NANJING — The father of China’s craft beer revolution got his start on bar stools in Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts.
Gao Yan, who remembers when he had to persuade bartenders to stock Sam Adams, watched the rise of American microbrews over his 14 years in New England. He returned to China in 2007 determined to duplicate that success.
Now Gao produces more than 100,000 cases a year of Baby IPA and Jasmine Tea Lager. He’s coined the Chinese word for stout, shitao. His home-brewing book sold 20,000 copies. Gao just opened his third pub and hopes to soon export two of his beers for sale back in Boston.
China is the largest beer consumer in the world, although the majority of drinkers opt for $1 bottles of watery Tsingtao over $8 pints of IPA. But consumers here are starting to demand a more complex beverage, thanks to an expanding middle class with expanding palates, and the influence of social media. Customers pack into a handful of Beijing microbreweries, and most major cities count at least one brewpub.
Gao, and the many brewers he’s influenced, are determined to prove Chinese craft beer can hold its own.
“I’ve seen people go from zero to big,” said Gao, standing behind 16 taps at his new pub, with exposed brick and an industrial vibe. “I thought I could do the same thing in China. So we did.”
Gao, 48, arrived in Providence in 1993, with a new master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Puerto Rico. He worked for Polaroid, then started his own companies, including a computer shop and an online electronics store. He also pursued a second master’s in business administration at Bryant College in Smithfield, got bored, and dropped it.
But he did learn about the complexities of hops and the camaraderie that begets beer brewing.
Over nearly a decade and a half, Gao and his friends would pub hop on quests for the latest beer. He began brewing in his apartment’s kitchen, mostly to figure out the Sam Adams recipe.
“He used to educate bartenders when we went out in Providence and Fall River about how the beer was made and why it tasted like that versus other beers on tap,” said his longtime friend Tobias Stapleton, director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. The two met at the incubator Stapleton now leads, when Gao ran a power supply company.
Stapleton calls Gao “a larger-than-life” character. In person, he combines graciousness with casual irreverence. His brewer’s knowledge and joking nature helped earn the nickname that he turned into a brand: Master Gao.
Gao returned to China to run a pharmaceutical research firm. But he couldn’t sate his thirst for a good beer and could find none. So in 2008, Gao set up a brewery in his hometown of Nanjing, China’s former imperial capital located up the Yangtze River from Shanghai. He labeled the beer Master Gao.
It didn’t start well. Gao struggled to find hops. In China, beer came with food; few enjoyed the pleasure of the drink alone. A friend let him borrow taps at his bar, but only a handful of regulars drank his concoctions.
“Very few people understood why we brewed such nasty beer,” Gao said.
He wanted to take America’s beer philosophy and blend Chinese characteristics. He brewed a milder, less grassy IPA, an ale infused with sweet potato, and a stout made with Tibetan barley.
Gao now sells the beers in a pub he opened this summer, set inside a historic gray-brick complex near the city center. And he just completed his latest project: a documentary that recreates the world’s first brew.
China might deserve more credit for its beer production. Researchers recently unearthed evidence from the Shaanxi province of a 5,000-year-old beer-brewing operation. Its modern beer history has European influence. German colonists established Tsingtao Brewery in the early 1900s. A Russian businessman started the Harbin Brewery in 1900 to fuel workers building the Trans-Manchurian Railway.
The low-alcohol beers go well with oily, spicy food.
“In some parts of rural China, it’s cheaper to drink beer than water,” said Shaun Rein, founder of Shanghai-based China Market Research Group. “It’s always been a poor man’s beverage.”
In the United States, craft beer makes up 12 percent of the market; in China, it barely registers.
Tsingtao and Snow — among the top 10 most popular beers in the world — are state-owned enterprises. China Resources Snow Breweries took 27 percent of the Chinese beer market last year, according to the China Alcoholic Drinks Association, an industry trade group. Anheuser-Busch InBev, which owns Harbin, claimed 17 percent, and Tsingtao around 16 percent. China has no data for craft beer, let alone a definition of it.
Breweries can’t sell bottled beer unless they package a minimum of 12,000 bottles an hour. This makes it tough for startups, and officials shut down Gao’s brewery in 2011. He now contracts with a larger brewer.
Gao tried beer festivals and colorful album-type labels to promote his brews. But he saw a significant shift four years ago with the development of social media in China. “Before I couldn’t find anyone,” he said. “Then, everyone just popped up.”
It unleashed a torrent of curious beer drinkers, who asked for brewing advice and hunted down his beer. Gao launched a homebrew competition that has become a national event.
Rein, the researcher, attributes the craft-beer explosion to the increasing number of Chinese who studied abroad. “These are young consumers who want to show they’re more sophisticated and are buying something different,” he said.
Chimay and floral Belgium beers now pop up on store shelves, and some bigger city bars serve well-known brews from the United States, including Dogfish Head and Ballast Point.
Rein estimates the industry will see around 25 percent growth annually over the next five years. Meanwhile, sales of traditional beers are declining.
“Consumption is changing,” said He Yong, deputy secretary general of the China Alcoholic Drinks Association, who calculated a 4.9 percent drop last year in total consumption. “Now people focus on enjoying beer.”
Gao only recently turned a profit. He’s watched as other craft brewers, such as Boxing Cat of Shanghai, win international awards. He still sees more customers from outside his hometown.
But few can dispute Gao’s influence on a generation of brewers who read his suggestions and use his vocabulary in their own productions.
That was evident on a recent Saturday morning in the tiny upstairs loft of Beijing’s new Peiping Machine Taphouse. Fifteen hopeful home-brewers squeezed among kegs for a six-hour lesson on Belgian wheat beer.
“In China almost all the brewers know [Gao’s] book,” said Li Wei, president of the Beijing Homebrewing Society and the bar’s owner. “He’s everybody’s teacher.”
Stapleton, Gao’s former drinking buddy, caught up with his friend at a popular brewpub in Beijing this summer — where he watched the bartender sneak photos of Gao.
“That was kind of when I knew Yan had made it,” he said. “It will be interesting to see his beer in the US. He’ll have made a full circle at that point.”