Taking a leap: The couple leading China’s craft brewing revolution

In a smog-shrouded hutong, a love affair is brewing. It’s unbridled. Some might say insatiable, even. It is stronger still than the bond between spouses – the love of husband and wife team Carl Setzer and Lui Fang for beer.

Founded in 2010, Great Leap Brewing has gone from from strength to strength in a matter of years. Before they arrived, Beijing had been barren of craft breweries . In the years that followed the opening of their brewery, seven more have followed suit thanks in no small part to their efforts to make world-class beer. “Here in China, the assumption is if you can do it in Beijing, you can do it anywhere and everywhere.”

And Setzer and Lui Fang should know. Having encountered a great deal of racism and hostility to their marriage in Dalian, a city in northeast China where Lui Fang was caring for her elderly grandfather, they set out for Beijing to make a better life for themselves. While both embarking on new careers in the Chinese capital, they turned their hand to brewing beers in their kitchen, eventually selling them at friends’ art gallery openings.

Within a year, without even a name or a long-term business plan in place, their home brewery blossomed into a nanobrewery in a traditional courtyard residence on Douijiao Hutong – one of many narrow alleyways in Beijing’s sprawling network of old streets. Five years on from quitting the safety of their steady corporate jobs, the pair have managed to build up a local empire of three taprooms with a clientele that consumes more handcrafted Great Leap beers every month than any other pub in China – and more than any imported American beer to boot.

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The courtyard of the original #6 Brewpub. Picture: Great Leap Brewing

“Since we opened the original #6 location, we’ve aimed to convince Beijingers and other Chinese drinkers that China can be the source of great beers that are made in China, with Chinese ingredients and using Chinese equipment.”

The pair originally met in Hubei in central China in 2004 where Setzer had moved from the US to work for a car manufacturing company. They became good friends but ultimately lost contact. When the two reconnected again around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, they fell in love in a whirlwind romance and married within three weeks.

“As if quitting their jobs to follow their dream wasn’t hard enough, helping to mould an industry that was yet to be developed has proved a challenge in itself.”

As impetuous as their romance was, their futures were decisively decided by the end of their honeymoon in Laos. While supping on the national beer, the seed of an idea to create their own beers was first sown and it quickly took root. “Clearly there was a market need, and if the Laotian government was able to produce Beer Lao in Laos, a socialist country, then surely we could make it in China.”

Before the advent of craft brewing in China, the culture of drinking inexpensive, portable beer churned out by industrial breweries was the order of the day. “Those breweries are basically built on the principle that Chinese people don’t have a good palate for beer and thus beer should be made as cheap as possible and be able to be shipped across the country.

“We brewed beer with character, we used local ingredients, clever names and thoughtful concepts to create great beer that is proudly ‘Made in China.’”

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Carl Setzer adds hops to a new brew. Picture: Greap Leap Brewing

Next to established, mass-produced brands like Yanjing, Harbin and Qingdao, drinking a craft brew in China has become an earth-shattering experience and none more so than Great Leap beers with their now signature strong malt characters and hop aromas. Often experimenting with flavours from fruits, vegetables, locally roasted coffee, Chinese teas and spices, peppercorns, honey and more, Setzer’s beers had an immediate appeal to Chinese palate. For expats, they proved to be new and adventurous.

“Before Great Leap opened, there wasn’t a brewery in China that was experimenting with these kinds of ingredients. The terms ‘local’ and Great Leap together imply that in the brewing process, we’re somewhat restricted by ingredients, in terms of malts and hops that other brewers from other parts of the world can find easily.

“But what brewers from other parts of the world don’t have access to is the amazing varieties of spices, teas and so on, that are easily available in local markets here in Beijing.”

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Some of the brewery’s offerings, including Imperial Pumpkin ale, Liu the Brave stout, Chai Masala stout and Edmund Backhouse pilsener. Picture: Great Leap Brewing

Being a trailblazer carries certain responsibilities, and that includes being one of the first to push the boundaries in what can be an inflexible bureaucratic system. “Every other brand in China – except a few that we can actually name – is in a grey area or straight up breaking the law, because they don’t have faith in the organised society in China or the ability of the Chinese government system to provide a regulatory environment for people in the craft beer industry to work in.” As if quitting their jobs to follow their dream wasn’t hard enough, helping to mould an industry that was yet to be developed has proved a challenge in itself.

While taste and craft is no doubt important, nomenclature and phrasing is at the core of Chinese communication and philosophy. To that end, the names of all Great Leap beers have significance and deeper meaning. It’s probably unsurprising that Setzer himself is drawn to his Liu The Brave stout, a malty, spicy stout with chocolate and coffee notes. The couple named it after Liu Fang’s grandfather, Liu Yong, a man who couldn’t read or write but left home at 13 years old to avoid a run-of-the-mill existence in the coal mines and took his own leap into the unknown.

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The brewery’s original brewpub in one of Beijing’s hutongs. Picture: Great Leap Brewing

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