To chime in the New Year, we visited Shanghai, China and received a personal tour of Boxing Cat Brewery by the head brewer, Michael Jordan. While sampling some beer right from the fermenters, we learned insights about creating and offering an American craft product in China as well as the challenges of doing business as a foreigner in China.
Shanghai is a non-stop city where East and West are colliding and break-neck speed and there is abundance of business opportunities. My first trip to this dazzling city was in May 2010 with my business school program through Duke’s Cross-Continent MBA Program. I teamed up with some fellow beer geeks/classmates on a quest for good beer. We hit Kaiba on Kangding Road – a laid back, fully-stocked beer bar where I got to try Brooklyn Beer for the first time – and the Bund Brewery – a standard and uninspiring brew pub that serves a dark, lager, and a wheat. Boxing Cat Brewery in the French Concession was the last place on our list. It was near frog design, where I had organized a small corporate tour on a chance meeting at Tony the Tailor with a project lead. Unfortunately, we arrived at Boxing Cat at 3:30pm to learn that they were not open for another 90 minutes. With so much to do and see in Shanghai, we never made it back to Boxing Cat that week.
The brewing facilities is about a 30 minute cab ride outside of Shanghai. We left the city’s bustle and found ourselves in the “suburbs” with chickens on the side of the unpaved roads that reminded me that we were in mainland China. However, as we stepped into the sterile brewing facilities with the familiar malty aroma, we again forgot that we were in a factory in mainland China.
The brewing facilities is a 10 barrel system, which currently produces 1200 barrels per year. This was sufficient to supply the initial restaurant in the French Concession, however there are big plans brewing for Boxing Cat beer. In addition to the second restaurant, which was opened in October 2010, they plan to build a new larger brewery as a production brewery for distribution. However, they need to go through the local government procedures which don’t seem intuitive: first the business applies for the building license, then the government lets the business start construction, finally, the inspections occur for the construction. The whole process is expected to take 6-12 months.
Michael has a fascinating background that demonstrates that beer can take you to some amazing and unexpected places around the world. Originally from Portland, OR, Michael moved to Denmark to work at Bryggeriet S.C. Fuglsang (founded in 1865, producing 25565 barrels per year on an 230 barrel system in addition to 2 malting factories that produces about 160,000 tons of malt per year). After 2 years with Fuglsang, Michael sought a change, but an opportunity in China was not what he imagined. He connected with the Boxing Cat founders, Kelley Lee and Lee Tseng, via BrewingWork.com, an online beer industry forum. Lee and Tseng were trying to take their time time in finding a right headbrewer after the sudden and untimely death of their original brewer. The timing was clearly right as the addition of Michael allowed Boxing Cat to stay on track with the opening of their second restaurant in Sinan Mansions on Fu Xing Road without compromising quality.
Michael had only been in China for 2.5 months when we met him. His stories about producing a foreign product in China were similiar – though always compelling – to the problems I learned from guest speakers from major global corporations in business school: opportunities are abundant in China; it’s difficult to source quality materials locally; it’s difficult to import quality materials because of strict, yet ambiguous regulations. There is no Chinese brewer’s association yet, but there are 6-7 breweries in Shanghai to help with sourcing materials. For Michael, every step is a challenging new discovery. He currently sources his grains from China but is working on a new source from Germany, from which shipping is expensive and the turnaround time is 2 months. Michael needs to order a 6 months supply each time in order to keep the grains fresh. He can order some grains from a domestic company in Jinan, but the quality is not as good.
As for other ingredients: water is double filtrated with added salts. He is currently using German hops, although he’s trying to get hop’s through Yakima Chief’s Hong Kong office. Yeast is an arduous challenge. It is currently being hand-carried from While Labs in Southern California. Chris White has visited with Michael and has indicated that he wants to set up a company in China to manage yeast culturing in China. There is a huge opportunity to cultivate yeast for big and small brewers in China.
These operational challenges have not deterred Michael, who’s making a quality American-style craft brew. In the brewery, we started our sampling with the Suckerpunch Pale Ale straight out of the fermentation tank. This is a refreshing ale made with Magnum bittering hops and then late hopped and dry-hopped with Citra. This ale would pair perfectly with both the American fare at the restaurant and the salty, savory local Shanghainese food (like xiao long bao and shen jian bao from Yang’s Fried Dumplings). Next, we tried the Imperial Red Ale. Even from cold-conditioning tank, this had a beautiful, clear amber color and imparted citrus flavors with a dry finish. It reminded me alot of Deschutes Red Chair Northwest Pale Ale. Finally, we sampled the Brown Ale. This was a smooth malty, toasty brown with low bitterness, which I could enjoy drinking on its own or with the meatloaf or beef stew that I had already scoped out on the restaurant’s online menu the night before.
So who is Michael brewing for? My visits to Shanghai have demonstrated a wide-spread ex-pat community. This means that there are a variety of tastes to try to satisfy. With the new Sinan Mansions location, Michael said that there is plenty of traffic from both the ex-pat and local Chinese community. He was surprised that there is a universal appeal for IPA’s. According to Michael, his customers are looking for decent flavor. Craft beer has spread throughout the world and the US is leading the world with its creativity and diversity in craft beer.
After our tour and sampling, we (luckily) hailed a cab from a back country road and returned to Shanghai to see the Boxing Cat restaurant, a comfortably modern restaurant in the newly developed Sinan Mansions. I started with the TKO IPA, which was made with Simcoe and Cascade hops. This ale thoroughly quenched the spicy boldness from the Cali-Cajun Chicken Club that I had as my entree. We also shared an order of BBQ Pulled Pork Quesadillas and Full Monty Nachos. These dishes captured American comfort food. If I were an ex-pat in Shanghai, I would be some spending time at Boxing Cat to get a taste of home.
Although I can’t compare the original Boxing Cat microbrews to it’s current iteration, Michael has set a solid foundation for the future of Boxing Cat. Once he gets more settled in China and gets his rhythm in Shanghai, I look forward to seeing him expanding his creativity that the craft brew space allows. He can put Shanghai and China on the craft beer world map.
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