An interview with Joe Finkenbinder, Founder & Brewer of China's Bionic Brew
Interviewed July 9, 2017 BY MENG YANG
AT Bionic Beer - Shenzhen, China
Shenzhen, China. Don’t be alarmed if you’ve never heard of this major Chinese city. Heck, we never heard of it until this Beer & Branding feature. But, surprisingly, it’s the Silicon Valley of China. Major Chinese tech companies have settled into this former fishing village turned metropolis. Tech company Tencent, makers of WeChat, is headquartered in Shenzhen. To show you how big of a behemoth Tencent as well as Shenzhen is, WeChat is the most popular app that everyone in China uses for just about everything from payments, messaging, dating, news, etc. WeChat is so ubiquitous that it’s the most direct way to get ahold of anyone and everyone in China. In fact, it was the most efficient way to arrange all of THR’s brewery interviews across China, Hong Kong and Taiwan (doable by email, Facebook or Twitter but more of a hassle). *To better understand WeChat’s popularity in China, The New York Times had an excellent summary in this handy video.
Although Shenzhen’s city landscape is filled with mega structures and luxurious shopping centers, those buildings are still within a stone’s throw from old, rain-battered shophouses. It’s a Chinese city that is changing at an unprecedented and rapid pace. And, unless you’re a foreigner conducting business in Shenzhen, there’s little for the average tourist to see and do since everything’s moreso catered to a Chinese demographic. Conveniently, the subway system is modern, extensive and connects directly to the border of Hong Kong.
We made the trek from HK to Shenzhen to chat with Joe Finkenbinder, Founder & Brewer and Cody Fuiten, Bar Room Manager of Bionic Beer to shed light on the challenges of making craft beer in Shenzhen, dealing with quality control issues in China and the will to keep brewing regardless of being shut down numerous times.
So, we found out about you guys because of your branding.
Joe Finkenbinder: I wish I had the money to put together all the cool shit that Helms Workshop made. Unfortunately, it’s all expensive but it’s sitting and waiting to be made. To make the bottles, it’s like $100,000.
The perception is, you can make it in China for cheap.
JF: You can, but you have an enormously high minimum quantity. The minimum quantity for anything is 300,000 units or more. So, yeah you might only spend $0.20 on a custom bottle but you've got so many of them filling up the factory. That's the issue.
Bionic Beer, what’s behind the name? And, is Bionic Brewing mainly you?
JF: Y'know, I just wanted to open a brewery. And then I realized I needed a name. When I was working at Great Leap Brewing, I was a full-time student working on a Master’s degree in Science & Engineering Management. I had a software company that I started. I stumbled one day into Great Leap after they had been open for a few months. This was about six years ago. I had been a homebrewer before but I hadn’t done it in China because I didn’t have a lot of space in the apartment to do it and I was pretty busy. I also had the software background and Shenzhen is home to tech. So, I had this tech angle I was playing with and I just like the idea of augmentation of biology with technology.
But, if you like to brew beer, don’t open a brewery (laughs). I don’t have any partners, I’m by myself. I've gone from where brewing, to having a brewmaster who then left. So I’m brewing again and doing all the accounting, marketing, operations, hiring, moving tanks, buying t-shirts and all that necessary shit that you have to do. But, I have a small crew of guys that help me out, like Cody.
So both you and Cody did stints at Great Leap. How'd you end up in Shenzhen?
JF: I lived in North Carolina for a bit. I was in the Army in Fayetteville then I was in college in Greensboro. Long story short, my old company got some VC money so I dropped out of school and moved to Europe. I didn’t have a nice exit though, so I wasn't sitting on tons of cash. I just came back and brokered what I had left and decided to just do things all over again (laughs).
This place in particular, there was no one in particular making craft beer. There were home brewers but no one was really doing anything that I could find online. I had never been in Shenzhen so I had to search everything and anything online. I looked at a few other cities and I felt they weren’t ready yet. But here, there's access to Hong Kong for quality of life reasons and I assumed there was access to capital. But I haven't done that part of it yet.
But the hiking is nice and the beaches are good. There’re grocery stores and it also allows us to get some supplies that other people can’t get — in particular our hops and yeast. The hops aren’t so much of a big deal now because Yakima pretty much provides everywhere throughout China. But when I opened that wasn't true. I would actually put hops in my backpack and walk them over the border.
So you were smuggling hops across Hong Kong to Shenzhen?
JF: I was smuggling hops in and was busted once. But I got away with it.
What happened when you got busted with hops? You got caught with a vacuum-sealed bag with a bunch of green pellets — looks a bit suspicious, hah!
JF: Chinese customs basically took me into a room and asked me questions. I told them I was making beer with the hops, to homebrew with it. But it was about 25-30 kilos. It wasn’t a ton of hops but it was significant enough. Most of it was lupulin powder, cryo-hops, and I didn’t want them to open that because powder freaks people out at the border. So, I opened a bag of pellets and said “see how nice these are and how they smell? Come to my bar!"
So, yeah, they didn't open anything and I haven't done it since. Now, I just buy from Yakima in China rather than buying Yakima from HK. But, yeast, you still can’t get here. So, all the big brewers that I know of, we all get our yeast from White Labs. They have to fly down to Beijing or Shanghai to get it and I just walk across the border.
Other ingredients are fairly easy to get?
JF: Pretty much. It’s just that everything’s expensive. There's a tax and then there’s also a scarcity issue, so people just jack up prices. And you don’t know about freshness as well. You might get those hops but you don’t know how they store it unless you buy directly from Yakima where we know they’re good. But, if you buy online from some 3rd party, you never know in China. There are tons of suppliers but it's hard to find a quality one.
So, we’ve run into articles that cover craft beer in China and East Asia as a whole, but they don’t quite detail how different each area of China is. From what we've picked up, China and its various regions, Hong Kong, and Taiwan are completely different from each other when it comes to tastes for craft beer.
Cody Fuiten: What’s going on in Beijing, what’s happening in Shanghai, what’s happening in HK, what’s happening in Shenzhen, Kunming, Taiwan etc. — we're all bar and brewery specific. From brewery to brewery, the amount of work we’ve had to get into certain places has been different. Widely different.
JF: One thing that I find different in the early days of the Chinese beer scene is — and I was a baby during the early days of the craft beer scene in the US — I feel like a lot of Westerners have no particular idea how wealthy people are in China. They cannot fathom what I see on a daily basis, the show of wealth is obscene. They have no shortage of funds and they can’t take it out of the country except to buy more houses. So, if you have the right connections, people are starting breweries with obscene amounts of money that have never had a brewery before. Which is cool but it’s not organic like the US. It’s just been a different experience out here.
For us, it’s even more interesting that we made it three years. You know Master Gao? Gao is a friend of mine. One day he told me, “You're not a real brewery in China until you’ve been shut down. Every brewery that kinda matters has been shut down." We've been shut down three times.
So, you've earned your stripes.
JF: We've been shut down a lot. This is our third bar, our smallest bar, and by far our shittiest bar. The reason it’s shitty is because we got tired of getting shut down. We figured, we'll be here two weeks and they'll shut us down again. So, we ripped down the old bar.
The first location was five times this size. The second was smaller but bigger than this one. This is the most public bar we've done. The other ones were down a dirt alley, no light, no sign, no logo, nothing on the door. It was very underground. We came here because the police told us to come here. They still raided us twice over the years but it’s still open.
Also, we're moving into distribution now. We've got some customers who've expressed interest so we're going to try to provide to those two dozen customers. It'll be all around us in downtown Shenzhen and then we'll see if we can keep up with demand.
So, what's it like operating a brewery here in Shenzhen even though Hong Kong is right across the border?
CF: It's the fourth largest city you've never heard of.
JF: Twice the size of NYC and no one's ever heard of it. There are a few excellent breweries in HK but it’s completely different over here. Hong Kong is a part of China, sort of, but not in this instance. It still takes a minimum of 21 days to import beer even though it’s in HK whether it’s made in HK or coming through HK. Because I made beer in HK and I sent it to myself. I was complaining to a guy, "Man, it sucks, I must be doing something wrong because it took me 21 days to import my beer.” But, this guy was telling me, “You must be lucky because it takes me six weeks to get my beer out of HK. Will you import my beer for me?"
So, I guess I got lucky. HK has a shitload of money, it's not that different from Shenzhen but they're much more Westernized so they're more aware of what’s going on in the Western world. Shenzhen's really rich but a bit more insulated. But they do throw cash to solve problems here as well. Rent is marginally cheaper, depending where you are. But, the problem here is the licensing. Licensing is totally different in China than HK. Getting a license to brew beer here is damn near impossible, you have to invest millions of dollars to do it and you have to be in a place that provides jobs. If you can do those two things, you can do it. Anybody that’s producing beer that you see being sold, none of us brew out of our own brewery. We all contract it because you have to go through some guy that's already got a license to do it. Otherwise, you'll wait years trying to get a license.
So, how come you didn't set up in HK then?
JF: I didn't know any of that shit! I learned it all.
That's quite the learning curve.
JF: Which is really hard to articulate that to someone who wants to come into China. Either they’re totally afraid of it and they'll never touch it, or they're interested and they don’t fully understand how things work out here. Like for our little distribution company, that paperwork will take you six months and a few hundred thousand dollars to make things work if you know the right agency. A lot of people who just want to import their beer, they think they can just set it up like how they do it in the West. It doesn't work that way in China.
Seems like a big challenge operating a brewery out here rather than established cities in China. So why do you do it then? Are you guys successful operating here in Shenzhen?
JF: I think success needs to be defined because I don’t know if we’re successful. We're alive. We're still breathing. That has to be due to me being not very intelligent and not knowing when to quit. But, when I come into the bar, I see a lot of people I don’t know. Originally, I used to know everybody. Now I'm at the bar less and I don’t know everybody, which is good.
CF: The other day, we had our anniversary, and we had a kid give me a bunch of hugs. He thanked us for being here. He didn’t want to go to other places for craft beer because he loved our place. So, things like that gives us reassurance as to that’s why we do this.
JF: It definitely feels good when a hundred people show up in the rain and are outside enjoying the beer.
You know, Shenzen is a factory town. Most people would stop here if they had to but they prefer going to HK or even in Guangzhou. We do get overshadowed by our bigger brother, HK. But, that’s OK. That's kinda why I picked this place because every brewery in the world fights over Shanghai and we get to just keep growing in Shenzhen. Then, the next thing breweries do is they go to Beijing and then they have to fight everybody in Beijing. We just keep hanging out in Shenzhen (laughs). We're the fourth stop at best when a big brewery is coming in amongst market share.
So, how is craft beer being presented here in Shenzhen? Are people seeking it out?
JF: Well, the foreign-owned bars want the product for the most part. But, Chinese customers want the product even though they might not fully understand why they want it. They know they’re supposed to have it. They want the IPA, they want the Pale Ale, etc. Unfortunately, here, most bars don’t have the equipment to have unpasteurized beer. Very few places offer it. It's pretty hot in Shenzhen if you've noticed (laughs).
Yeah, I'm sweating buckets right now.
JF: It's not the best environment to have a keg sit out but they do. Chicago has great beer. And by the time that Chicago beer reaches here in China, I bet it doesn’t taste good. But, they'll import it and you'll see Rogue and BrewDog and Firestone Walker. You’ll see those beers there and they're not that very good. I met Matt Brynildson from Firestone Walker. Amazing brewer and he brought me a beer that was delicious. But, you drink it here when it’s gone through the process of importation and it takes a month, then it’s on a cargo ship and when it gets here, it’s just not very good. Local's the best way to go.
The other day I was drinking a beer at a bar and a guy gave me shit because it was a Tsingtao. He was like, “You’re the craft beer guy, what're you doing with that Tsingtao?” I said, "This is the freshest thing you've got in your bar, man. All those tap handles on the chiller have been oxidized. This beer was made within the last 30 days!”
So, how do you guys maintain quality control?
JF: That's what we're getting into now. We can’t afford to do what Slowboat Brewery is doing where they provide you a fridge if you carry their beer. We try to do places that have cold rooms or we will sell to people that will move it quick knowing it'll be gone in three to five days. Then, if we can, we can provide a fridge which they can keep in the back at least to keep the backups cold. We keep everything cold. I'm in the process of trying to build a cold room in our new factory. It’s gonna be awhile since we just got a new space.
The problem is, we keep our beer cold, but giving that beer to that customer, that’s the issue. You have to quality control the hell out of everything. We're planning to do some secret shoppers to taste everything and if it’s not good then we'll pull it. Our supply is so small and the demand is so high that there isn’t really a difficult time to sell the beer. We can always take it to someone else at this point, particularly when people already know the brand. We’re not doing any cold calls yet. Everything we do is some sort of soft call where they either come to us or we know them from some other event or festival.
Your lineup is a pretty standard Western lineup; an IPA, a Pale Ale, a Porter, a Berliner Weisse, etc. Are your drinkers pretty acclimated to these styles?
JF: Well, for the most part, our core four have changed a little bit. The Pale Ale which is the first beer I made. The IPA and the Crickside, which originally was a Kolsch when we started but is now a Golden Ale. Then, we had a Porter but it’s so damn hot that it just didn’t work. We had a Saison which was popular but people loved it and hated it. So, we went with a wheat beer to round out the lineup.
The Chinese brew a typical black beer, light beer and white beer in their lineup. So, they typically go by color. They don’t really have a vocabulary yet for the beer styles. We don’t do that. We don’t dumb it down. We just brew what we think is best, what we think you should be drinking. Obviously, we’re open to feedback too. We eventually swapped out our wheat for a cider. The cider is one of our core. It’s something I pushed against for awhile but it was in high demand.
Also, I think we have to look at where we are in the market. We're like craft beer in the 80’s in the US. You didn’t need to make cucumber flavored beer in 1988. You needed to make a Pale Ale that was solid that you can drink over and over. We do make weird shit too. We've put mushrooms in beer, we've put local fruits, we've put spices. But our core beers are very drinkable and easy to understand.
CF: The reason why we have a core four is because it’s easy to drive people to a beer. If someone wants a light beer, we have one.
JF: We try to keep one or two beers for the beer geeks and then everything else for the regular customer.
What are the Chinese beer geeks drinking out here?
JF: They’re going for IPA’s.
CF: It’s new to them. Five years ago, they wouldn’t even go near an IPA.
JF: Plus, its three letters. It’s easy to say and to sell. And, most of the IPA's in China aren't IPAs. They’ll be half the IBUs, a third of the ABV is missing and it’s not the right color.
But, then the other problem is, most foreigners have been exposed to a much larger variety of beers of a much higher quality. The Chinese, unless they’ve traveled extensively, have only drank craft beer in China which is already suspect no matter how great the beer was when it left its origins. So, it’s just two different levels of beer experiences.
Are there craft beer festivals you participate in? Who's participating when the scene is still relatively new?
JF: Well, there's the Shenzhen Craft Beer Fest. The first one we had six breweries. The second one had 15 breweries.
We’ve found a lot of American breweries exporting their beers to China. But, just because you can export doesn't mean the people are going to drink it, right?
CF: There's a lot of people with a ton of money here. But it's not like they know Rogue or Stone IPA if they saw it at a bar. Y'know, things just aren't going to sell themselves.
JF: That's something that we're going to explore though. I'm planning to head back home in Pennsylvania for a little bit, meet some breweries and see if there's anybody interested in doing some sorta opportunity where we're legally licensed to import and distribute. Maybe that's a way to get a guy on the ground, so to speak.
For example, just to send over beer from the US and to have a buyer here in China buy it, what happens to it when it leaves the pallet? What environment does the beer sit in? What truck does it go on? What kind of bars are they going into? Is there a brand rep on the ground to help sell it, move it, explain the difference, etc.? There's a few guys out there that are doing a good job of selling craft beer out here but there’s not enough of them. There could be more.
CF: Sometimes we get people come in here for a beer and they ask, "How much beer do you get for the 45RMB (~$7) beer?" I show them a pint glass and they go, “Really? For that much?" And, it’s not that it’s expensive, it’s because it’s affordable. We've gone back and forth, should we raise our prices, should we lower our prices? But we've kept it relatively low.
So, three shutdowns total. This bar which you don't know how long will last. Your brewing facility is contracted. It seems like you guys are always operating on your toes.
CF: That's China.
JF: I couldn't imagine if I worked this hard in the US and I didn’t crush it. What we do here, whenever I go back home, I feel like we operate at three to five times the speed here. We're on fire all the time. And, sweaty as hell too (laughs).
CF: It's like this in China. We're always on the grind, always hustling, always thinking about the next thing to happen. You have to be ten steps ahead because that might be when we lose the place.
JF: Everything's difficult. I don't even have a car. I was delivering kegs from an Uber and taxis. That's how I deliver kegs and have been doing for more than a year. You gotta join a lottery to get a license plate here.
As a foreigner?
JF: No anybody. Just because you buy a car doesn’t mean you get a license for it. You have to join a lottery to get a license for it. There are some workarounds like if you buy an electric vehicle or whatever. Our challenges are very different from the challenges in the US. Although, at least it’s a known challenge versus an unknown challenge. Here, there’s a shitload of unknown challenges. Fortunately, when you've been here long enough, you can kinda figure things out.
CF: We're in the ghetto of Shenzhen. This area is old and you can see buildings across the street getting knocked down for a high-tech park that’s being built.
JF: Y'know I'm never worried about being shut down again. I wouldn’t be worried about not having a new facility in time for us to be prepared to closed in a month’s notice. You know, a landlord might get a two month notice that their building is getting knocked down but they won’t tell you until the day before demolition. So, when that day comes, we'll just have a party here and burn it down.
CF: My plan for when we get shut down is I'll have a sledgehammer here... you pay 100RMB (~$15) and you get a pint of beer. You can take three swings, whatever you break, you can take with you.
JF: Not the draft system though.
CF: Oh yea, not the draft system.
*This interview has been edited for clarity. Thanks to Joe and Cody for being excellent hosts.
Photography by Meng Yang
Be sure to check out our previous "Beer & Branding" features of Helms Workshop, for Rhinegeist Brewery, here, & Boulevard Brewing, here. Also, for a peek at design from other fellow Chinese brewers, be sure to view our feature of Hong Kong Beer Co., here.
Be sure to check out our first feature of the Bionic Beer brand, from January 2017, here: