(CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Even during the freezing winter months, nothing seems to stop Chinese beer lovers from grabbing cold brew from the fridge and enjoying a spicy hotpot or barbecue dinner with friends.
China has grown to become the world's largest consumer market for beer and people nowadays have more diversity than ever to meet their ever-growing tastes. Whether you fancy a glass of the Chinese staple, Tsingtao, or prefer a flavoured Indian Pale Ale (IPA) imported from Britain, there are always pubs, bars and online stores offering a multitude of different beer options.
And last week (January), a new brewery opened in China by Anheuser-Busch InBev looks set to bring the art of craft beer-making even closer to Chinese consumers.
The central city of Wuhan, Hubei province, was selected by the world's largest brewer as the site for its new brewery dedicated solely to making craft beer, the first of its kind in the Asia-Pacific region.
ZX Ventures, the craft beer division of AB InBev, opened the doors to the new facility in Wuhan last week, where it began to produce tipples from three of its leading breweries - Goose Island, Boxing Cat and Kaiba. The classic Goose IPA is an American take on a traditional English IPA, fuller-flavoured with bright citrus aromas and a bold hop finish. Hop bitterness is balanced out by biscuity malts, while retaining a smooth and light body.
At the newly launched brewery, the pleasant aroma of malt mixing with a range of natural flavourings is enough to whet the appetite of any beer lover.
With the fully automated brewing machines imported from Germany, the giant shiny fermenting tanks crank into action.
During the brewing process, a professional team from the Belgium-based multinational will be on hand to provide guidance throughout the process to ensure that quality is strictly maintained.
"The ZX Ventures craft brewery has been tailored to meet the demand for the small-scale production of high-quality beer," says Mr Pedro Aidar, head of specialities ZX Ventures APAC North.
"Drinking craft beer is a developing trend in China. We chose to set up the brewery in Wuhan because we have had over 30 years' experience selling beer in the city, and we have noticed that consumer preferences have switched from traditional beer to craft beer," he says.
Although the market share of craft beer remains relatively small, sales have witnessed a huge increase in China in recent years.
According to industry research website Chinairn.com, the market share for premium beer is around 4 per cent compared with traditional beer. But this share accounts for more than 18 per cent of profits in the industry, while the market is expanding at the rate of 40 per cent a year.
Eyeing the growing market, Mr Wang Deliang, brewery research director at the China National Research Institute of Food & Fermentation Industries, says that investment in the craft beer sector has been expanding in recent years as beer makers chase profits of up to 30 per cent.
"Limited supply, unique flavours, a distinct experience and high-end branding all appeal to the younger generation of consumers who like to try something different," says Mr Michael To, a marketing specialist with Shanghai-based Focus Strategy consultancy.
AB InBev also recognises the potential of China's craft beer market.
"In recent years, we have seen consumer preferences switching to a more diverse range of premium products and this market share has continued to see strong growth," says Mr Aidar. "So, setting up a brewery to meet the demand for top-notch products was an easy choice."
With demand for craft beer on the rise in China, they soon realised that the appetite of Chinese consumers could not be met by relying on imported beers alone, where some of the flavour and taste can be lost during long-haul transportation. With this in mind, the Wuhan brewery has been tasked with the mission of creating locally produced craft beers of the highest quality.
"With its strict quality control measures, the team will ensure the crispness, colour and alcohol content will comply with the requirements of the original recipes and ensure each drop of bottled craft beer will achieve its full flavour potential," says Mr Aidar.
"All the beers are guaranteed to be fresh because they are made locally," he says.
"We will also put more energy into attending trade fairs, putting on events and visiting bars to promote our products."
To further explore regional markets, he says the key lies in continuous innovation to develop localised recipes.
"The charm of craft beer lies in innovation," says Mr Aidar. "China's deep history and culture will become an endless source of inspiration for the brewery."
He says the company has already promoted a special craft beer combining signature elements from the Goose Island and the Shangri-La Highland Craft breweries.
This January, ZX Ventures also released its first local craft beer, Han Yang Zao, which drew inspiration from the long history of Wuhan.
Besides the brewery, ZX Ventures has also teamed up with Hubei Light Industry Technology Institute & Brewing Technologies Academy (BTA), a Wuhan-based academy specialising in beer brewing to help cultivate future industry experts. Titled the New Brewing Generation, the programme jointly launched by ZX Ventures and BTA aims to combine industry with academia.
Mr Xu Bing, president of the Hubei Light Industry Technology Institute, says: "Through a high-standard platform like the New Brewing Generation, our students will be able to access more advanced and comprehensive teaching methods and practices. We are confident that they will be able to add value to China's craft brewing industry and help China's own craft beer recipes shine around the world."