. I gave a tour to a group of peers when we opened our #12 location three years ago and out of the three that asked for the tour, one decided to stay behind to have words with Liu Fang. Once I was out of ear shot, in a moment of honesty, she was told that I needed to stop using Chinese ingredients and names in creating our beers. Liu Fang asked for an explanation and she was told that those things belong to Chinese brewers and Carl needs to stop. Liu Fang laughed and explained that she was co-founder and was born in Qu Fu, the birthplace of Confucius himself. He laughed and said those things all washed away the minute she married a foreigner. Since then I’ve found it harder and harder to keep quiet about our place in China’s craft beer market and the relevance and legitimacy that we add to the overall movement. I refuse to let a couple of ignorant amateurs derail or delay the palpable future that China has in the international craft beer marketplace.
So against my better judgment and to the delight of my marketing department, I’m going to write semi-frequently on why I give a shit, what I see, both good and bad, in the current market and why China craft beer matters. Mainly because I’m tired of being upset as children color on the walls of an industry that we built.