It’s no secret that China is the worlds largest beer market by volume, and it should be no secret that craft beer is exploding at unprecedented rates.
There is a major shift from industrial lagers for more refined craft beers, as China’s middle class beer drinkers are abandoning long standing local macros, and demanding high quality hand crafted beers.
Much of what’s popular in the US like hazy IPAs, sours, and big bold stouts can be found all across the country, but what sets Chinese craft beer apart is the collective spirits the brewers bring to their operations.
Gavin Hemple is one of them. Gavin first came to China in 1998 to study Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) as an extension of his sports therapy education, prior to that studying culinary with a catering and hotel major. It was during a move to Hong Kong to handle various roles at a major hotel when he first discovered craft beer.
By 2013 Gavin had immersed himself into the new burgeoning craft beer scene in Hong Kong leading to the next logical step, home brewing. Like a lot of people that turned into an obsession leading to what is now his career.
A chance run in with Nøgne Ø founder Kjetil Jikiun in Shanghi resulted in an internship at the world famous brewery and solidified his career trajectory for the rest of his life.
JAMES: Hey Gavin! Thank you for doing this interview. First I am going to start a bit backwards. Glass Hammer Brewing is going through a big expansion, can we talk about that first and update us with what has been happening?
GAVIN: Yeah, for us it very exciting time, however, in fact our expansion is mainly focused on our Rich Kat taprooms and brands, rather than the Glass Hammer side of our business, though we do have a few crossover brands available in both brands. We currently have around 26 Rich Kat taprooms with a few more in different stages of renovation (I don’t think will be ready pre-CNY), but we have a continued big expansion plan for 2021, so this new production facility will aid in that growth.
But for our new brewery, it is a 50hl 4 vessel mash with a range of 50hl and 100hl fermenters and bright tanks (damn ceiling restrictions) plus some other toys what will help us to continue to make great and even better beer. Once fully finished the brewery should have the capacity for about 4000hl per month. It is pretty challenging finding allotted factory buildings here with a ceiling heights of 8m or more, I guess we could get some chubby 200hl’s bright tanks in there at some point, but well address that when it arises.
JAMES: Like me you come from a more culinary based background. What was the switch in your head that said beer and not food? And what do you think that defining moment was?
GAVIN: I fell into food pretty much because I left school at 16 with poor grades. I needed something vocational to do, and as I’m not really mechanically minded, training to be a chef was at the time the best of a lot of crappy choices.
On top of that we are a family of foodies, though even after 3 years at catering college I never really stayed in the industry and went on to study other things. In the end it lead me here to HK and China.
Over the years I have dipped in and out of catering (based on my circumstances at the time), though I found when I got “really” into beer a lot of the things I had learned on the pastry side of food just seemed to make sense particularly for certain areas of beer production.
I guess it wasn’t until after the 2014 Hong Kong homebrew competition that I thought that I might be able to do more in beer than just a hobby (I also have a funny story which relates to this that i can share with you another time over some more beers), so i guess it was just meant to be.
JAMES: With getting the opportunity to take on an internship with the famed Norwegian brewery Nøgne Ø and working in a quite large capacity brewery, how did that create your mindset for the rest of your brewing career?
GAVIN: Oh man, it was an amazing experience, if my family circumstances were different I would have loved to have stayed longer. Over the years I’ve done quite a few jobs that I’ve been good at but never really liked, and some I was terrible at and hated. All these experiences shape who I am today, but my time at Nøgne Ø really shaped much the way that I brew, even though my recipe formulation is vastly different to what we brewed there.
I guess this is just naturally how one evolves over time, does anyone remember the first iPhone? Just being able to pretty much learn everything process-wise on how to run day to day operations in a brewery gave me a massive confidence boost and an advantage when I landed my first gig brewing.
Strangely enough I didn’t really know who Nøgne Ø were until I did some research on YouTube after we had arranged for me to intern. I was just that guy who was cheeky enough to ask the question. A simple meeting with Kjetil (who I am eternally grateful to) in Shanghai and he kindly said yes to the internship the rest, I guess, is history.
JAMES: Ok so back to food. As someone like you that has also studied through Seibel, how much is a culinary aspect versus a science based one your way of thinking about creating a beer?
GAVIN: The Science side for me is something I am constantly trying to catch up with and read on a daily basis. I need to break it down and make it relatable to my own mindset. The science is defiantly as important as the creative, but with our new production brewery coming online I have the chance to employ the kind of people who can fill in the areas I am weak in.
For me it’s definitely the culinary, artistic, creative side which is my strength. I guess I should have studied better in school! Moving forward this is where I’ll focus, more on the fun stuff, development of new processes and recipes – aces in their places!!
JAMES: As a westerner that is fluent in Mandarin and has studied around the world, can you let us know some of the education you are sharing with people that might not know much about craft beer?
GAVIN: Well that depends on what I’m ask to do a presentation or talk on, most recently it has been all about the haze craze. I also helped out Fermentis recently with a seminar on my experiences with their LA-01 yeast strain.
For us English speakers there is a lot of information available in books and online, so to be able to share some of my own findings and experiences with my peers in mandarin is a pleasure and honor. We are all in this boat together, so by sharing if I can inspire the new or younger brewers then I feel I’m doing my part for the industry here.
Even if it’s a simple act such as me sharing a recipe or some tips based on my own experiences it can only help our industry. I have always been lucky with people willing to share with me, so I feel I should do the same.
JAMES: On the same topic, how do you find training people that want to get into the brewing industry and passing on the mentality that this is not an easy career?
GAVIN: It isn’t easy, I guess coming from that F&B background and homebrewing, for me made these things easier to accept, especially with the cleaning, and the heavy lifting. I still remember loading my first imperial stout at Nøgne Ø (a 50hl batch!), it was a double mash – an awesome work out!
There were days when we were brewing 3 batches, we’d have to load the mill perhaps 4 to 5 times depending what was on the roster that day, plus prepare for the following days brew. So when we have new people come on board, we generally start them in that same way, though we do always have an experienced team member to shadow or buddy up with them. They are not totally left to their own devices.
We have been lucky in some ways as we have mostly recruited internally from staff from other areas of our businesses. I have a great team and 90% of the time I can be hands off the day-to-day side of brewing.
Continual internal training is something I’m looking to set up more of as one can never have enough knowledge.
JAMES: How is the craft beer scene developing and evolving in Shenzhen? What are some of your favorite places to eat and drink?
GAVIN: The beer scene here in Shenzhen I think quite different other cities in China, we don’t have a particularly large expat population like in some other of the other 1st tier cities, so for us our main target customers are locals. I haven’t met many beer geeks here, so I hope this changes soon (or it could be I’m just not in those circles).
Other than Glass Hammer and Rich Kat it is always great to see other brands grow and open more tasting rooms. The few brands that we have here are really solid. I wish we could have more chances to hang out than we do with the city’s other brewers but with covid last year I have not been out and about as regular as was in 2019.
For us, that typical wheat beer is paramount, and generally anything sweet and fruity. Being a hop head myself it is nice to see our hoppy beers sell well, but the day I can cancel brewing any kind of wheat beer, German or Belgian I’ll be a happy man!
Overall we are now selling nearly as much hop forward beer across all brands as we do a single wheat beer so I guess I shouldn’t be too upset.
I’d love to see locals here accept sour beers more, and also Saisons, though think one of the reasons for the low take-up rate could be how these beers are named and how the descriptions are translated into Chinese. If we call a beer a “Pale Ale” it doesn’t sell, but if we rename it a “Golden Ale” it sells 5 times the volume! I guess we as a brand and also a community have more education to do as part of our marketing.
When I’m out I don’t really have a favorite place as such. If we go for dinner it’s mainly Chinese food, I particularly like Chaozhou, Hunan cuisines plus the Chinese style BBQ. We’ll also hit up some of the local Japanese Izakaya’s. Sometimes dinner can involve Chinese Baijiu but mostly just food, then for drinks we’ll go for cocktails, whiskey or beers or all of the above depending on who I am out with.
Here in Shenzhen we have quite a few good cocktail and whiskey bars here so pre-COVID you’d see me mostly there; somewhere like “Life on Mars”, “Wann Lounge” and more recently the new “Hope and Sesame”. For beers other than a “Rich Kat” or “Glass Hammer”, you’ll see me at “Craft Head” or “ET” when those guys are free and in town.
If I have friends from out of town we’ll hit up our club called “Zazoo Live” as a final stop at the end of the evening.
JAMES: One last question. With craft beer exploding all over SE Asia where do you see craft beer going in China (in particular Shenzhen) in the next few years?
GAVIN: I think the scene here at the moment is very exciting and has lots of potential in many ways, lots of small brands are continuing to pop up everywhere of various standards. I guess what I’d like to see more of is greater authenticity with brands, as it seems from a wholesale point of view everyone is fighting over very few taps spaces for very similar beers.
I’d like to see more brewers specialize more, I mean how many wheat beers do we really need? (face palm)
This also goes for tap room food programs too. Do we really need to see burgers and pizza on every menu in craft beer bars? I’d love for more places to take inspiration from their own local or regional cuisines, kind of like the food they go out to eat after partying or KTV. This is what I love about visiting places overseas, whether it is somewhere from a more traditional beer culture, or in the USA with the food truck and street food culture of the past 5-10 years.
For me it just makes the who experience more authentic. I guess this is why when I’m out, the food and drink side of the night are in different places as I feel that nobody currently has the whole package for what I’m looking for in that total food and drink experience.
JAMES: Thanks for doing this with me Gavin I hope to have some beers with you as soon as we can.
GAVIN: Yea man thank you for asking me, can’t wait for the beers!! Cheers