While their mass-produced beers leave much to be desired, happily the Chinese craft beer market is gaining momentum and some great breweries have been established in its major cities.

One of these, Beijing’s Great Leap Brewing Company, hosts the annual “Invitational Craft Beer Festival” in the country’s capital, and I was lucky enough to stumble upon the third installment during my time there.

What made this festival so incredible (besides quaffing some of the best beers I’ve ever had), was that nearly every brewery was represented by someone high up on the “chain of command”, if you will – a founder, master brewer, chief marketer, or the whole damn team, giving people a chance to really interact with each brand.

This gave me some interesting perspective to take home to South Africa, in comparison to our own fledgling craft beer scene and my own brewing efforts.

Thirty breweries from around the world were hand-picked from a long list of applicants who had sent kegs of precious ale to the festival organisers at Great Leap. You pay the ¥350 entrance fee (roughly R650), and with a pat on the back you’re let loose to try as much beer as your heart desires for two hours, free of charge.

It’s a great format for a beer festival. The given timeslots ensure the venue is never overcrowded and the lines to get beer are always manageable, meaning you have time to interact with the brewers.

Participating breweries included Baird Brewing (Japan), Mikkeller (Denmark), Lervig (Norway), Yeastie Boys (New Zealand), Young Master (Hong Kong), Boxing Cat Brewery (Shanghai),  Odell Brewing Company (Colorado), Oedipus (Netherlands), Birkenhead Brewery (New Zealand), Last Name Brewing (California), and many more internationally recognised names.

Baird Brewing’s director of sales John Chesen was present at their stand, happily chatting to curious beer lovers. We spoke briefly about how far they’ve come in Japan since their humble beginnings in 2001, and the growing craft scene there. Thanks to a growing line behind me I felt compelled to shuffle on, but not before trying their West Coast Wheat Wine.

Coming in at a heady 10% ABV, it was a delicious alternative to the enamel-melting IPAs I had been sampling. Despite its high alcohol content, the wheat gives it a moreish (and dangerous) drinkability; with bready malt, pineapple, candy and honey notes on both nose and palate. The use of candy sugar is reminiscent of a Belgian-styled Tripel.

I made my way from stand to stand, doing a good job of drinking my weight in beer. Afterwards, I managed to catch up with a few owners to find out what makes their brands tick.

Steve Simms – founder of Birkenhead Brewery: Take inspiration from your surroundings

While Birkenhead Brewing Company may be one of New Zealand’s youngest craft breweries (founded in 2015), it has already established a reputation of having some of the best beers in the country.

Their Kauri Double IPA (7.6% ABV) is brewed with nine different hop varieties, and in my humble opinion was possibly the best IPA at the festival. A strong malt backbone supports an avalanche of juicy hops that crash into your palate, settling out with notes of toffee and caramel amid a fruity, hop-forward finish.

I’d also always be hopfull with a regular supply of Birkenhead’s Kauri Douple IPA

“Our inspiration comes from the pioneering spirit and heritage of New Zealand, and in particular our area of Auckland,” says founder Steve Simms.

“Auckland City was founded in the mid 1800s, and back then the area of Birkenhead was lush with Kauri tree forests, great streams and a new industrial factory of Chelsea sugar (which we never put in our beer). So when you sit back and take in the area we live in, it’s vibrant with young New Zealand history.”

Their passion for the area, and similarly the people that call Auckland home, inspire the names of their beers and the Birkenhead brand. That sense of identity resounds both with the brewers and the people who drink their ales.

Speaking of ales, with the amazing taste of their Kauri Double IPA still knocking around my mouth, I had to ask about what went into formulating the recipe.

“Kauri took many years of designing in order to develop a recipe that worked,” says Steve. “Our master brewers listened to every note we wanted to put into it.

“It takes ears, noses and mouths to make a good beer. Ears to listen to the brief and understand the context of what you want, and a good ear means we can make magic; noses to ensure the beer profile is right; and mouths to give that texture and palate feel the right balance. Sure, it might sound wishy-washy, but it works.”

It sure does.

Paul Brouwer – co-founder of Oedipus Brewing: Breaking stereotypes 

Based in Amsterdam, Oedipus is a fairly new brewery bursting with creativity both in brand and beer. Just take a look at their website and you’ll get a good idea of what I mean.

They’re responsible for one of the most bizarrely amazing beers I’ve ever had – the Thai Thai Tripel. They use galangal root, cilantro, coriander, chili peppers and orange peel, essentially creating a Thai dish in a glass. The flavours are remarkably balanced, with a gentle mix of sweetness and spice that slowly grows on your palate as you begin to recognise each ingredient.

The guys at Oedipus explain that they made Thai Thai during their homebrewing days, when girlfriend of co-founder Paul Brouwer requested they make a sweeter, stronger ale using ginger, as she didn’t enjoy the dry, hoppy ales they were making at the time.

A delicious range of Oedipus ales were available to sample at the festival

After visiting the local market in Amsterdam’s Chinatown, their shopping basket was soon overflowing with far more than just ginger as they set out to put a creative twist on her request.

Today, this willingness to spread the love of beer is engrained in their brewing philosophy.

“People that don’t like beer just haven’t found the right beer yet,” says Paul. “We love the diversity of beer, and want to show that there’s a beer for any kind of person at any given moment.”

Their trippy website and bottle designs pay homage to the stereotypes Oedipus aims to break.

“In the Netherlands, beer has an image of being something that only men should drink. ‘Men drink beer when they watch football and hang out together’. We think this is stupid. Beer is so diverse that everyone should be able to enjoy it. Therefore, we try to brand our beers in a non-conventional, colourful way, and give our beer names that make people wonder what they’re all about.”

Stu McKinlay – co-founder of Yeastie Boys: The working wonders of contract brewing

The craft beer scenes in South Africa and New Zealand hold a number of similarities – both markets are still in their infancy, meaning many brewers opt to contract brew and avoid the high cost of overheads as they begin to build their brands.

While contract brewing has always been a slightly contentious topic, founders of Wellington’s Yeastie Boys Brewery, Stu McKinlay and Sam Possenniskie, have shown that this method really can result in world-class beer, seen in a handful of awards and international acclaim they’ve received over the years.

Hanging out with Sam Possenniskie (left) from Yeastie Boys

What’s the secret?

“The key thing for us in making contract brewing successful is to work with brewing partners we trust absolutely. We don’t try to brew anywhere or everywhere, we brew with the best. With people who think about beer like we do,” says Stu.

“We love beer and know a thing or two about brewing and quality too, which gives us a distinct advantage over people just trying to create a brand for business purposes.”

For budding craft beer entrepreneurs in South Africa, Stu says the first piece of advice he’d give is to make sure you really love what you’re doing before taking it seriously.

“It’s a long hard struggle and, although it’s a lot of fun and definitely the best job I’ll ever have, it is getting harder and harder to enter the market. Think about what you want to achieve before you kick things off. And then be flexible to changing that if you spot an idea that’s different to what you initially envisaged.

“Ensure that anyone you work with is on the same wavelength as you. I started Yeastie Boys with one of my best friends, and if it had been anyone else we’d probably have gone separate ways a long time ago!”

Final thoughts

South Africa is producing some great beers, but we still have a way to go. Hell, I have a very long way to go in terms of my own brewing – but it’s important to gain this kind of perspective; to know exactly how good beer can be with the right blend of creativity, technical mastery and persistence.

No laziness when it comes to formulating the right recipe, even if the process takes years; no cutting corners in the brewing process; and giving some proper thought to your brand and why you’re actually making beer.

Those should form the very basics, and only good things can grow from there.