An Expat's Brew Bout: Matt Jimenez
of Shanghai's Boxing Cat Brewery
Interviewed August 4, 2017
AT LIQUID LAUNDRY – SHANGHAI
Traditional culture and governmental influence lingers in the air in Beijing. But, head to Shanghai and the face of modern China is on full display. Along the popular waterfront, The Bund, historically-preserved buildings are nestled amongst giant modern skyscrapers and multi-level megamalls. Down the avenue, every nook and cranny is filled with pedestrians with money to spend. Beaming across the Hangpu River, architectural buildings carve out a signature skyline unique to the city. Stroll around the area and you can see, no expense has been spared in order to delight visitors and shatter expectations of Shanghai–as well as China.
With a growing, local middle class and an ingrained international community, craft beer is a common fixture throughout the city. From young, local breweries such as Shanghai Love to Goose Island’s own Shanghai Brewhouse, breweries big and small, new and established are jockeying their way into China and Shanghai is the place to be to see the craft beer scene evolve at a rapid pace. Whereas an IPA is still a hard-sell in Kunming, local palates in Shanghai are getting familiar and adjusting–from hoppy IPAs to zesty saisons.
One major and early pioneer in brewing fresh, Western-style craft beer in Shanghai is none other than Boxing Cat Brewery. In the affluent Xuhui district, we visited Liquid Laundry, Boxing Cat Brewery’s hip and trendy gastropub, and talked to Head Brewer Matthew Jimenez about brewing beer in Shanghai and discovering American craft beer in China.
So, Matthew, describe what exactly is Liquid Laundry.
It’s our (Boxing Cat Brewery) brewpub. All the beers we brew here are just for this place. But, we have 2 locations in Shanghai; we used to have another one but we closed it down and we’re going to relocate that somewhere else. We also have a larger production facility too and that one is 1000L/10HL. Liquid Laundry is a sister brand of Boxing Cat; Boxing Cat is the main focus but we definitely do get to do a lot of cool stuff here as well.
And, what’s this neighborhood like?
This neighborhood, it's loaded (laughs). It’s not a street where I go shopping really. You've got Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Coach... It’s a lot of luxury brands–it’s an upper class area.
How long have you been brewing for Boxing Cat? And what’s your brewing background?
Well, this place is about three years old and I’ve been here since it opened. I arrived here during its soft opening so I’ve been with Boxing Cat for three years now. I used to do a bit of commercial brewing for Dr. Beer. I did that for four or five months to just kind of figure out if I really liked commercial brewing–because I just did homebrewing before.
But being in China–I came out here six years ago–there wasn’t really much variety of flavor or different styles of beer. So there was a guy, Mike, who owns a homebrew store here and I used to go his house and homebrew–he taught me how to brew. Then, I realized I could have good beer out here. But, basically all I had back then was my watered down lagers, although they do go well with Chinese food (laughs).
So, how’d you end up meeting with Michael Jordan (MJ), Brewmaster at Boxing Cat?
We knew each other through other friends. He actually saw that I posted on ProBrewer and we WeChatted and he said, “We're looking to expand our team, have you ever thought of taking it to the next level?" I saw the opportunity and was like, “Yeah, let's do it."
What brought you here in China in the first place?
My girlfriend. We met in college. Her family’s been here for 18 years and they’re from Orange County, California–they’re not Chinese either. I’m originally from New Hampshire and I moved out west after college. But, we met and she brought me out here during our senior year and said, “You really gotta check out Shanghai, there’re a lot of opportunities.” Originally, I was going to take a government job in Germany because my mom works for the Department of Defense out there, so I was gonna go that route. But my girlfriend brought me here and I told myself I’d give it two years. But it’s been six and a half!. So, I actually found a career that I’m passionate about here, rather than being behind a desk.
So, coming out here to China got you into homebrewing?
Yeah, I started homebrewing when I came to China. I didn’t do it back in the US. I knew of craft beer back home, but I was always going towards my Miller Lites back in the day (laughs).
Funny that you discovered craft beer in China.
Yeah, I agree. I had a bottle of Abyss from Deschutes out here. Man, that was my first time where I thought, “You can do this with beer?" The roasted flavor, the chocolate, the slight tartness from cherries, there was wood factored in...it wasn’t just 'chugging it,' it was sipping and enjoying the beer and letting all that flavor hit my palate. So, that beer changed my thoughts on what beer could be.My old colleague, Eric White, who works down at Midtown Brewery in Hangzhou, he shared it with me.
With homebrewing, you have lots of potential risks contaminating your beer–with temperature, oxidation, etc.–and it’s hard to control those factors. So, when I had this Abyss...it was what made me think, “How can you create something so flavorful?” That’s what really turned this into a passion for me.
What’s the market for craft beer like out here in Shanghai? What are locals' palates for craft beer in Shanghai?
I would say the craft beer market and the creativity in China has exploded in the past two to three years. It’s definitely progressed within a time of five years when MJ first started. There's definitely been a lot of change. More and more people are interested in different flavor profiles, wanting to know more about what’s in the beer–what ingredients are being put in. The locals are catching on quite well with it.
Shanghai is unique, I’d say it tends more towards the expat lifestyle. You look at Beijing and it’s very heavily cultured by the local culture, the head government is there... Here in Shanghai, it’s slowly emerging, but its taste leans more heavily on expat preferences. We live in a city, from the food & beverage side, where it’s pretty wild the things you can get, the different flavors–I'd say I can walk outside and get 50 different countries' cuisine. As for craft beer, I’d say over the past two years, I’ve seen a lot more distribution of imports... Now you've got Ballast Point, Rogue, Evil Twin, Boulevard, Einstok from Iceland, Nøgne Ø, Mikkeller; there’s been such a large growth of imported craft beer.
Has that presence influenced the brewing scene here?
I think that kind of stirred up and started some things, like the local microbreweries here in Shanghai and Beijing. It’s created a push for more craft, more awareness. But, I don’t think Shanghai is as aware of craft beer, compared to Beijing though. I think Beijing’s craft beer scene is a lot more intense, more progressive, more passionate–especially on the local level. Locals love their craft beer and are loyal to it out there. Here, I think there’s a lot of variety, but I don’t think we’re at that level of progression as Beijing, in terms of craft beer loyalty. But, the craft beer presence is definitely here in Shanghai.
Is it a pretty equal ratio between expats/locals drinking Boxing Cat beers?
I would say for Boxing Cat, we have 60% local, 40% expat drinkers. I think that local number has grown too. Two years ago that number would’ve been 50/50 but I’ve seen that local number rise. Again, more people are finding it interesting to try an IPA or a saison with cucumbers in it...or a lager that has a slight spiciness from chili and ginger...
Is food & beer pairing a thing out here?
China is notorious for knowing it’s food pairing and beer–with what the locals have done with Tsingtao beer and pairing it with spicy food, that’s the next level that I think China will move towards. Right now, I do a little bit of it at home with beers in my fridge with some friends, where I'll get some fresh-made dumplings and pair it with a kettle sour. Or, a lot of spicy foods I'll pair it with an IPA or a saison 'cause it cuts through that spiciness. But, I’m curious to see how locals progress with food pairings with craft beer, because it’s huge in the US. It’ll catch on here but it’ll take time and it also requires education too.
So, do beer trends get picked up here, styles like goses and NEIPAs?
The New England haze has definitely picked up here! People are doing it, I particularly am not a fan of them. Honestly, I want a nice, clean beer. I don’t want haze in beer. But, people enjoy it and it’s a style–it’s trendy, it’s contemporary, it’s cool...so people are drinking it. For me, it’s not my cup of tea (laughs). But, yeah those trends do get picked up here. More and more barrel-aging is occurring here, nothing compared to what happens in the States but it’s starting to grow.
How do barrel-aged stouts do out here? It’s so damn hot out here!
I tend to drink them during the winter. But, dark beers do well out here. We have a nitro stout now that’s on tap and it does well. The locals know of black beer, moreso because of German styles like a Schwarzbier, y'know? But, the locals really enjoy the flavors of a dark beer–year round–even if it’s hot out. Our stout on tap right now is only about 5.6%. It’s quite light, quite sessionable–not heavy, but flavorful.
So, what are your core beers here at Liquid Laundry?
Currently, we’ve got our Workday IPA, Miami Weisse, Kolsch 45, Beverly Hills Hop Pale Ale. Saison-wise, we have our cucumber saison called Cool As Saison, and Sleepless in Saison which is a saison with Nelson Sauvin hops. We have another saison called Let’s Get It Saison, which is nice and citrusy. But, those are like our core beers we brew. As for our darker styles we brew regularly, we have our Puxi Patrol Porter.
How do you decide what styles to brew?
We recently came up with a Champagne Sour Berliner Weisse. MJ and I are always looking at new things to make depending on what we've drank at a bar and figuring how can we make it taste better based on our palates. That Berliner Weisse was just from us having a beer and taking notes and going, “How can we do this? What do we have right now at our brewery?” Same thing with our Thai Lager, we started asking, “What's in a lot of Thai food? or, "What would go with Thai food?” We ate some Thai food and the Galangal Ginger note was pronounced–and there’s red chili, there's kaffir lime...
So, it usually starts with MJ and I just sitting down and figuring out what types of beer we’d make. We have a board of beers we want to make, so we as a team will look at it and MJ will say, “Ok, what are the parameters? How do you guys want to do it? What’s your malt? What kind of hops? What’s the flavor profile you’re trying to get?” And, we'll just start writing all these things down and then we'll just create the recipe little by little. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel, it’s already built for us. It’s just figuring how we can make things taste better for us.
How difficult is it to brew in China?
To be honest, any local can just go out and open a 'microbrewery.' It’s hard to open an actual brewery though, compared to what we have here–a brewpub–since it kinda falls under a kitchen deal. But as for a brewery manufacturing plant, it’s really hard. The standards for manufacturing–especially a food/beverage product–is really tough out here. But, I also think it depends on who you know. As a Westerner, it's tough to open a business out here. It's not impossible, but it’s tough. I know [founders] Kelley [Lee] and Lee [Tseng] have worked really hard and I know the paperwork is a struggle; all the people you have to deal with and how to deal with them. And the laws here, they’re changing almost every single day, so you always have to be on top of things. But, yeah, I’ve heard horror stories.
So, AB InBev bought Boxing Cat–the first Chinese brewery in its portfolio. What's the feedback been on that move?
I think locally in China, it’s been an interesting road. There's been some finger pointing and some jokes here and there. But, I think people respect us for why we did it and the way our company has progressed for the past 10 years. We've definitely worked really hard to make quality beer for years, and ABI noticed that–we’ve won international awards with our beers.
I think a lot of people that we do know in our small beer community here though, people poked fun at us. Some people joke with us, but we don’t let it get to us. At the end of the day, we still want to make consistent quality beer that we’ve been making since day one when we first started Boxing Cat. I think ABI has a great system of making consistent beers and it helps us make our beers even better. More resources, more things to play with, and the chance to expand our brewery.
I know Carl [Setzer] from Great Leap and MJ are really good friends. Carl was definitely happy for our owners, Lee and Kelly. We've always been in it to make great beer, we're still in it to make great beer. At the end of the day, it’s all about making great beer and I think that’s what most people respect us for. I've been asked, “Is our quality of beer going down after being bought out?” The answer is: “No.” If it’s going anywhere, it’s going up and our beer’s gonna be even better now that we have more resources.
But, we have a good standard of procedure in place to ensure quality is always at the forefront. We make sure everything is clean and make sure we’re always making quality beer. I love my beer and I make sure it’s good.
So, how many people make up your brew team?
Just me and Joao Pedro. Just the two of us (laughs). Someone else asked me, "So you have a whole team?" And I said, "I have 'a' team–Just me and Pedro."
Today, Pedro’s running the brew. He’s my assistant brewer.
Alright, so Pedro’s running the ship today.
M: Yeah, Pedro's got a cool story. He's from Portugal. He rode a motorbike and basically kept traveling east across two continents and a bunch of countries.
Joao Pedro: I traveled to Southern Europe, Turkey, the Caucasus, Georgia, Armenia, the Middle East, Central Asia, all the 'Stans... It was too cold to keep going, and so I headed into China.
And, now you're here, brewing beer in Shanghai.
P: Yes. Now, I make beer with Matt. That's my story.
Photography by Meng & Tiffany Yang.
Thanks to Boxing Cat Brewery/Liquid Laundry for hosting us during their brew day, Michael Jordan for arranging the interview and an extra thanks to Matt for taking us out to his favorite dumpling joint! Authored by Meng Yang, collaborator for The Hop Review. Meng is a designer and illustrator from Detroit, Michigan. He and his wife, Tiffany Yang, are also the creators of THR's ‘DETOURS’ series