By Jim Sweeney
Like many home brewers, Carl Setzer started brewing beer because he was looking for a hobby, and he knew he could make better beer than the bland, mass-produced swill most people were drinking.
The difference is Setzer lives in China, a country with virtually no tradition of — or support network for — home brewers. He persisted, however, and what began in 2010 as an experiment has succeeded beyond all expectations.
Setzer and his wife, Liu Fang, own Great Leap Brewing, which operates two brewpubs in Beijing and is building a brewery nearby. Setzer is recognized as the godfather of craft brewing in China, in part because for the past four years, he has organized the Beijing Invitational Craft Beer Festival, which features beers from around the world that are not available in China, as well as local brews.
A bearded, burly guy who would look right at home in the Dawg Pound, Setzer is originally from Chardon. He took a job in China after college and fell in love with the country. He returned to the U.S. to earn a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh in Asian studies and then moved back. He was working long days in IT security when he began home brewing as a way to relieve stress ― and because he couldn’t stomach the watery Chinese mass-market lagers.
After a few years of tinkering and experimenting with recipes, he debuted four beers for friends at a party in a rented courtyard.
“Word got out, and over 60 people showed up and drank through the entire stock of beer that I had brewed. It was that night ― coupled with the possibility of transitioning to a career where you get to make people happy ― that ultimately convinced Liu Fang and I to quit our jobs and found the first craft brewery in Beijing,” he says.
Great Leap now operates two popular Western-style brewpubs in the capital, serving up pizza, wings, burgers and other bar food staples to a clientele that is a mix of Westerners and Chinese.
The company just broke ground on a production facility in Tianjin, a coastal city not far from Beijing. Once finished, the brewery will produce 60,000 barrels a year, and Setzer has plans to grow to 500,000 barrels. Having its own brewery is essential to Great Leap’s expansion plans. Its beers were once available only in its brewpubs, but the brewery is now collaborating on beers with other breweries around the world, and those are available in most of China. Eventually, Setzer wants to expand nationwide and then internationally.
Great Leap is an adventurous brewery, offering a wide range of styles. Among the brews always on tap: Banana Wheat, Cinnamon Rock Ale and Aggressor, a Scotch ale. Seasonal brews include Tombsweeper, a porter; Beat the Landlord, a barley wine; and General of the Stampede IPA.
Setzer also collaborates frequently with other breweries whose products he respects, including Moon Dog Craft Brewery from Australia; Lervig Aktiebryggeri from Norway; Mikkeller from Denmark; and other Chinese breweries.
Great Leap uses local ingredients whenever possible, including Qingdao Flower hops, barley, wheat and Chinese spices, such as the Sichuan peppercorn and large-bark cinnamon from southern China.
“Whether it’s honeys and sugars or locally grown produce and coffees, Great Leap finds it to be a much more satisfying endeavor to create beers that no one has ever tried before than to merely copy styles from other countries,” Setzer says.
Chinese customers, long accustomed to bland American-style lagers like Snow, Tsingtao and Yanjing, have been open to new styles and flavors, Setzer says.
“With a culinary history as rich as China’s, and so many different regional cuisines, the Chinese palate is not only adept at recognizing interesting flavors, but strives to find them as well,” he says.
Setzer is not the only one to recognize the potential of the Chinese beer market. AB InBev, the world’s largest brewer, with brands such as Budweiser, Corona, Beck’s and Stella Artois, is moving into the Chinese craft beer scene with its purchase of Boxing Cat Brewery in Shanghai.
Because he had so much to do with its creation, Setzer is fiercely protective of China’s fledgling craft beer scene. China’s craft beer scene is still far behind that of the United States in terms of breweries and brands, he says, but adds that he expects great things.
“We are very much in the infant stage here, but there is a huge potential to make China the next great market for craft beer as long as people care about producing quality beers in a responsible way,” he says.
And Setzer says he plans to be a part of that great future in China.
“I intend to make beer until I’m forced to stop; whether by policy, regulation, old age or disinterest. It’s one of two careers where everyone is always happy to see you. The other being flower delivery.”