Jing A’s bar is located in the expat-heavy bar district of Sanlitun, where it is joined by a handful of other brewery taprooms, along with countless bars whose fridges are stocked full of imports like Rogue and Brewdog. But the birthplace of craft beer in Beijing is a few miles away, in a small grey brick house in a hutong whose history stretches back several hundred years. That’s where I meet Carl Setzer, who opened Great Leap Brewing in 2010 with his wife, Liu Fang. He is sitting in the courtyard patio next to the trunk of a poplar tree whose leaves are rustling in the wind.
“That’s where it started,” he says, pointing to a shed nearby. Great Leap’s first two beers were the Honey Ma Gold, a blonde ale made with floral Sichuan peppercorns, and the Cinnamon Rock Candy Ale, made with Chinese candied sugar. Since then, the brewery has expanded to two new brewpubs, with a suite of distinctive beers, including many made with tea—a tricky feat, since brewing beer with tea often results in unwanted astringency.
But it isn’t tea that Setzer has on his mind; it’s hops. Great Leap is one of the only craft breweries to rely heavily on Chinese-grown hops, especially the indigenous Qingdao Flower hops, which have a floral aroma and a creamy, almost melon-like flavor. I’m drinking a pint of Hop God Imperial IPA, a showcase for Qingdao Flower. Setzer jabs his finger at my drink. “This is Chinese—Chinese malt, Chinese hops,” he says. “We didn’t start using imported hops until later. I’m still the only brewery in China that believes in Qingdao Flower hops.”
If it seems like Setzer has a chip on his shoulder, it’s because he does. “People call me the Beer Dictator,” he says. For years, he has called out unprofessional practices among Chinese craft brewers, like misrepresenting production output, that could turn off customers and scare away future investors. He tells anyone who will listen that China’s other craft brewers aren’t doing enough to make their beer, well, Chinese. That goes beyond adding tea or chun pei or chestnuts to a brew; it means developing the same kind of high-quality infrastructure that craft brewing has in the United States, from malt production to hop growing to production and distribution.
If it’s just a commodity, they’re going to treat it like shit
Setzer has reason to be discouraged. He tells me that he recently switched from using pelletized Qingdao Flower hops to whole dried hop flowers, which are delivered compressed into a bale. “When you’re breaking apart the pressed flower, you’re finding cigarette butts and stones, pieces of metal and shit,” he says. “You’re like, okay, if I’m finding it in the compressed bale, then it’s definitely going through the hammer mill and getting into the pellets.”
He found out why when he visited China’s isolated hop-growing region in September. “They’re cutting down the hop bines and dragging them across dirty floors. It goes to the long-term attention to quality and love of what the process is. If it’s just a commodity, they’re going to treat it like shit.”
Chinese hops are grown in the country’s far northwest, in poor regions that haven’t seen much investment. Flood-based irrigation limits yields, pickers damage hops and hop bines are stunted growers don’t have the right equipment to harvest the tall bines needed to produce the most flavorful, aromatic hops.
“If you go to Yakima Valley, every farm is totally automated. In China, they hand pick them in the field, or they hand cut them and drag them, losing 20 percent of the flower,” Setzer says. “It’s a very eye-opening realization that if it’s not a development zone outside a first-tier city that they use for marketing, it’s going to be 50 year old technology that nobody cares about, and there’s only one guy in the entire region who knows how to fix it because he’s the one who took the training course when they bought the equipment.”
Setzer says industrial brewers don’t care because they don’t use many hops in their beer, so it’s up to China’s craft brewers to ensure that the country’s hops are up to snuff. Global demand for hops has never been higher, but this year’s hop harvest in Europe and the United States was poor. Chinese craft brewers might soon have no alternative but to use Chinese hops—if they can address the issue of quality. “There’s a massive opportunity here to just give the proverbial finger to anybody that thinks that China needs to cower in the wake of international craft beer,” Setzer says. “We’re sitting on what everybody wants.”
It’s heavy stuff, but Setzer’s mood brightens when the conversation turns to the potential of Chinese beer. “The success we’ve had has inspired a lot of brewers to be more brave,” he says. Earlier this year, he imported some kegs of Young Master Ales to Great Leap. “When I see Rohit do something similar [to us] but incredibly specific to Hong Kong, I swell with pride. It’s amazing.”
Drinkers seem to appreciate the effort too. When I get back to Hong Kong from Beijing, I learn that Young Master has released a new collaboration beer with Shanghai’s Boxing Cat Brewery: the Four Leaves IPA, made with makrut lime leaves. “It’s like how dish soap smells, but in a really good way,” says James Ling when I order a glass at TAP.
I take a sip. It’s an oddball beer, with a hoppy bitterness that gives way to the pronounced zing of lime leaves. As it warms, I can taste the distinctive flavour of Sorachi Ace—lemony and savory, like dill pickles. It’s very good. And I can’t imagine drinking it anywhere else.
CORRECTION: This article originally stated that the Young Master Ales Cha Chaan Teng Gose contained bacteria derived from Yakult. In fact, it was an early version of the beer that used Yakult, but the final version was made with bacteria from another source.