What's brewing in Shanghai?
By Rebekah Kebede
When Josh Cerreta moved to Shanghai three years ago, one of the things he missed the most about home was beer. And he was homesick for one beer in particular—the Christmas Ale made in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, by the Great Lakes Brewing Company.
“When we first moved here the beer scene hadn’t really taken off yet,” Cerreta said. Although there were some craft beers, there was nothing like the Christmas Ale, a seasonal beer with honey, cinnamon, and ginger that Great Lakes says, “pairs well with ugly Christmas sweaters.” So Cerreta went about trying to recreate the spicy brew.
It’s a common story in Shanghai’s expat home brew scene --it starts with wanting a taste of home. In the last decade or so, as interest in craft beers has gradually increased, microbreweries like Boxing Cat and Great Leap Brewing have opened shop. A parallel interest in home brewing also started gaining steam.
Raph Vetri, a chef who runs the “Shanghai Homebrewing” WeChat group, also got started home brewing to recreate European-style brews that he missed from home. “In Belgium, nobody home brews. You just go to the pub and buy a delicious and cheap brew,” said Vetri, who has home brewed for five of the 10 years he’s lived here.
SHANGHAI’S HOME BREW “GODFATHER”
Like many home brewers in Shanghai, Vetri got his start in brewing at a class with Mike Sherretz. A retired chemical engineer who has been living in China for over 22 years, Sherretz opened China’s first home brew supply store over 10 years ago.
“Mike is sort of the Godfather of Shanghai home brewing,” said Pedro Fernandes, the brew master at Liquid Laundry who has collaborated with Sherretz over the years. Sherretz, like many of his customers, is a home brewer. He started home brewing in the United States after Jimmy Carter legalized the process in the 1970s. After moving to China he kept brewing but was frustrated by the lack of supplies.
“My wife got tired of listening to me complaining that I couldn’t get supplies and said, ‘Why don’t you do something about it?’” said Sherretz. And he did. My Homebrew Store now doubles as a training school of sorts for home brew hopefuls. He runs classes in which students brew their own beer and often go home with their own home brew kit.
“It’s like Alibaba’s cave. You go down there and it’s like, wow! It’s Christmas!” Vetri said. In addition to selling beer equipment and training brewers, Sherretz describes himself as a brewing “mentor.” Once you’ve taken a class, he is available to troubleshoot “24/7,” he said. He takes brewing crisis calls and helps solve Shanghai-specific brewing obstacles, from not having enough space (Sherretz says all you need is a little extra closet space where you can nest your supplies together), to not having a stove strong enough for the boiling stage.
CATCHING “THE VIRUS”
Sherretz generally recommends starting off with brewing a five-gallon batch of beer. He sells a RMB 1,500 starter kit that his beginner students often take home with them after class. That’s how Vetri started. Over the years, though, he has spent much more as he’s slowly expanded his home brew set-up.
In addition to Sherretz’s store, materials are also available on Taobao, although home brewers say that, as with everything on Taobao, the quality can vary. The most basic home brew equipment is a food-grade bucket to ferment the beer; on the higher end, you can purchase a specially-designed beer fermenter. To keep the beer cool as it ferments, home brewers use anything from towels and fans to an entire room for cold storage. Michael Cichon, who moved to Shanghai nearly eight years ago, said he’s used everything, from just the basics when he first tried making beer in high school to a 200 liter fermenter. Vetri, who started off with a humble basic kit, now has a wine cooler to keep his brews cool and a mill for grains, among other beer-making accessories.
“Once you get the virus, you don’t count the money anymore,” Vetri said. He is not the only one who has caught the home brew bug. Vetri took over the WeChat group five years ago when its original owner returned to Germany. Back then it had fewer than 30 members. Today the group numbers over 200.
“[Home brewers] find a lot of friends they didn’t know they had once they start brewing,” Sherretz said, adding that people are often incredulous that someone could make beer. “And this can be part of the reward of making beer,” said Cichon, adding that one of his best experiences of brewing was winning over his Asahi-drinking buddies, who “knew nothing about beer,” with one of his brews.
Part of the appeal of home brewing is experimenting not only to recreate the flavors of home, but to explore new flavors as well. One of Cerreta’s most recent experiments is a rose beer inspired by his wife’s love of rose-flavored ice cream. Cichon said some of his favorite flavors to play with can be found locally, such as freshly dried Sichuan peppercorns, fruits like lychee, and the osmanthus plant. He also likes to visit local wet markets for inspiration. But Cichon cautions that when it comes to specialty ingredients, less is more.
Liquid Laundry’s Fernandes, like many professional brew masters, started out as a home brewer. After working in the financial industry, he decided to quit his job and ride his motorcycle around the world. A native of Portugal, Fernandes first ended up home brewing in Australia. By the time his world tour brought him to China, he was “kind of tired and cold and broke” and ready to brew more beer. After a series of classes in brewing, he ended up getting the brew master job at Liquid Laundry.
“I was just in the right time, at the right moment,” Fernandes said, but he still home brews to experiment with new flavors and often collaborates with other home brewers including Sherretz and Cerreta.
Fernandes met Cerreta when Cerreta’s version of Christmas Ale won a local home brew competition and a prize trip to Goose Island’s Chicago brewery. It was just his second try. The first, he said, “was a disaster.” Later, Fernandes invited Sherretz and Cerreta to do a collaborative batch of beer at Liquid Laundry; a beer he describes as “a champagne-like hybrid of beer and wine” that they named “Brut IPA.” Sadly, it’s no longer on tap at Liquid Laundry.
Cichon, who managed “The Hop Project” for a couple of years, came out with his first commercial brew, Proper Gold Ale, which debuted in Shanghai in early November. Sherretz said it’s not uncommon for home brewers to go pro. He estimates he’s trained over 1,000 people. Around 60 percent of his students are expats and around 40 percent are Chinese. Although he’s never been interested in brewing commercially, many of Sherretz’s students have gone on to brew commercially. When asked if that translates into lots of beer, he didn’t answer directly. “Most of the places I go, I only pay for the first one,” he said.
“NOBODY IS PRETENTIOUS HERE”
Despite the commercial success of some home brewers, Shanghai home brewers all seem to agree that the best thing about home brewing in this city is their community. The WeChat posts contain a flurry of tips including favorite beer places, whether or not beer travels well in a suitcase (consensus: bottles are ok, cans will leak), and free offers of materials like hops.
“There’s always someone to jump in to tell you what to fix,” Vetri said, or even, he added, to reassure newbies not to panic. When Vetri first started brewing, he bought whole grains instead of milled grains. He turned to the WeChat group for help and a professional brewer stepped in to let him use his mill. “There’s no secrecy, we share recipes, materials,” Vetri said.
They also share beer. On a recent Saturday night, home brewers gathered at Cerreta’s house for the third in a series of “bottle share” parties organized through the WeChat group. Everyone brought a bottle of their own home brew to share. A few hours in, it was clear there were some true beer connoisseurs in the room when someone broke out a few bags of hops that people passed around, taking long sniffs and remarking on the aromas.
The Shanghai home brew community stretches beyond the city. Jim Sullins, one of the home brewers who came to the bottle share, had brought a beer that he brewed in Portland, Oregon (where he lives for half the year) using hops from a plant that he grew on a lamppost in front of his house. Sullins, who comes to Shanghai for his job, has also invited Shanghai home brewers to his house in Portland where they’ve brewed beer together.
“Nobody is pretentious here. Everyone is into it because they love it and nobody’s trying to get rich or famous,” Cerreta said.
About the author: Rebekah Kebede moved to Shanghai in April 2018 and is enjoying discovering China, from acupuncture to zongzi. WeChat: rkebede, website: www.rkebede.com.
Original Courier publish date: January, 2019
Want to learn how to brew?
Homebrew guru Mike Sherretz runs classes for beginners. WeChat ID: Mike-Homebrew; Phone: 15821113870
How do I get started?
Mike Sherretz’s most basic home brew kit goes for RMB 1,500, although some homebrewers say you could devise a homebrew set-up with a couple of food-grade buckets for as low as RMB 200 .
Approximate time required according to Sherretz: Initially three and a half hours to brew the beer, a couple of weeks to ferment, and a couple of weeks to carbonate in bottles.
On the higher end, the sky’s the limit!