13 October 2023

Beijing craft brewers add Chinese dishes as Great Leap and other microbreweries grapple with expat exodus

China | It was not without glee that the South China Morning Post newspaper reported on 2 October that Great Leap, one of Beijing’s first craft breweries, founded in 2010 to serve the expatriate community, has added Chinese dishes to its menu. The reason: Expats have left the city in droves.

Great Leap is not alone. Many of the city’s foreign-run restaurants and microbreweries, which started out with menus catering to Western tastes, are now shifting strategy and targeting locals.

The change comes as the number of foreigners living and working in China has plummeted over the past three years, due to covid restrictions, geopolitical tensions, and an economic slowdown in China.

Expat exodus

Between 2020 and 2021, the population of expats in Beijing fell by more than 40 percent to about 63,000, the newspaper reported.

At Great Leap, beers have also become lighter in flavour to attract Chinese punters. Despite these changes, craft beer bars have seen their average customer spend decrease by up to 20 percent.

It remains to be seen, the newspaper concluded, whether the localisation of foreign-owned restaurants will prove successful in the long run, but owners are sure of at least one thing: staying competitive in the Chinese market means they can no longer rely on foreigners exclusively.

Carl Setzer lost control of Great Leap

Speaking of “localisation” of foreign craft breweries in China: It has since come to light that the American Carl Setzer, who founded Great Leap together with his Chinese wife Liu Fang in 2010, lost control of his business without being compensated.

The two left China in a hurry in February 2020, after his wife, who is pregnant with the couple’s second child, receives notice that the Beijing healthcare system will cancel prenatal care deeming it non-essential due to the pandemic.

They settle in Cleveland, Ohio, to weather the pandemic. But when Mr Setzer returns to China in December 2020, to decide the breweries’ fate, he is detained for testing positive at the border. He then spends more than 50 days in state-mandated quarantine on a diet he thinks consisted of only 800 kcal per day. He loses weight and, worse, control of his business.

A new start in Cleveland

The last evaluation Mr Setzer had of the Great Leap brewery, which had five locations across China, was USD 73 million. Because of covid complications, the couple do not get a single dollar when they leave China, Mr Setzer tells the website cleveland.com in August. The brewery is still in operation, obviously, but Mr Setzer and his wife are no longer involved.

The two have since set up a restaurant business in Cleveland, called Abundance Culinary, which specialises in Chinese cuisine.

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