Local heroes | When Chinese wine meets craft beer

Chinese wine quality has grown far faster than sales this past decade and there is plenty of concern, and some panic, about how to connect with the country’s increasingly adventurous consumers, like the craft beer, spirits and cocktail sectors have more ably done.

Despite a big wine education bureaucracy, an endless parade of master classes and a mountain of contest medals by producers across the nation, the numbers do not look good, and production has dropped compared to a half-dozen years ago

There are lots of reasons for this, from “same old same old” strategies of wine promoters to an obsession with scores, contests and medals to, in some cases, sheer arrogance.

A project I’ve been privy to the past year—a beer made with Marselan, which some call China’s “signature” grape—helps symbolize in part why the industry struggles.

Ye Marselan

Jing-A Brewing contacted me in August of 2020 about getting grapes for the newest in its series of “ye”—wild yeast—beers using locally sourced fruit. My first thought was Marselan because I like wines made with this grape and believed it would be a good story. (I launched World Marselan Day in 2018.)

What impressed, though, was that a craft brewer with multiple successful brew pubs, national distribution and backing from Carlsberg, was reaching into the wine industry to create something niche for consumers. Given the wine industry’s struggles, it kind of felt like it should be the other way around, especially as wine had a huge lead on craft beer in this country at one point.

So, how did people in the wine industry react to this Marselan beer project? Here are three examples.

1 In September 2020, the first producers I contacted about sourcing Marselan grapes were all hesitant. The concern? How it might appear to associate Marselan wine, considered to generally be higher end, with beer. It should be noted that brewers such as Jing-A make lots of intriguing complex beer with good stories and branding to boot. Plus, they sell.

Anyway, with harvest night and time short, I turned to Grace Vineyard, which always has an eye on innovative products and consumers, and immediately got a yes. Grace’s team arranged to have the grapes picked and sent to Beijing. And, as these photos show, the Jing-A team had a good time with them.

2 In November 2020, I talked to attendees after a Marselan master class at Wine to Asia in Shenzhen, one week before the Marselan beer was launched in Beijing, and they were even more dismissive. In fact, a few seemed offended by the very idea of such a beer. “Too low,” said one.

3 In April 2021, I gave a presentation about World Marselan Day at Chengdu’s huge annual Tang Jiu Hui booze fair in April, at the launch event of a Concours Mondial contest focused on Marselan and organized by Beijing International Wine and Spirit Exchange. That talk covered the Marselan beer—I brought a bottle to show—and about the need to reach out to consumers of beer, spirits and cocktails, and while a few people showed interest, they didn’t respond to my follow-ups, and most seemed dismissive / uninterested.

Ye Launch

I could go on but the point is that the wine trade, which seems fixated on how to reach more consumers, was generally not interested in a product that might reach a group with ample spending power and an adventurous spirit—craft beer fans. This was evident with the Marselan beer launch itself last November.

I sent the event details to a good number of wine trade people but few responded. Two winemakers did attend—Lee Yeanyean of Grace Vineyard and Tong Lili of Manzhuoxiang—and served their wines to guests. In sum, you had craft beer people checking out the Marselan beer and then having a chance to experience Chinese wines, too.

Beyond the craft beer fans, the few wine trade people that signed up tended to be wine bar owners / managers, which was a good sign as they interact with consumers on a daily basis.

These same people–wine retailers, wine bar owners et al–jumped to try the Marselan beer in June, during a Marselan blending session led by Tong Lili and sponsored by Wine to Asia, at The Merchants here in Beijing.

In the end, the Marselan beer experience was at once thrilling, because it broke new ground, tasted good and tapped into a worthy story, and frustrating, because it highlighted why the wine industry has so many problems.

And I realize some will say this is such a niche case, an isolated example, but the y experience matches what I’ve found elsewhere. Too much of the wine industry is about redistributing market share, about how to get hold of consumers already into wine. Who’s going to get Australia’s share of the market? Are consumers switching from reds to whites? And so on. It’s a zero-sum game when the major play should be finding new sources of customers, like those drinking craft beer, cocktails or spirits.

The good news is this situation is changing. The attitude of many wine bar owners and managers, the people on the ground, is heartening. So are efforts I witnessed this year, especially during my trips to Ningxia, of producers who are creating new packaging, including single-serve sizes, focusing more on tourism, and seeking to improve consumers’ experience. And of winemakers who lack vineyards and wineries but have enough resources to buy some grapes, rent some tanks and create their own brands, who are exploring new grape varieties and styles, often with a “natural wine” theme, at a time when consumers are increasingly interested in local products.

And perhaps we will also see more interest a week from now when two more Marselan beers are launched—Jing-A has been aging last year’s beer for a year in Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon barrels and is nearly ready to release it. Once again, that launch will feature some Marselan wines, including from Grace Vineyard, Manzhouxiang and Stone & Moon, with more to come, and bridge the beer and wine worlds. Expect a Grape Wall review soon.

Note: The upcoming Marselan beer and wine tasting at Jing-A is also a fundraiser for an annual campaign Maovember, with proceeds going to fund reading rooms in rural China. Learn more about Maovember here.

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