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Craft beers and palate patriotism

Chinese nationalism comes in many flavours. There’s the tanks-in-the-street, I-hate-the-Japanese variety that was on display earlier this month when Beijing closed many of its streets and factories to parade killing machines through Tiananmen Square.

Even as the Chinese economy slows, many sectors are still pounding ahead – like craft beers with Chinese characteristics. Patti Waldmeir and Jackie Cai talk to brewer Master Gao about the importance of social media in spreading their popularity.

But there is also the altogether more palatable Sichuan-peppercorn-beer kind of nationalism, which involves brewing beer from local ingredients, for local palates, and seasoning it with a bit of Chinese philosophy, a dash of middle kingdom history – everything short of an actual Chinese flag. It sure beats that watered down, German-inspired brew that they sell for almost nothing, down at my local convenience store.

These days, there’s more and more “palate patriotism” around in the country – foods, drinks, even coffees made by Chinese people, with Chinese ingredients for Chinese taste buds. I’m betting on that second kind of nationalism to power the mainland through to a “new normal” of growth based on something other than just copycatting what everyone else already does better.

And yes, I have noticed that the rest of the world is worried that the country’s economy is imploding. But the middle class doesn’t seem to have got that memo. So they’re still happy to spend 10, 20 or even 40 times as much on a craft beer with Chinese characteristics as on a bottle of Snow or Tsingtao. And it’s not just so they can drown their economic sorrows either: they still feel pretty flush. Sales of iPhones are booming – rising 75 per cent on the mainland year on year, Apple’s Tim Cook said last week.

“Demand is slowing, but there’s an underlying shift from mainstream to more specialised and niche consumption,” says Torsten Stocker, greater China retail partner at AT Kearney.

Case in point: traditional beers had a bad year in 2014, with domestic production falling for the first time in two decades. This was partly due to competition from wine and other drinks, and partly due to the slowdown. But craft brewers can sell as much as they can make in China – which admittedly is not a huge amount yet, since the government treats craft breweries as basically illegal.

Most of the beer that is drunk in China today was not originally Chinese. Even Tsingtao, which the west thinks of as that most Chinese of beers, was set up by Germans in Qingdao, which was then a German colony: think alcoholic imperialism. Wikipedia says that China has been drinking beer, in one form or another, for 9,000 years – and since nobody really knows what the Chinese were doing 9,000 years ago, Wikipedia is as likely to be right about that as anyone else.

Fermentation was – and still is – used in many primitive societies to help purify water. My first Financial Times job, back in 1980, involved drinking home-brewed sorghum beer in northern Ghana, which at the time had no reliable source of clean water. It was drunk all day long, like coffee or Diet Coke in other cultures – except that it got stronger as the day progressed. The same was once true in China. But what’s drunk here today, in the main, is not at all indigenous.

But now that’s changing. The country has a new generation of indigenous brewmasters (or foreigners who are well integrated into the society), and most of their customers are Chinese. Gao Yan – who prefers to be known as Master Gao, because of his US masters degree in chemistry – brews craft beers infused with the know-how of traditional Chinese medicine, in the second-tier Chinese city of Nanjing.

He says his best-seller is jasmine tea lager, but his sweet potato beer – his first made from Chinese-inspired ingredients – did darned well too. He has brewed with purple rice, chilli peppers and sweet osmanthus flowers, while rival brewers use Sichuan peppercorns and Iron Buddha tea. Master Gao, whose first brewery was shut down by the government, says that most of his ingredients are western, “but the way we brew it, we build beer according to Chinese culture and customs”.

And he’s happy to admit that that patriotic backstory has helped him sell four times as much beer this year as last. Sure beats missiles.

Source: FT