China - over 1.3 billion population
China! Still a mysterious Asian country for a lot of people. The rules and laws are very different to what we are used to in many other countries and I am telling you, they are very difficult to understand - that makes it very difficult for outsiders to enter the market. Also, the way many Chinese do business relies very much on their “social networks”. Networking plays a very important part in their business, so if you don't live there and you can't speak or read their language it’s tough to communicate and virtually impossible to build a network. That makes growing a business there even harder. But of course, if it was easy, everybody would be doing it. But China, surely, is the most exciting country everyone is looking at it now.
The over 1.3 billion population in China is not an exaggerated number. Name a city you know, Shanghai and Beijing, each has over 20 million population, Chengdu is almost 15 million, Shenzhen is over 12 million. Chongqing, the highest population in China has 28 Million! These cities in China already have higher population than many countries. So if you are planning to export your craft beer to China, my advise is don't think about doing the whole China at once. Start with city by city. Treat a city as a single country. In fact, this is very true, each city in China has its own culture, living habitat, eating and drinking habitat. Or even different languages, for example, Cantonese in Hong Kong, Shanghaiese in Shanghai. If you are a brewery, you should consider yourself lucky if you can manage to find an importer or distributor for just one city. Apart from the high population, The Chinese drinking culture also makes the consumption of craft beer in a very high quantity - you will be amazed how much craft beer the Chinese can drink.
Education plays an important role in the Future
Beer is not a new thing to China. The Chinese are said to have been drinking it for 9,000 years! The first beers were brewed from rice, honey, grape and other fruits. Nowadays the drinking culture in China is very well established. Apart from breakfast, they will drink alcohol with every meal. Especially beer; beer comes second only to tea as the most consumed beverage in China, and that means they are drinking a lot of beer! The reason is because beer is very drinkable, casual, with bubbles, can drink it fast. Most importantly beer suits the Chinese "Bottom Up" culture. When the Craft Beer revolution came it rode very comfortably on the back of this culture.
You would see people getting drunk by drinking craft beer because they drank it like commercial beer, they don’t know much about craft beer in the very first beginning. The complexity, relatively higher alcohol content compared to the commercial beer meant they drank very fast and that made them got drunk very easily.
But now the Chinese are learning fast, young consumers know what craft beers are, what an IPA is, what a Stout is, what a Belgian Tripel is, they are more educated, they know the beer styles, they understand what they are drinking. But of course, they still have a long way to go if compared to the U.S., but they will get there very fast. You can see many new craft beer taprooms opening and craft beer bottle shops are popping up in many places.
So many craft beer styles are now appearing on the market, in fact the IPA and Imperial Stout are two of the most popular beer styles in the country according to a research from a Chinese craft beer advocate app. This research had picked the top 500 most scored craft beer which are rated by the drinkers though the App. 183 out of 500 are IPA’s (37%) and 120 out of the 500 are Imperial Stouts (24%). The result is much clearly in the Top 20 where 17 of them are IPAs or Imperial Stout. So the concept of people living in hot and high humidity countries drinking light beer is not quite right when applied to China. Chinese craft beer drinkers tend to drink complex craft beers with strong aroma and flavour. In the future, education will still plays an important role. There are extremely huge numbers of labels in the craft beer world, therefore teaching people to understand these beers and how to choose what beer to drink is key.
There is still one major issue in the Chinese craft beer market – Oxidization. It is not difficult to find an oxidized craft beer from the refrigerator of a bottle shop. Why? Is it because the electric power is not sufficient? No. It’s because people don’t know how to take care of their craft beer properly. They treat them just as they do commercial beer - they don’t refrigerate and are happy to leave fresh deliveries of bottles or kegs outside in an open area under the Sun. There is a severe shortage of cold-chained transportation and storage. But again, this is going to improve in a very fast way when more BJCP exams taken place in Shanghai and Beijing and the growing Cicerone program educate industry staff of the necessities of a reliable cold-chain.
The Growth of Craft Breweries in China
What about the craft breweries in China? How was it recently? Craft breweries in China have grown by more than 25% in the last couple of years. The names we all properly knew are Jing A, Great Leap Brewery, Boxing Cat Brewery. But now there are many more such as 72 beers, NBeer Pub, N.18 Brewing, Bravo Brewing Co. and Blue Whale Brewery. Unlike some of the other Asia countries, such as Japan, homebrew is not illegal in Hong Kong and China. This is why Microbrewery starts up very rapidly. Most of the brewers, however, don't have academic training and started as home brewers. But you will be amazes how fast they have learnt and the quality of the craft beer are improving day by day! Some of them have already received recognition in major awards and competitions.
Hong Kong as a city has a heavy Western influence and many of its breweries are now well established and ready to export. Hong Kong is the most expensive city to rent factory space in the world so you need a great deal of passion and determination to start a brewery there! The local brewers, being familiar with local ingredients such as longan, tea leave, chili are now starting to experiment with them in their specialty beers. Maybe one day a whole new style will emerge from Hong Kong or China, just like the Italian Grape Ale - why not? This is craft beer! Just as we see more and more imported craft beer brands these days in Hong Kong and China I would not be surprised if in the future we see Hong Kong and Chinese craft brands appear around the World!
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Tomy Fong is a certified BJCP judge and lives in Hong Kong from where he travels on a regular basis to mainland China where he is helping Lion Rock Brewery expand onto the national stage. He is also a beer consultant, writer and craft beer educator.