I traveled to Shanghai, China in the beginning of June to meet face to face for the first time with our importer, the Ouci International Trading Company, and to attend their inaugural craft beverage festival. The World Beer Tour China represented something special for the craft beverage scene in Asia. Sure, there have been beer fests before, but the craft producers represented at this event from Europe and the United States brought a selection of beers, and a bit of mead and cider, unlike anything seen before. Ouci is importing an impressive portfolio and they are working hard every day to change minds in China. One of the things I learned on my trip right away is that so many of us in this industry are walking the same path, spreading our passion for craft beverages, and business is the common denominator that bridges cultural and language gaps which at first can appear quite daunting.
My contact, and now friend, at Ouci goes by the English name Ace. Everyone I met in China introduces themselves to foreigners by an English name. I think in business this is very common and serves two ends, first names become way easier to pronounce and remember, and second, English is the language of business and international trade. So everyone gets on the same page for a discussion or negotiation right from the start. Business cards are presented with two hands and a slight bow, and exchanged, and respect connects each dot in the conversation. That is something I can not stress enough. The level of respect exchanged between parties is humbling, and a characteristic that highlights an aspect of Chinese culture which is something I hope to be able to sprinkle onto my style of conducting business moving forward.
My first meeting with Ace was scheduled at a craft beer bar owned by Ouci called Cheers 1088. 1088 is the address on Wuding Street, and Cheers has nothing to do with Sam Malone, just the toast in English. The bar was amazing, with a French Canadian chef slow cooking a variety of cuts of beef on the elevated street side deck, and a crazy amount of craft beverages from Omnipollo to Westy 12 to Superstition. I sat down with Ace, and a sales manager named Daniel, and we ate, drank, and shared stories of our adventures in the craft beverage business. I learned so much about the market in China, and offered everything I could think of to teach these guys how to sell mead. Ace took notes for two hours as we developed a strategy to introduce mead to China. One of the aspects of this strategy is pouring mead at events, and The World Beer Tour China will move around the country, with the next event being held in Beijing later this summer.
The World Beer Tour China, Shanghai took place over 3 days on June 1-3. Each day the brewers would arrive at 2 PM and hang out at the venue talking about their products, meeting brewers and craft beer fans from across China, and networking with each other. There were lots of volunteers, and translators staffed a booth throughout the event. The festival was certainly unique and there was a frontier crossing spirit in the air. The sight was a beautiful outdoor urban space adjacent to the nicest shopping mall I have ever seen. At 6 stories high and bearing a food court that made eating in the mall a culinary adventure, the spot was pretty damn nice.
One of the biggest challenges was certainly language. I can not speak Mandarin, and I wish I could have dedicated more time to get beyond saying hello and ordering food like a stuttering child, but unlike festivals I have been to in Europe, the language barrier was certainly an issue in communicating the story of Superstition Meadery and our products. I think everyone was in the same boat for sure. The story is so important to the craft, and you had to rely on product descriptions and tasting notes previously passed on to our importer, and translated into Chinese. In anticipation of this, Ouci asked every attendee to film and submit a video introducing their company. This was a great idea, and these videos played on a loop at times on a large screen at the festival. I had to submit a word for word transcript of the audio, and this was all transcribed into Mandarin subtitles. So lets just say that the product was able to speak for itself. Festival goers really liked the mead we were pouring, and I was told that many Chinese people enjoy sweeter beverages, so mead was a great fit. I was serving Aphrodisia aged in a Lagrimas de Oro barrel, Tahitian Honeymoon, Marion, and Blueberry Spaceship Box.
We had a brewer’s party back at Cheers 1088 on Sunday evening, and once again Ouci took great care of us with tasty food and delicious drinks. They opened the dinner by asking all of the brewers to offer advice on the festival, and to share our experiences from events either hosted or attended in our home countries. This was a very humble gesture, and this certainly guided much of the conversation throughout the evening. The 3 days in Shanghai brought some of the finest brewers, and really just some of the finest people you could ask to meet, to a place that was so very different than home for almost all of us. The end of the event was bitter sweet, with new friends made and promises of collaborations extended, I can’t wait for the next time we get to pour together, or make something the world has never tasted.
In addition to the festival, and the lessons learned on the craft market in China, Shanghai is an incredible city. This city whose name means “Upon the Sea” has about 25 million people living here. You can see the most modern skyscrapers in the world just minutes after getting lost in ancient alleyways full of locals shopping for almost everything you can imagine. It was a very clean place and not a single person looked at me weird, day or night. It certainly felt very safe and with so much international trade having gone on in Shanghai for hundreds of years, I think foreigners are a very common sight. I was only able to see a small part of this city, but with the festival hours, I was able to put several morning miles on foot in different directions from the hotel. I had some great unplanned meals wandering alone through Shanghai visiting beautiful temples, watching Tai Chi practitioners in green parks, and taking in the atmosphere. Different groups of brewers went out the first two nights of the festival, along with Ace from Ouci, and we were able to see a bit of the nightlife Shanghai has to offer. From brewpubs to pizza to rooftop cocktail bars that actually allow brewers in, you won’t get bored if you visit this place.
Overall the trip to China was a success, and I had a blast. Everyone thinks that this country of 1.5 billion people, with more middle class than America has citizens, is going to be a crazy booming market for all things Western. The reality on the ground today is that very few people in China have the means to enjoy craft beverages. Locally produced craft beer is one thing, but the taxes and transportation costs associated with imported drinks price out almost everyone. That having been said, things are changing. Fast. Someone is going to establish themselves as the being in the core of popular foreign brands and someone is going to have to spread the word on the ground. It was an honor to make this trip, to help spread the word on Superstition, and mead in general, and to do it with such an amazing cohort and a great trading company. We are all walking the same path, sharing our love of craft beverages, and this passion transcends the very business that binds our fates as producers, distributors and consumers. I leave China with a renewed commitment to the craft business I have chosen to pursue and clarity on the direction that mead will travel.