A couple weeks ago we held a beer festival in Beijing. The reaction from the growing craft beer community was not surprising. Some accused us of racism because at the end of the sessions we asked people to leave, some people got really hammered and had a good time, and some people tried to steal then got caught and tried to lie about stealing from us. (This is a common occurrence. Usually it’s some jackass that tries to stay from one session to the next without paying; sometimes it’s some jackass who tries to steal beer.) For the most part, it was a special fest and the attendees had a great time and the reps from breweries were blown away by what they saw and how Beijing treated them.
One person in particular commented on his blog that the fest was obviously a labor of love (true) from which we don’t make any profit (true) and that it was the result of leadership from Great Leap that refuses to do things any other way but the way we think is right (true). He continued saying something that made me think I haven’t made myself completely clear. He states that he sees that Great Leap is different, he wants to believe in what we’re doing, and he knows I believe in what I believe, but he doesn’t actually understand what that is, or more importantly, why I’m so adamant to run Great Leap the way I do.
The reason our beer festival is different is that we aren’t doing it for any other reason than wanting Chinese craft beer to be better. For the most part, Chinese craft beer has been missing the point for years. It’s no one’s fault, maybe it’s my fault actually, but for the sake of this blog let’s just say no one is directly to blame. It’s more of an issue of timing and perspective than negligence. In my opinion, it has to do with the fact that every Chinese craft beer brand right now other than Boxing Cat and Great Leap started after John Hall sold Goose Island to Anheuser Busch for 58 million USD.
(I want to make this super clear. Master Gao’s, as a brand, is not 10 years old. It’s about 6 years old. Gao Yan, inspired by the original brewmaster for Boxing Cat, Gary Heyne, has been brewing in China for 10 years, but his first brand – “Oktoberfest” – hasn’t existed since 2012 and his second brand – “Master Gao” – doesn’t get to say it’s 10 years old just because Gao Yan started both. Boxing Cat and Great Leap have been around since 2008 and 2010, respectively. Reberg “had the idea” in 2009 but didn’t brew anything until 2011. For the sake of humility, I am more than happy to learn about whichever other brands started in China before Goose Island sold in 2011. I like learning.)
The sale of Goose Island to Anheuser Busch marked a sea change for international craft beer. It showed you could sell, for real money, and go on and do something else. In this case Greg Hall, son of John Hall, after he pissed in a pint glass and called it the next great AB Goose Island creation (true story!), went off and created a cider brand that he then sold to ABI as well.
Breweries that started before this happened most likely didn’t start because they thought they were going to sell for millions of dollars. However, you can bet your ass that most of the breweries that were founded after 2011 had this in the back, or the front, of their mind. This is why China’s craft beer development is so important. Within six years of this happening, numerous other craft beer brands sold to numerous other entities with money to buy them, in some cases for record breaking amounts. This includes my brothers at Boxing Cat in Shanghai, who sold to ABI in 2017 for an undisclosed but often exaggerated amount. It’s hard to find someone who isn’t either in craft beer in China to sell or who doesn’t want to get into craft beer in China for the sole purpose of selling.
Even the ones that took to social media to criticize Boxing Cat and decry commercial beer’s influence in the global craft market still want that money. They still took the meetings. They still tried their best to fit into the global brand vision of 3G capital. Even if their boiler plate branding was un-trade-mark-able, they still fucking tried to sell out. I didn’t. I couldn’t tolerate being within ten feet of ABI’s business advancement team. I don’t high five them at trade shows, and I don’t like their dumb fucking posts about whatever dumb fucking thing they have copied from more creative breweries. The reason why I arrange panels to discuss why they are not a partner to craft breweries and why transparency should be mandated by law is because of how obviously they represent everything that is wrong with commercialism. We aren’t friends, and for the good reason that I want to build up what they want to disrupt.
Watersheds in time and history give perspective, but they don’t necessarily create barriers. Post-2011 breweries, craft beer drinkers, and media can still understand the idea of wanting to do something to make a change. To create something that inspires people and rips down stereotypes. This is why I care so much. This is what drives me like a lunatic to travel hundreds of thousands of miles around the world to advocate for all of us in Chinese craft. It’s what makes me speak at conferences and sit on technical committees from Saigon to Berlin to Kalamazoo. It’s what makes me lose sleep at night and gives me the highest sense of accomplishment and gratitude.
You think that it’s normal to convince all of the brewery reps that descended onto Beijing last week to put their trust into Great Leap and let us show them the potential in this great city? You think it’s normal to see Mikkel Borg Bjoersø pouring his own beers at a festival in Asia two years in a row? You think he joins a panel discussion…at all, let alone with David Sipes, John Mallet, Chris Lennert and Kate Brankin? Legends. All of them. That festival happened because Great Leap’s reputation in the international craft beer community has been earned. Great Leap Brewing’s success exists because we don’t compromise. Nevertheless, in order to feel normal for one week out of the year we are happy to spend the time and money it takes to get all of those breweries in one place.
One of the most gratifying things you can witness is the simultaneous excitement and happiness of consumers when they know they aren’t about to get ripped off. Those are the moments that show why I care. Those are the moments when the self aggrandizing craft beer “leaders” have to stand in line next to your average consumer and wait their turn just to remember why they attach themselves to craft beer in the first place. Beautiful. All of it.
2018 will be a year that changes the face of Chinese craft beer, and it will take more people caring to push us through the hard bits and to pinch off the dead parts before we can see what our real trajectory is. We have the potential to make the greatest and most creative beers in the history of the world, but first we must start to care. We need to want more than cheap social media attention or meaningless photo ops. We need to learn more, gain inspiration from those that came before us, and actually give a shit about the biology and science that makes our way of life possible. More will choose the easy path and walk that road with the other lemmings right off the cliff. But for those of you who choose to walk with Great Leap, I promise we’ll see a view from the mountain top that will stop time itself. It’s now that we must try and make China the greatest success story in the history of the brewing industry. Cut the shit, or get out of our way.