Northwest brewmaster incites Chinese craft beer revolution

Michael Jordan pours Boxing Cat beer at last year's Shanghai Beer Week. (Photo courtesy Michael Jordan)

A beer lover from Portland is helping to bring microbrews to China’s macro market.

Enter a local bar in Seattle and you’re almost certain to find dozens of diverse beers brewed at home in the Pacific Northwest to choose from.

Sadly, a similar bar in China will typically just offer a just a small handful of bottles from large-scale factories like Tsingtao, Harbin, Yanjing or the Japanese imports of Suntory.

Michael Jordan (no, not that Michael Jordan) is a brewmaster at Boxing Cat Brewery in Shanghai. He began home-brewing in the mid-90’s during his biosciences degree in Portland. With the Pacific Northwest so rich with unique types of beer, Jordan fell in love with the art of it. He found that his science skills served him well in creating the flavors he wanted.

After a few years brewing in the region, Jordan began his international adventures by moving to the south of Denmark to work for a malting company. He enjoyed it, but started missing the craft side of drink making and happened to stumble upon a job listing in Shanghai.

“The whole idea of being in Asia was a bit off the radar, but I wrapped my head around it and wanted to grow with a company,” Jordan recalls.

This was in 2010, and Jordan says that by now, as 2013 comes to a close, he has seen some significant changes to the beer scene in China.

“The Chinese are having more disposable income, especially the younger generation who are trying different experiences in order to separate themselves from the typical Chinese lifestyle, and that gives them the opportunity to try craft beer,” Jordan says.

“A lot of what I do is educating customers. The western food, there is enough of it now in China and they’ve experienced it. But [beer] is something a bit different.”

The Boxing Cat booth at last year's Shanghai Beer Week. (Photo courtesy Michael Jordan)The Boxing Cat booth at last year’s Shanghai Beer Week. (Photo courtesy Michael Jordan)

And it’s not only customers Jordan loves to educate. He’s organizing a craft beer conference for May 2014 around the time of the third annual Shanghai Beer Week. At the conference, Jordan plans to have around eight lecturers throughout the day for local Chinese who are interested in craft beer ventures, as well as to vendors of beer ingredients like yeast.

Jordan says craft beer brewers are mostly contained within the large first-tier eastern Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai. But now he is seeing it grow in further-flung locations like beach destination Xiamen, southern cities near Hong Kong, as well as in Chengdu, which is geographically in the middle of China but a burgeoning city with a fairly large expatriate population.

At last year’s kick-off party for Shanghai Beer Week there was a boat cruise down the Huangpu River in Shanghai, and a true highlight for Jordan was the auction where participants bid on a “create your own flavor of beer” prize. Boxing Cat Brewery matched the highest bid and the money went toward local Chinese charity.

Jordan says it’s rewarding to be in a position as a foreigner where what he does allows him to help the community he now calls home.

“It’s something that’s not always tied in with the alcohol industry, and it will continue to happen even more so down the road,” he says. “There’s a huge, stark contrast of wealth in the country.”

Boxing Cat is owned by an American-born Chinese and Canadian-born Taiwanese so the business, which has two brewpub locations and specializes in Southern U.S. cuisine, is very western-minded.

Boxing Cat's King Louie Imperial Stout. (Photo via Twitter)Boxing Cat’s King Louie Imperial Stout. (Photo via Twitter)

But to succeed, they need Chinese customers, not just expats, and that means integrating into the local surrounds and staying respectful of the pre-existing communities.

The competition in Shanghai for craft beer isn’t very tough yet, but is growing swiftly as the Chinese learn about the tastes of unique beers. Shanghai Brewery was founded in 2010, and up in Beijing Great Leap Brewery and Slow Boat Brewery have also opened in the last few years.

Jordan does get frustrated that some customers don’t take note of the nuances and flavorful ingredients he brings to the beers he brews for Boxing Cat. When you spend your whole life drinking the exact same brew, like many Chinese do, you come to expect that beer is just beer.

“But when I explain to the customers what’s happening with the beer, give a sampler tray, and they get it and a light bulb flick on, it’s pretty awesome,” Jordan said with a note of satisfaction.

Like many expats, Jordan doesn’t plan to retire in China, but right now he’s enjoying the opportunity to witness his love of craft beer starting to spread across the country. He says he’ll certainly be staying in Shanghai a while longer to watch it happen.

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