In July, Shenzhen independent craft brewery Bionic Brew celebrated its second anniversary. A horde of thirsty expats and local beer enthusiasts descended on Bionics’ tiny backstreet bar to listen to live music and down made-in-Shenzhen lagers, ales, stouts and pilsners, as well as a commemorative pink ale, created by master brewer Dmitrii Gribov.
Although American owner Joe Finkenbinder recalls little of the evening, what his hangover cannot obscure is that he, above all others, has succeeded in fermenting a Shenzhen beerscape. And when one winds the clock back, it becomes apparent that it took far more than yeast, hops and malt to turn this mercantile migrant town on to a quality brew.
A decade or so ago, dingy discotheques catering to horny Hong Kong weekenders and expat dives populated by boozy traders defined Shenzhen’s nightlife. As with most industries in boom-time China, the restaurant and bar scene evolved at a frenetic pace, with venues closing as often as they opened. Gradually, a more respectable bar and club culture evolved. International concepts of interior decor were assimilated to suit local mores while Western pop supplanted Canto-karaoke-ballads as bar owners tended to the young population’s internationalist pretensions.
But much of the “progress” the bar owners trumpeted was superficial, as gilded and vacuous as the indistinguishable shopping malls being thrown up across the city. Every new bar vied to become more elaborate than the last. But a lick of bright paint, all-day happy hours and a booming sound system could not gloss over an abiding lack of soul. Despite the mushrooming scene of foreign bar bands, most punters still necked mass-produced lager to the soundtrack of tumblers rattling through night-long campaigns of liar dice.
There were, of course, exceptions. Frankie’s Bar & Grille, though not a brewpub, became an early proponent of craft beer. A few luxury hotels employed European brew masters to produce beer in-house. Yet, for the most part, Western-style pubs simply hawked pricey foreign beer to a nouveau-riche clientele for whom the consumption of foreign products won them face. In many cases, they’d supplanted a Chinese mass-produced lager with a Western one, and were paying handsomely for the privilege.
In his 2014 book The Craft Beer Revolution, Steve Hindy documents the rise of the industry in the United States and gives examples of many pioneers who never quite made it. As Hindy notes, “In the mid-1970s, there were fewer than forty breweries in America; today there are more than 2,500 and another thousand are in the works.”
There are many parallels to be drawn between the situation in America in the mid-20th century and 21st-century China. The American beer industry, after prohibition, which ended in 1933, was fast dominated by what Hindy describes as “mass-producing multinational brewers who make beer the way Kraft makes cheese or Hershey makes chocolate”.
For Europeans, particularly those from great brewing nations such Britain, Belgium and Germany, the potent image of American blue-collar workers perched on bar stools sipping Bud, Miller or Coors implied that crossing the Atlantic somehow damaged your taste buds. But this conclusion ignored the circumstances that had cultivated the conglomerates.
After a clique of American beer drinkers had sampled European beer they made it their raison d’etre to turn the tables in what Hindy dubs, “a quest by a band of Davids to bring down the Goliaths”. These craft brewers, exhibiting a DIY, punk-rock-type ethic, gradually gained ground on the big breweries, proving that independence, community and quality do matter to consumers.
A few giants similarly commanded post-reform-era China’s beer market. Many of these companies had foreign roots: Harbin Beer was established by a Russian, and the British and Germans founded Tsingtao. But these breweries were nationalised after the 1949 revolution and, by the time China adopted its open-door policy, in the 1980s, cheap, insipid lager had become the mainstay of the masses.
American craft beer eventually began to flood the market, as expats who home-brewed turned their hobbies into full-time jobs. Boxing Cat Brewery, in Shanghai, became, arguably, the mainland’s first successful craft-beer producer (although there are many contenders to this throne), but it was in Beijing that craft culture first bloomed. The capital was already home to a rock ’n’ roll culture,paving the way for pioneering breweries such as Slow Boat and Great Leap, which soon became part of the city’s F&B lexicon.
While enthusiasts in other first- and second-tier towns followed suit, Shenzhen stagnated. Economic miracle it may have been but bastion of the breweries it was not. Only a few craft-beer geeks in the expat hubs made anything worth drinking, usually distributed to their friends at parties. Or from a keg in the park outside Pizza Hut in Nanshan district’s Ecological Square, as Finkenbinder was doing in 2014.
Finkenbinder, however, had already established a craft-brew bar, Bionic Brew, in Baishizhou – a crumbling urban village where most migrants make landfall in the city. Unfortunately, the bar drew the ire of the area’s residents (many of whom worked long hours and were accustomed to early nights) and had to be closed down.
“We were too different, too loud,” says Finkenbinder. “The first brewery and bar was down an unassuming alley in one of the poorest parts of Shenzhen, and just down the road from a police dorm. There was nothing like us around and probably never will be after our ordeal. I was given the option to stay open if I signed the business over to a local partner and went to dinner with a government guy. Since I’m on my own, without any partners, and don’t believe in paying bribes, I chose to move locations.
“During the few months between closing bar one and opening bar two we threw parties in parks and partnered with underground venues. Until we found a new [legitimate] venue, we blackened out all the windows and brewed in the middle of the night. It was rough brewing beer from 10pm to 6am and then trying to sell beer out of a taxi during the day, but we made it work. Occasionally, we’d have people come by the bar with a special knock and have quiet get-togethers with friends, kind of like a speakeasy during prohibition.
“It felt like we were being hunted but we were always one step ahead of the authorities.”
Finkenbinder’s second bar was also in Baishizhou and tucked away down an alley. But noise complaints and the suspicion aroused by foreigners congregating in large groups in a back lane inevitably led to the second Bionic Brew suffering the same fate as the first, closing after only three months.
“We didn’t break any laws, we had the right paperwork, but in China, and especially Baishizhou, they can shut you down like that,” he says, clicking his fingers.
In a city fast gentrifying, with new bar streets and commercial plazas aplenty, why is Finkenbinder so determined to run a business in an urban village? Baishizhou is not without its gritty charms – the low hanging electricity cables, wet markets and open-front stores offering a porthole into a Shenzhen past – but it is one of the most lawless and chaotic areas in the city.
“Firstly, Baishizhou’s cheap,” Finkenbinder says. “If I had to pay high rent, I’d have to charge more for my beer, and that’s not what I want to do.”
His beers average about 35 yuan (HK$40) a pint, highly affordable when one considers a Guinness in the central business district sells for more than twice that.
“Secondly, Baishizhou is where people first touch down in the city; it has a starter feel to it, which reflects my situation.”
Finkenbinder dubs himself an “army brat”, who called Kansas, Alabama, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Germany home during his youth.
“I grew up for a time in a trailer in Alabama. I was a poor kid. To me beer is a blue-collar product. It shouldn’t be something the everyday man can’t afford. And it should relate to the place it’s made in.”
Finkenbinder’s journey to Shenzhen also tells us something of how he developed the tenacity to make a brew bar successful in the most unlikely of places. After a stint as a paratrooper, and four years at university, Finkenbinder hit the road.
“I’ve been to over 40 countries,” he says of his coming-of-age tour. “I did volunteer work, taught English, brewed beer, went scuba diving and partied my way around the globe.”
He first touched down in China in 2006, finding his way to Beijing, where he pulled pints at Great Leap Brewing.
“That’s where I met Cody,” he says.
Canadian Cody Fuiten, himself a veteran of China’s craft-beer industry and a well of information on the topic, has since become Bionic’s bar manager.
The seeds of a business were sown in the capital, says Finkenbinder, “Beijing is the intersection of politics, education and tourism, it has a huge foreign presence so craft beer naturally took off there. But the scene was a little saturated, plus the pollution is really serious.
“I thought about Chengdu, Kunming and Shenzhen. But what swayed me was that Shenzhen is near Hong Kong, so I could establish a good supply chain, and get the right ingredients and tools for the job.”
After the second Bionic Brew bar met its unhappy fate, Finkenbinder appealed to the police, asking them to suggest where he should set up shop. He was pointed towards a Baishizhou food street on the edge of the labyrinthine slum, a spot that is a little less left-of-field than Finkenbinder might have liked, but it appears that Bionic Brew is now thriving.
Bionic Brew supplies several bars in the city and, last year, Finkenbinder staged the inaugural Shenzhen Beer Festival.
“We invited some great local bands as well as Slow Boat, Hong Kong Beer Co, Young Master Ales and Strand Brewing, from Guangzhou.”
This year, Finkenbinder is planning an even bigger festival, scheduled for November.
“I want at least 12 brewers. In order to be invited to the festival, the beer must be made with Chinese water [Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan included]. I believe that’s the best way for us to promote local craft beer.”