Heady times

Updated: 2012-07-06 07:50

By Amanda Reiter (China Daily)

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Heady times

Chandler Jurinka says his goal is to put unique beers in front of China's growing population of microbrew lovers. Feng Yongbin / China Daily

Craft beer brewer bets on Chinese market

As the temperature rises, so do the number of people whiling away the hours outside pubs, throwing back cold ones. This is what Chandler Jurinka calls "session drinking".

"I like to talk and hang out with people that drink our beer," says the co-founder of Beijing-based Slow Boat Brewery.

Jurinka's sporty tennis shoes and blue jeans are a sign of his laid-back persona, yet day in and day out he works hard to promote his products. He fills his days dashing on his motorbike from one restaurant to another, acting as salesman, event planner, teacher and problem solver.

The 45-year-old Colorado native describes the craft beer as boutique and one of a kind. The ingredients, which are imported from Oregon, bring the flavors of the United States to the Middle Kingdom.

The popularity of the handmade products has exploded in the capital in about a year since distribution started.

"Our goal is to put handmade, unique beers in front of China's growing population of microbrew lovers," Jurinka says. "To do that, we need to be in restaurants, bars and hotels that portray the same image that reflects our product."

Before launching his most recent venture, Jurinka invested nearly a year in researching beer and beer consumption in China.

He learned that in China, consumers certainly have a taste for beer. The industry is the largest in the world by production volume and is the best-selling alcohol product in China, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

In terms of US influence, the USDA released a report in February 2011 that said exports of US microbrews to China hit $546,000 in 2010, a record, and overall sales quintupled in five years from $91,000 in 2005.

And even though Slow Boat is brewed in the Changping district in northern Beijing, it is the American taste that is the top selling point.

"We're not building a brewery, we're building a brand," Jurinka says.

This is not Jurinka's first time at starting from scratch. Yibian Zhongguo, which means "translating around China", was a company Jurinka helped start that provided translated menus for free. The company, bought out nine months after it launched, made money by selling advertisements in the margins.

He has also been involved in the website Local Noodles, a concept similar to Yelp. Both sites encourage consumers to post online reviews and photos of local businesses, mostly restaurants. He currently remains an adviser to the Beijing-based company.

He is drawn to startups because he finds he is able to thrive and accomplish more than at large corporations.

"If you are creative and strategic about what you're doing, something you thought up yesterday can be applied with some sort of vetting process tomorrow. And if it fails, then you pick yourself up and try something again," Jurinka says. "It's a very interesting and rewarding process for me."

And a challenging one. But Jurinka has been challenging himself for most of his adult life. A five-year military career took him to Panama, the Philippines and the first Gulf War. As a member of the special operations forces, he was charged with learning a second language, Tagalog, the official language of the Philippines.

"When I got out (of the military), I had already tasted traveling around the world. I scored quite well in languages in the military. So, when I went off to college after the military, language was a natural progression for me."

After receiving the worst grade of his college career for a class in Chinese characters at the University of Colorado, Boulder, he wanted to redeem himself, so he changed his major to Chinese.

He came to Nanjing in 1994 for two semesters to further his studies. He returned to China 10 years later and found Beijing had a certain buzz reminiscent of the 1999 dotcom era in the United States.

"I don't want to say anything was possible, but anything was probable," Jurinka says.

After having a hand in the business world, a great understanding of the written and spoken language and a love for beer, Jurinka, with help from Daniel Hebert, brought Slow Boat to China.

Brewmaster and co-founder Hebert's passion for beer and Jurinka's determination of successful entrepreneurship have produced a fruitful partnership.

Hebert is busy producing seasonal and monthly beers. Slow Boat will deliver Act of Grace Wheat in June, followed by Dragon Boat Summer Ale. It will round off the summer with Crazy Ivan Cream Ale, before moving on to the fall lineup.

Hebert has built a portfolio of two dozen styles of beer since launching the company and is currently offering six beers, which range in price from 40 yuan ($6.3, 5 euros) to 55 yuan.

Slow Boat can be found around Beijing at Terra, Home Plate Barbecue, Q Bar, Susu, Bang! Bang! Pizza, The Bookworm, Little Easy, and has plans to expand beyond Beijing. There is also talk of opening a taproom in Beijing, but it is still searching for an appropriate location to serve dishes that will complement the beers.

Jurinka has been spotted at a variety of establishments around town, usually with a Slow Boat beer in his hand, preferably American Pale Ale.

"My Chinese doctor says, because it's all natural, it's actually good for my skin and my hair. I don't know if there is any merit in that, and I would never claim that, but I drink it," Jurinka says with a smile.

China Daily