Craftbeerasia speaks with Michael Jordan(beer, not basketball) about brewing beer in China, and his current stint as brewmaster of Boxing Cat Brewery, Shanghai. Boxing Cat Brewery opened in 2008 and has since expanded to 3 brewpub venues as well as a new spin-off, the Liquid Laundry Kitchen and Brew. China has come a long way with craft beer – people are starting to demand more than rice-laden macrobrew lagers!
1.You’ve been in Shanghai for a few years now – what was the initial reception to artisanal beer, and has it evolved over your stint as a brewmaster?
I’ve been in Shanghai for almost 5 years. I cannot reply about the initial reception of craft beer as that dates back to 2007 or 2008 when the first Boxing Cat Brewery opened. In general the first “go to” customers were Ex-pats that missed flavorful beer back home – North America, Europe, etc…. Boxing Cat Brewery has taken the approach to brew beer that is influenced by North American craft beer culture. This extends all the way to current trends in the US. We feel that our customers enjoy this aspect and it keeps us at the front of the pack regarding innovation. It’s also great for our brewing staff in that we’re always creating new beers. I feel strongly that we should brew beers according to international standards and styles as we want to be a great brewery in China but also on an international scale.
Getting back to your question – Craft beer has definitely evolved in the past 5 years I’ve been in China.
Our best selling beer when I began was Right Hook Helles. This is an all-malt lager beer that is balanced with nice malt tones and a slight kiss of German hops in the finish. The past 2 years we’ve seen our best selling beer become TKO IPA, so a drastic change!
TKO IPA is a very American style IPA that is 62 IBU’s using 4 types of American hops along with a big dry-hop finish utilizing Simcoe and Amarillo hops. The alcohol is at 6.3% so it’s also on point with international beer style guidelines. The original demographic drinking TKO IPA was Ex-pats but now it’s many Chinese consumers as well. I believe most locals now appreciate the taste of a nice hoppy beer. This stems from education in the market but also the possibility that they’ve travelled abroad in recent years and been exposed to craft beer elsewhere. Maybe the “IPA phenomenon” has reached China….regardless I’m very happy with this beer trajectory in China as I’m also a hophead!!
2.I’m sure you must have many stories about adjusting to life in China – tell us a good one!
Yes, life in China has been very different compared to my home country of the USA but also from my original move from Denmark. Of course the size of Shanghai and the country can be overwhelming at times. Once you get over all the initial changes it’s a fascinating culture and very cool place to live. Shanghai is never dull and I see funny stuff several times a week.
I still laugh about when I arrived to Shanghai and the person picking me up a the airport had a sign that said “Michael Jordan”. There was a small group around this dude and when I raised my hand to say – Hey, that’s me! – there were some sad faces.
The journey into the city from the airport was also funny as my Danish girlfriend and I had a lot of bags before our small cargo container arrived. Unknown to us was that the driver was concerned the car had too much luggage and they called another car for support and we pulled over after about 10 km from the airport. We didn’t really know what was going on but we saw our luggage getting shifted into another car and my girlfriend was worried our luggage was going to disappear. We also didn’t want to separate from one another since we had just arrived. Everything turned out okay but it was one of those moments that set the scene for life in China!
3.Looking back on your early days experimenting in homebrewing up till today – how do you feel your philosophy on beer/life has changed?
It’s changed a lot but it’s worth noting I began home brewing in 1992. The styles of beer represented at the commercial craft beer level were inspirational with a lot of English influence when I first started. The emergence of new “American” styles and a wider selection of hop varieties has been fun to watch. I still like to make and drink hop forward beers so that takes me back to my Pacific Northwest brewing roots. I’m definitely confident to tackle new beer styles now where as a home brewer there was reluctance…even though the batch size is way bigger on a commercial level!
4.Boxing Cat has grown steadily over the years – is distributing nation-wide and growing production volumes in the cards for you? We would love to get your beers in Singapore!
You are correct that we are growing but we are only Shanghai based. The rules and regulations in China are still very challenging to the point where we only offer our beer in draft form in our locations. This means in Shanghai there are 4-5 places to drink Boxing Cat beer! We do some festivals outside Shanghai and like collaborating with other brewers so occasionally our beer can be found in Beijing, Hong Kong or special festivals in the APAC region….plus Copenhagen once a year:-) It would be fun to send some beer to Singapore and that is on the radar now that we have some one-way kegs to make the logistics much easier.
5.Tell us about some aspects of brewing you would love to explore further, or new beer projects in the works!
I’m very interested in barrel aged beers and have been for awhile. We have a small barrel program that is tripling later this month with some fresh Bourbon barrels from the US and some Cognac barrels from France. We’ll fill these barrels and then have 18 barrels filled in out little brewery.
The “funky” barrels are developing nicely and we’ll continue down the is path with some interesting products in 2016. We’re also getting the new Hongqiao brewpub up and running this month so we’ll have more diversity in our beer selection with some styles that have previously never been available in Shanghai and possibly China (Berliner Weisse). Fun times ahead!!
If you’re visiting Shanghai or reside there – do check out Boxing Cat at their 3 locations or Liquid Laundry Kitchen and Brew! Once again, a big thanks to Michael for taking time out to do the interview. We’re looking forward to some barrel aged goodness from him!