Craft beer gets a Chinese twist

It’s close to midnight, and Beijing is shrouded in its usual soupy haze. The low buzz of conversation beckons night owls down Doujiao Hutong, a crooked alley lined with traditional Chinese homes, to the outdoor courtyard of Great Leap Brewing. Diana Bates, an American local news editor eavesdropping over her pint glass, offers her assessment of the crowd. “Heavy on the mountain biking, tattoos and trips to Bali,” she says, noting the preponderance of fellow expats.

But if the brewery’s Cleveland-born founder, Carl Setzer, has his way, that won’t be the case for long. Launched about a year ago, Great Leap Brewing is positioned to take advantage of two seemingly contradictory trends: rising Chinese demand for foreign lifestyle goods and renewed pride in Chinese products. Featuring ingredients like Sichuan peppercorn and oolong tea, GLB’s offerings stand in stark contrast to those of other recently opened Chinese microbreweries, which emphasize their connections to Germany or the U.S.

Of course, China is no stranger to beer. It consumed 44 billion liters in 2010 alone — the most in the world — but its new rich have thus far preferred to bid up vintage bottles of Château Lafite to staggering prices. Setzer is betting that high-quality beer will emerge as a less pretentious alternative for discerning urbanites. “I think that’s what beer is in the States, and I think that’s what beer will be here,” he says.

Setzer knows it may take some time for the premium stuff to catch on. “We get a lot of people who initially think that it’s some sort of fermented wheat wine,” he says. Once they develop the taste, however, “they can’t really drink the big industrial lagers.” China, meet your newest import: the beer snob.