In a poky room in a backstreet of Beijing, self-taught brewer Carl Setzer uses spicy Sichuan peppercorns, oolong tea leaves and cinnamon to invent beer flavours suited to Chinese tastebuds. The burly American runs Great Leap Brewing, one of a small but growing number of micro-breweries in China hoping to entice drinkers in the world’s biggest beer market with their hand-crafted lagers, ales and stouts.
Setzer and other micro-breweries operating in major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai hope to attract China’s growing middle class who like the taste of foreign beer and can afford to pay 15 times the cost of a local brand.
“You’ve got 50 or 60 million beer drinkers in this country — let’s aim at 10 percent of that and see if we can get a market going for people who want something that is a little bit better, a little bit different,” said Setzer.
Setzer, who says his beer has “flavour” and “soul” unlike local brew, produces 800 litres a week for the hundreds of Chinese and foreign expatriate drinkers who stop by his traditional courtyard for a glass of ale.
Ho Punyu, 34, is a regular at Great Leap Brewing after foreign friends introduced him to the bar’s hand-crafted ales a year ago.
“Tsingtao and Yanjing beer taste like water,” Ho, an investment advisor in Beijing, told us, referring to China’s second best selling beer and another brand local to Beijing.
“I look at things in term of value — the taste is good, the price is right.”
Setzer said he is constantly experimenting with local ingredients to come up with new beer flavours to entice more customers to his rustic micro-brewery in central Beijing.
Some of his most successful creations so far are the Iron Buddha Blonde made with oolong tea and the Honey Ma Gold which is made from spicy Sichuan peppercorns and organic honey.
“The Honey Ma is the 33rd attempt … I brewed it 33 different times before I found one that I just loved,” Setzer said, as he sipped a pint of ale.
“The more you do something, the more crazy you want to be.”