What do you call the decision to leave a lucrative IT job in San Francisco in order to start a new business, about which you know next to nothing, with a friend in China?
Crazy? Maybe. Risky? More about that later.
Dane Vanden Berg ’00 chooses to call his decision “a great leap,” hence the name of his China venture: Great Leap Brewing.
He was preceded in the leap by his friend, Carl Setzer, an employee of the same IT firm who moved to Beijing to run the company’s office there. Soon Setzer was phoning Vanden Berg, complaining there was not a good beer to be had in that city of almost 20 million.
“Chinese beers are very light, almost fizzy water,” Vanden Berg said, “and though you can get imported beers, they don’t survive the shipping well. There was clearly a business niche that wasn’t being filled. But first we had to learn to brew beer.”
That was in the fall of 2009. In Beijing, Setzer began to learn the art and science of brewing, while in California, Vanden Berg sold their idea to investors. A year later Setzer opened Great Leap Brewing’s pub near Beijing’s Forbidden City, and by May 2011 Vanden Berg was behind the bar in Beijing, too.
Buzz about the pair’s beer spread quickly. Great Leap Brewing has been featured on CNN’s travel show and in USA Today, The (London) Guardian and The Atlantic (online). Beijing’s City Weekend claimed it “has changed the game for beer in Beijing.”
“We’ve had a lot of support from the ex-pat community,” Vanden Berg said. “But Chinese, especially artists, come, too. We have this really interesting cross-section of people coming to the pub.”
They come for unique artisan beers like Honey Ma Gold, made with honey from Shandong province and Sichuan peppercorns; Iron Buddha Blonde, made with premium oolong tea; and Chocolate Cardamom Stout.
The mother of all this flavor invention was the proverbial necessity, Vanden Berg explained.
“In the U.S., there are a vast number of malt and hops varieties that brewers use to create distinctive tastes. In China—and we’re trying to source everything in China—we’re stuck with just a few varieties. So we’ve had to find new ingredients to create distinctive tastes. The cool part is that this is a great food culture with lots of flavors. It’s been tough trying to rein in all the flavor impulses.”
Customer response was strong, and Vanden Berg and Setzer ambitious. They built a larger brewing facility to be able to distribute Great Leap beers outside their own pub. The U.S. and British embassies lined up as customers, as did several bars and a restaurant.
Now comes the risky part.
One day in November, Chinese officials showed up unexpectedly at the new facility and shut it down. A law had changed and suddenly pending licenses were denied.
“Anyone in business in China has faced this,” Vanden Berg explained. “Regulation seems random. Everything can change tomorrow. Though it’s easier to get started in China, it’s more difficult to protect your position.”
Discouraged, he went to the embassies and bars to explain Great Leap wouldn’t be supplying them any time soon.
“Everybody told us, ‘You guys have a great product, keep at it,’” Vanden Berg said. “They even offered us funds to start again. So now we’re lining up investor funds for an even larger facility. The wind is back in our sails.”