Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Beijing's microbrewery boom

By Jonathan Levine, for CNN
updated 12:05 AM EDT, Thu June 20, 2013
Bartender serving a glass of beer at the Great Leap bar in Beijing.
Bartender serving a glass of beer at the Great Leap bar in Beijing.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • China is the beer-chugging capital of the world, drinking twice as much as the U.S.
  • Per capita consumption of beer is still half that of Americans, showing room for growth
  • A growing number of foreign-run microbreweries have launched in Beijing
  • Biggest challenge is intellectual property: "If you're not being copied then you're not relevant"

Beijing (CNN) -- Beijing duck, steamed dumplings or a glass of green tea: these are the culinary offerings most associated with China. But beer?

Believe it or not, China is the beer-chugging capital of the world. The Chinese public gulped down 59.3 billion liters of alcohol in 2012 -- nearly double the amount quaffed in the U.S. Beer accounted for 84% of that figure, according to market research firm Euromonitor. Yet per capita, Chinese consumption was only about 35 liters annually -- less than half of the United States, according to Bloomberg -- and still has enormous room to grow.

That has led to a microbrewery boom in Beijing. "There's a whole slew of places that are about to emerge," said Ryan O'Neal Johnston, owner of Beijing's The Drive-Thru Bar. "For anyone interested in anything besides lagers and Tsingtao, it's on."

Enter Carl Setzer, A 31-year old native of Cleveland, Ohio, who had barely touched alcohol until he was 25. After college, he landed in Shiyan, Hubei Province where an agency found him work at Dongfeng Motors. Setzer, an IT specialist, walked away from his lucrative career and jumped into the microbrewery business because he saw a niche. "Never let a market that has a requirement go unsupplied," said Setzer, who opened Great Leap Brewing in October 2010.

Last year, Great Leap grossed $225,000 with China's low operating costs cutting into only about a quarter of that figure.

On a recent Saturday night, the bar's open air courtyard and small anteroom in Doujiao Hutong were standing room only as a flustered bartender struggled to keep glasses full. "The greatest accomplishment is that people come here," said Setzer, who recently opened a second location on Xinzhong Street

Customers at Greap Leap microbrewery on Xinzhong Street in Beijing.
Customers at Greap Leap microbrewery on Xinzhong Street in Beijing.

Expats originally dominated the Beijing microbrewing scene, but that is changing. The clientele has been diversifying rapidly as more Chinese return from stints abroad and with greater levels of disposable income, according to microbrewers.

The growing appeal to locals, however, may have more to do with the product itself. Great Leap infuses traditional Chinese ingredients with time-honored brewing techniques. Drinks like the "Iron Buddha," blended with hints of Tieguanyin tea or the "Cinnamon Rock Ale" incorporating Chinese "large bark cinnamon." The "Honey Ma Gold," Great Leaps most popular, is infused with the mouth-numbing essence of the Sichuan Peppercorn (huajiao). All sell for between 30 and 50 RMB ($4.89 -- $8.15) a glass.

Success has bred competition. Chandler Jurinka opened Slowboat brewery in February 2012 with distribution to various expat friendly hotels, restaurants and bars, and followed up with the Slowboat Taproom in Dongsibatiao Hutong in December.

"I've always been someone who recognized and valued quality," said Jurinka, a former U.S. Army Sergeant from Washington D.C. Jurinka, 46, first came to China in 1994 as a student at the University of Nanjing and after an 11-year hiatus bounced around the Chinese start-up world before settling into his latest venture with Slowboat.

Offering a more traditional selection of homebrews, Slowboat's popular brands are The Captain's Pale Ale, Jack Tar Scottish Ale and Imperial Vanilla Stout. Jurinka, too, is looking to capitalize on soaring Chinese demand. But Slowboat uses mostly imported ingredients, catering to the popular belief that foreign food products are superior to domestic.

Microbrews in Beijing are more than just keeping glasses full. Great Leap and Slowboat are both based deep within traditional Beijing residential "hutong" neighborhoods and have paid particular attention to adapting their presence seamlessly to locals. "Strangers in hutongs are never welcome," said Setzer. Great Leap maintains a strict midnight closing and even earlier hours in summer and during university exams, while Slowboat made their space (almost) completely soundproof. Both men too have married into Chinese families and are currently raising their own.

Community relations is just one of the unique challenges that both face as small business owners in Beijing. Laws and regulations are often ambiguous and Setzer admitted that "you have to make use of personal connections" to get things done.

For Slowboat, the biggest challenge came in the form of intellectual property. "If you're not being copied then you're not relevant," said Jurinka, who said he required "constant and rapid innovation" to stay ahead of the curve. Jurinka estimated that eight to 10 new microbreweries were about to emerge. "Sometimes they come in here and they are taking pictures of the tiles on the wall."

At the recent 2013 Beijinger Magazine Reader Bar and Club awards, it was a banner night for Great Leap which swept several categories including "Bar of the Year," "Best Local Craft Brewing" and "Personality of the Year," for the famously cantankerous Setzer. Not to be outdone, Slowboat received the "Best New Bar" award.

Jurinka, though, said he is focused on the big picture. "Slowboat is not in competition with any other local brewery," he said. "There are 20 million people in this city and the more local Beijing breweries, the greater the likelihood that there will be a craft beer revolution in Beijing."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
See CNN's complete coverage on China.
updated 3:12 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
All you need to know about the tainted meat produce that affects fast food restaurants across China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
updated 10:30 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Some savvy individuals in China are claiming naming rights to valuable foreign brands. Here's how companies can combat them.
updated 5:11 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Is Xi Jinping a true reformist or merely a "dictator" in disguise? CNN's Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz dissects the leader's policies
updated 11:44 PM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
With a population of 1.3 billion, you'd think that there would be 11 people in China who are good enough to put up a fight on the football pitch.
updated 2:31 AM EDT, Fri July 4, 2014
26-year-old Ji Cheng is the first rider from China to compete for competitive cycling's highest honor.
updated 7:24 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, may not yet be a household name outside of China, but that could be about to change.
updated 12:14 AM EDT, Fri July 4, 2014
Hong Kong's narrow streets were once a dazzling gallery of neon, where banks and even bordellos plied their trade under sizzling tubular signs.
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
When President Xi Jinping arrives in Seoul this week, the Chinese leader will have passed over North Korea in favor of its arch rival.
updated 7:59 AM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
Three more officials have been given the chop as part of China's anti-corruption drive, including former aides to the retired security chief.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
As thousands of Hong Kongers prepare for an annual protest, voices in China's press warn pro-democracy activism is a bad idea.
updated 12:37 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
Hong Kongers are demanding the right to directly elect their next leader, setting up a face-off with Beijing.
updated 2:56 AM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
The push for democratic reform in Hong Kong is testing China's "one country, two systems" model.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
Along a winding Chinese mountain road dotted with inns and restaurants is Jinan Orphanage, a place of refuge and site for troubled parents to dump unwanted children.
updated 4:36 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
CNN's Kristie Lu Stout invites Isaac Mao, Han Dongfang, and James Miles to discuss the rise of civil society in China and social media's crucial role.
updated 11:34 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
Chen Guangbiao wants rich people to give more to charity and he'll do anything to get their attention, including buying lunch for poor New Yorkers.
updated 7:44 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
Architects are planning to build the future world's tallest towers in China. They're going to come in pretty colors.
updated 7:47 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
Anna Coren visits Yulin's annual dog meat festival. Dogs are part of the daily diet here, with an estimated 10,000 dogs killed for the festival alone.
updated 2:38 AM EDT, Thu June 19, 2014
People know little about sex, but are having plenty of it. We take a look at the ramifications of a lack of sex education in China.
updated 4:12 AM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
Hong Kongers have reacted angrily to a Chinese government white paper affirming Beijing's control over the territory.
The emphasis on national glory -- rather than purely personal achievement -- is key.
updated 12:14 PM EDT, Mon June 16, 2014
A replica of the Effel Tower in Tianducheng, a luxury real estate development located in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang province.
What's the Eiffel Tower doing in China? Replica towns of the world's most famous monuments spring up all over China.
updated 8:13 PM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
Rapid development hasn't just boosted the economy -- it has opened up vast swathes of the country, says a man who has spent much of his life exploring it.
updated 2:54 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
The World Cup is apparently making a lot of people "ill" in China.
ADVERTISEMENT