Beer Made in Heaven: How Sonny Gyalzur's homecoming launched China's largest independent brewery, Shangri-La Beer
Interviewed June 17, 2017 BY MENG YANG
at The Turtle Bar - Kunming, China
Located in China’s far southwest boundary is Yunnan province. Lining the western border is Myanmar while Laos and Vietnam zig-zag along the southern edge. Straddling the north and northwest borderlines is Sichuan province and the autonomous region of Tibet. Being surrounded by several nations and domains, it’s fair to say Yunnan is also the most ethnically diverse Chinese province. Various ethnic groups consider Yunnan province home, with each group also maintaining their own tribal languages, music & arts, customs, traditions and beliefs–interwoven with Chinese culture.
Fittingly, the landscape of Yunnan is also as varied as its residents. To the south, subtropical climate and hilly terrain will keep you sweaty and bothersome with mosquitoes. To the north, the Himalayan Mountain ranges and elevation will leave you chilly and short of breath. But, central Yunnan is fair with temperate weather–just warm enough at dusk and just cool enough during the day.
Having gotten a feel for the region's landscape and cultural influences, we met up with Songsten Gyalzur, Founder & head of Shangri-La Highland Craft Brewery, in the city of Kunming at The Turtle Bar (a craft beer bar run by a German and Australian). As the major commercial city, Kunming is the central gateway to Yunnan province with connecting international flights and domestic high-speed rail lines. It’s a modern city filled with shopping malls, hotels, restaurants, bars and congested streets. Although, this part of China is modernizing with contemporary amenities, craft beer is still in its mere infancy in Yunnan province. We spoke with Songsten (who goes by 'Sonny') about traveling the world and how Shangri-La Beer is a multi-prong effort in creating a craft beer identity for Yunnan province. And also how it's creating job opportunities for former kids from his mother’s orphanage.
So, Sonny, your brewery–it's in the highlands of Yunnan near Tibet?
Yeah, it's in the Himalayas. It's a pity that you couldn't make it out to Shangri-La. I would've liked to show you the brewery and how we're doing things out there...
We definitely wanted to but our itinerary didn't allow enough time for the trek out there. The town was formerly known as 'Zhongdian,' then it was renamed to Shangri-la, correct?
Yes, I heard a story that the local people found a plane in the real Shangri-La woods. And, in the book “Lost Horizon”, there's a plane that landed in the fictional Shangri-La. This book also described the fictional Shangri-La with red soil and all these similar features to the real Shangri-La. So, I think that's the reason why the town was renamed. But, Shangri-La is as mystical as it is beautiful.
Tell us a bit about yourself, and how you ended up here.
My background is that I'm Tibetan. But, I was born in and raised in Switzerland. My parents traveled the ancient teahouse route; they were part of the caravans and during the Cultural Revolution in China–they were in India at the time, and they couldn't get back to Tibet. They ended up in India for a while, and then they moved to Switzerland. My father studied in Dharamsala [India] and was sent as a teacher around the country there, before moving to Zurich, Switzerland.
Shangri-La’s countryside looks almost like Switzerland but just a 100 years back [laughs]. So, for me, it's not much of a difference living in Shangri-La and Switzerland. I have mountains, forests, lakes...all around me.
What's it like traveling back and forth between Shangri-La and Zurich?
Well, Zurich is 400m over sea level. And Shangri-La is 3,300m over sea level...
It's quite a difference, of course culturally too. But, I grew up speaking German, and we had to speak French too.
So, you're pretty fluent. So, you speak Swiss-German, French, Tibetan, English and Chinese?
My Chinese is very bad [laughs]. But, my 'mother language' is definitely Swiss-German, and Tibetan.
So, what brought you back to Shangri-La and Yunnan province in China?
I was doing a round-the-world trip for 14 months. It was a very good time, by the way.
Where'd you travel to?
I started from Switzerland, to Spain. Then, I flew to Venezuela–I was in Isla Margarita for a while, kitesurfing there. I love surfing and snowboarding and all that stuff. Then I traveled around Venezuela, then later to Peru. Then from Peru to Argentina. Argentina to Chile, Chile to Easter Islands then to Haiti. From Haiti to New Zealand to Australia, then to Bali, Indonesia... Then in Bali, I was there for two months...because I was surfing again [laughs].
After that, I arrived in China. The reason was that I wanted to visit my mom. She'd set-up and founded two orphanages in Tibet. The first one is in Lhasa and that was almost 30 years ago. And the second one is in Shangri-La. So, for me, it was harder to stay in Lhasa, because I have a Swiss passport and the geo-political situation was a bit tense at the time. So, I decided to visit Shangri-La since my parents were there. While there, they asked, “What're you gonna do next?” I said, “Well, I want to travel to India, then from India to Africa... Maybe I want to do the whole thing again!" So, my mom insisted that I was being quite the selfish person.
How old were you at the time?
I was 33 at the time. So, my mom said, “You should settle down. You should do something else. You should maybe help me. I have so many problems with the kids at the orphanage; especially the kids who were graduating from school.” These kids were graduating and they had problems finding jobs. Plus, I had experience working with interns back in Switzerland. And so, my mom said I should do something like that, to work with these kids.
So, I thought, “Why not?" Plus, I had a chance to meet all my relatives there in Shangri-La.
How much convincing did it take from your mother to make you stay?
Seven nights of talking. At the beginning, I was angry because she said I was a selfish person and I said, “I'm not a selfish person.” [laughs]. And we kept talking and talking. After seven nights, I thought, “Ok, I'll do it for one season.”
So, I took over a small space in the old town of Shangri-La and opened a restaurant. I took the first seven kids and started running this restaurant. I had no idea about running a restaurant business. But, we did it.
I taught them how to cook, to clean, bookkeeping, take orders, learn English... And, on the other side, I had a chance to pick-up the Chinese language. During that time, I was selling the local, Chinese, industrial beers–and of course, I drank them too. I love beer, but I was quite disappointed with the taste profile because I was used to very nice beers from small towns and villages in Switzerland. So, I got very interested in how they made it and why they tasted the way they do.
This piqued your interest in brewing...
During my studies in Switzerland, I had two schoolmates, they were homebrewers. So, I thought, if they can brew beer, then I can do that here too. I thought it'd be a cool idea to have your own beer in your own restaurant. At that time, it was 2008-09, I had no idea about the whole 'craft beer' thing. I thought maybe I was the only one in China doing it [laughs]. Then I heard later that there were two others; One is Boxing Cat in Shanghai and Great Leap in Beijing. But, I heard of them way later.
I was just doing my own thing then I thought, “We need water,” and the water is very good up there in Shangri-La. Then, I thought, “We need malt,” and we have this special grain local to the area–the Tibetan Highland Barley. So I thought, if I could use these two local ingredients, then I can make a very local product. That was the start of our small microbrewery. I had some help from a Swiss Brewmaster [Freddy Stauffer]. I asked him and he came over and taught us how to make this beer.
What was the first couple months like, when you were just experimenting?
With the small microbrewery, we were experimenting every week and that was a really fun time. But, soon after that, the local government came to me said, “We heard you were brewing your own beer and bottling it. It's not allowed, there are laws and policies and regulations.” But, then they said, “We heard you're brewing your beer with the local grain–so we’re very interested that you’re consuming more of these local ingredients...”
The local district had a problem; this highland barley used to be the number one food resource for Tibetan people. Nowadays, they have rice, vegetables...many affordable choices. So, all these acres of field became a wasteland. So, when I bought this barley to brew beer, they had a reason to facilitate this land.
They came up with this idea and said, “We would like to support you,” and I thought at that time, 'support' means 'financial support', right? [laughs] In the end, I figured out they were allowing me to build a brewery. They were giving me a green light.
What was the next step after that?
So, in 2014, I went back to my partners in Switzerland–I told them that our microbrewery is doing well, we're selling out of beers. Then the idea was to build a bigger brewery. I did my business plan with my cousin who was also in China at the time studying Chinese–he was from Switzerland also, with a banker background. He analyzed the market and said, “There’s a chance here for craft beer.” At that time, we started to learn what 'craft beer' was.
But before 'craft beer, when everyone asked me about beer, I always called it 'speciality beer.' Because in Swiss and German, we say 'spezialitäten bier,' meaning from a local, small brewery. But, then I heard of 'craft beer' and I was interested in how they were doing it in America, Europe, etc. So, in 2014, we decided to build our bigger brewery.
Your beers seem to really emphasize using a major, local ingredient: Tibetan Highland Barley. Do you guys malt it? That's another process in itself.
So far, we’re using our highland barley as raw fruit. We're using up to 30% of highland barley in our recipes. Right now, we're working on another project to malt the barley because eventually, we'll brew a beer that uses 100% of this barley. With these highland barleys, we have 12 different kinds of it there in Shangri-La. The qualities are always going to be a mixture of that. We figured out in the meanwhile, which one we can use. We’re working closely with the farmers telling them how we want them–what conditions we need them, etc. So, we did a lot of research on the highland barley and we have our own research center for quality control.
But my dream is to eventually have the highland barley malted in a good quality that I can use–not only as a basic malt but also for specialty malts.
That's quite the plan.
Well, the good thing here in Yunnan province is we're packed with a lot of special ingredients, not limited to malts.
Well, the province is so broad and varied.
Yes, exactly. In the south, Xishuangbanna is tropical–so we have teas, spices, fruits... Up north in Shangri-La, we have different medicinal herbs, flowers, mushrooms, trees, etc. which we can use for brewing. But, before, when we had the small microbrewery, we were more experimental–very creative.
With the big brewery, we narrowed our focus. At the end of the day–at our brewhouse every time we finish a brew–it has to be perfect and it has to sell. So, we focus our efforts on six beers, but we’re still brewing specialty beers at the brewhouse.
It seems like you’re sitting on a pot of creative ideas. But, what's the market like here? Are people in Yunnan craving a Pu-er tea-infused beer...?
So, this is the situation in Yunnan. It’s different from the east, like say in Beijing, Shanghai, etc. In Shanghai and Beijing, the market is quite mature so the people know of craft beer or have heard of craft beer and are eager to try. Here in Yunnan, we're still very early on the scene.
Early on, we brewed nice IPAs, double IPAs, and the people were drinking it and said, “This is not beer. This is medicine!” [laughs] People were saying it’s too herbal, too bitter, whatever. So, my Swiss Brewmaster said, “Sonny, when the angler goes fishing, the worm has to taste for the fish, not for the angler.” So, the lesson was we had to create specialities which our market would want. So, we are developing the market here in Yunnan right now.
How long did it take for you guys to start realizing this?
It's ongoing. What we're doing is the basic recipes which we had in the beginning and we are trying to educate the people. So, when they get hooked onto this taste, then we can start trying out some higher ABV, more flavor, more hops, etc. So, we have to do it slowly. Because otherwise, no one here will drink it. Currently, our main market is Yunnan and the Tibetan areas, because we are a Tibetan beer company brewed in the highlands and we want to serve the local people.
So, do you find Kunming as the main city to sell to, since it’s the biggest city in the province?
Kunming is definitely one that we started to service this year. But, for me, it’s Shangri-La, Dali and Lijiang. The reason why is one-sided: it’s our region, very close to the brewery. And, also, there are a lot of tourists that head to these places.
The idea is when visitors visit these places, they like to try the local things–they can try our beers and then they can share with their friends. But, visitors can also come to our brewery because some people can't believe that this type of beer is being brewed in Shangri-La. They say it’s not possible, and so they want to see the brewery in person.
I've noticed after two days here in Kunming, I've seen your beer around town at a few places. It's at our hostel, being promoted as the local beer. It's at a few convenience stores we've popped in... How big is your distribution?
Well, I think that craft beer here needs a home. This is my belief. So, in China, right now, I can see craft beer is being sold and sent all over the country. But, I think, first of all, my beer should be drank here. Of course, if someone wants to have my beer in Beijing or Shanghai, whatever–we'll ship it over. But, the main market for me is Yunnan and the Tibetan areas. We are strong in the Tibetan areas right now.
It seems with Shangri-La Brewery, you're very focused on creating Yunnan-influenced beers. Is it fair to say, Shangri-la wants to be known as the beer of Yunnan province?
Exactly. That's our idea. Like I said, beer needs a home. For me, beer is a local business, right? So, it's good that maybe later you can expand. But, in the moment, I'm focusing on this area. There's still a lot of work to do [laughs].
So, how do you convince a bar owner to buy a keg of 'Shangri-La Beer'? How do you convince them to share their tap handles?
Right now, we're focused on bottles because the market in Yunnan for tap/draft isn't developed. We're developing our own market for taps right now but it's really in its infancy. It's not a big challenge to get into the market, it's the education part. To sell into a bar or restaurant is easy. But, the people–the drinkers–that's the hard part, right? One thing, Shangri-La beer is a fairly new brand. The other is, its 'craft.' It's a premium product. We have to push our beers. We have to do tastings–explain the difference between industrial beers and our beers, and why it's more expensive. All these kinds of things require education.
What types of events do you do to get people to try your beers?
We've done food pairings in the past. We've had a French chef combine his food with our beers. The other thing we've done is organize events. And, we're trying to build a fan-base. That's how we're promoting our beers here.
And of course, it helps when we're winning awards. Last year, we won silver medal for our Black Yak Schwarzbier, as the first Chinese brewery at the 2016 European Beer Star. Also, we won two medals at the Brussels Beer Challenge; Yalaso won silver for 'Light Lager' and Songha for 'Export German Lager.' Then, we won another four medals at the Chinese Beer Awards, which is international but isn’t as widely known.
So I noticed, along with bottling, you're also canning your light lager, Yalaso, right?
The reason why we're canning that is, we're selling a lot of our beers in the Tibetan area and the people there love to go for picnics and hiking. So, it’s easier for them to have a can than a bottle. So, Yalaso is a very light lager, has a light malty taste and we dryhop it with Mandarina Bavaria hops. But, it’s very light because we can’t have it too strong because the people are not used to high-ABV, heavy body just yet. So, these canned beers are mostly selling in the Tibetan areas.
Is that your most popular beer?
In terms of volume, it’s definitely the Yalaso beer. It’s the beer that I drink after I play soccer. It’s light, refreshing and it goes down easily. This is the beer that local people drink the most, so if they want to drink that beer, I'll provide it to them. This year, our recipe’s a little bit different from last years. A little bit higher in ABV, a little more IBUs, etc.
Then, the second would be Son Gha. It’s a straightforward, nice German lager. I love it. I grew up with these kinds of beers. Then, we have a big fan base with the Tibetan Pale Ale and Fat Joma.
Describe how those are different.
The Tibetan Pale Ale, in the beginning when we created this beer, we used an ancient Tibetan yeast. I saw that the local people were making their own traditional rice wine called 'Chang.' So, I took this wild yeast to a lab in Switzerland and they came back and isolated it and said, “This is not a yeast; this is 25 different types of yeast in this sample. And, 23 of them are wild yeast, which we wouldn't suggest to make beer. But, two of the strains could be used to make beer.” Plus, these two strains are quite familiar and similar with rice yeast in Japan. So, there's a connection there somehow and it’s quite interesting. So, we took these two yeast cells and separated them and started brewing our Tibetan Pale Ale with it.
Whoa, so it's practically an indigenous Himalayan beer.
Exactly, it’s a top-fermenting, indigenous beer. Most people think, “TPA–Tibetan Pale Ale–it must be like an IPA,” so they expect it to be bitter. It's not. It's a beer that's familiar and tuned to the taste of the local people. So, it has more body and a slight fruitiness.
All of our beers are about the high drinkability. But, the exception is the Fat Joma. That's is a double-wheat bock. It's 8.2% ABV–it’s sweet and heavy, and I don't drink this beer. But, we've got a lot of people that drink it and love it.
Like ex-pats or locals?
Locals! Locals. Even the Tibetan ladies love to get pissed on Fat Joma [laughs]. And, it’s a very good brand driver. Because, 'Joma' is a typical name for Tibetan ladies and 'Fat Joma' is an homage to Tibetan mothers. Because they take care of everything. We basically created this big beer for Tibetan mommas! [laughs]
Right now, we're pushing our six core beers. But, our Chinese Brewmaster, he's very open to trying new things. We're always experimenting. We're playing around with saffron. We've got some different mushrooms in Shangri-La–matsutake mushrooms which gives a very smooth, silky flavor. We have truffle. So, we're always trying new things with what’s available in the province.
So what other beers are currently in your lineup?
Well, we've got three beers right now that are going to the international beer competitions this year especially in Europe. One is a barrel-aged dark beer, it's not a stout or a porter.
What are you aging the beer in?
We have a very special Himalayan pine, and this pine has a very unique flavor. Tibetan people use the wood to build monasteries, so at the monastery there's always this lingering incense smell from the wood. We are aging this beer with oak barrels from Moet Hennessy. They have a project up in Shangri-La; they're making wine up there. Also, the winemaker is a very good friend of mine, a French guy, Max. So, I bought up all their used barrels. And, we put the Himalayan pine wood-chips into the barrels.
I think that because I'm from Switzerland, I really believe in innovation and rethinking things. That’s why I created this beer with my Brewmaster, Gellar. I just wanted to show that we can create this kind of unique flavor. So, for us, we're learning a lot of things not just from brewmasters but also from chefs, parfumeries, distillers; that makes our life much more interesting.
We also have a beer with Buddha's Hand; this fruit you can't eat. Chinese folks use it as medicine and Tibetans use it for worship but the flavor of this fruit is different from limes, lemons, oranges, etc. So, we took out the flavor of the Buddha's hand and distilled it and balanced it out with a beer base, which is unlike any beer I've drank.
You guys are quite experimental.
That's the sexy thing about my job. It's not only office stuff and counting numbers. The challenging thing for me is to create new things. When we're talking about the craft beer revolution in China, then from my understanding, this is craft beer. We're not interested in making just a traditional German wheat beer.
What are your challenges as a businessman then? What regulations do you have to adhere to?
If you can set up a brewery in China, then you can set-up just about anywhere. But, the productions and the challenges to establish a brewery are very challenging. You have to deal with high volume because the Chinese government doesn’t really want 'small' breweries, they want to have big breweries which they can control. So in our company, we have three people that work just for the government. Everyday, they work only to fulfill and inform to the government what were doing, etc.
They're very involved.
These are the challenges we have. And, our brewery is a bit different because when I first set it up, the main goal was not "I can make a lot of money." The goals were first, "I want to drink good beer"–that was my motivation. Second, I wanted to help orphaned kids. So, these two ideas existing are very important for my brewery in Shangri-La. Eighty percent of our workers are former kids from the orphanage. We train them and provide them jobs. We call that corporate social responsibility. These things are important to me.
The other thing is, I want to have fun. That’s why I always–during my spare time–try to create new beers which maybe will never make it into a bottle, but is purely for creativity. The very important thing is if I only look at this project as a social project or a hobby, I'll never be successful. So, it’s a combination of us having a proper business plan, having an understanding of the beer market in China, and being a pioneer in what we are doing, and being flexible.
Another thing I noticed is your partnership with a Swiss town, Arosa.
Yes! Arosa is a very beautiful town in the Swiss Mountains. We love to go there for skiing and hiking since my childhood. I have another company in Switzerland which is in real estate development. We have a project over there where we bought land and are developing a hotel project there. So, we have good connections with the local government there.
And when I started to think about building the Shangri-La Brewery, I knew that I'm not familiar with Chinese customs but everyone knows that having a relationship with the local government is very important. So, I was thinking about how to establish a good working relationship with them because it was crucial for us to build up this brewery.
And, Shangri-La has a lot of similarities with Arosa...just 100 years behind [laughs]. I thought if I could establish a sister city partnership with Arosa and Shangri-La, then Shangri-La can benefit from it. Because Arosa has more than 100 years experience with tourism, they know how to run a sustainable tourist destination. For Arosa, the Chinese travel market is becoming more and more important in Switzerland. And under this umbrella, I have a chance to establish a good network to the government.
How difficult was it to get both towns on board?
First, we invited all the government people from Arosa to Shangri-La. Then we invited all the Shangri-La people to Arosa... We figured they need to know each other, right? So, both groups said 'yes.' So, on the Arosa side, we set up an agreement and they signed it one week after. From Shangri-La, we didn't know what would happen. A sister city partnership is a political partnership, and a political partnership has to travel up through the chain of command in Beijing. That whole thing took us two years [laughs]. It was not easy, but it was not that there was a problem–it just took long. So, it’s been about five years of this sister city partnership.
It seems that Shangri-La Brewery has benefited the local government as well as the local economy in Shangri-La and Arosa. It's helped your mom’s orphanage, provided jobs to students... So, everything you planned has manifested itself.
Can you see all the beautiful things beer can do!? [laughs]
So, is there a homebrew or craft beer community in this part of China? Have you had locals coming in and asking where to learn to brew and buy malts, hops, etc.?
I was actually quite surprised, in the Tibetan community. There are now four people who came to our brewery and wanted to learn how to brew. I loved it!
That would a be a 400% increase in membership compared to a few years ago, hah!
[laughs] I was so surprised when they came. They heard about me and and they were telling me all about their homebrewing efforts. It was fun and I love to and I support it. In 2008, when I was just trying to brew, I didn’t even know where I could get my brewing materials. So, I bought just about everything, more or less, from Switzerland. But, yeah, in China, there are suppliers that can ship homebrew ingredients nowadays.
How well have your beers been received inside and outside of China?
That’s a funny thing. A lot of people in China, when they drink the beer, they think it can’t be brewed in Shangri-La. They think it doesn’t exist or isn’t real. So, sometimes, we have to convince people in China that we can brew very good craft beers just like Great Leap Brewing, Boxing Cat or Master Gao... We have to convince them, because the normal Chinese consumer is skeptical that a Chinese product could be so cheap.
But, we're getting more requests to ship our beers internationally. We have a distributor in the US and they're shipping our beers to San Diego. We attended the San Diego Craft Beer Festival, and after two days, our beers sold out. We also ship to Europe and we're working on a distribution deal to bring our beers into their lineup.
So, how often is your brewery operating–when are brew days?
We're brewing everyday. We have our Swiss Brewmaster who comes every two weeks to check up. But our Chinese Brewmaster is there, and we have assistant brewers who can brew by themselves. Then, Head of Production is a former kid from the orphanage, self-trained. We're always improving. We've got a lab with a lab assistant and a head of lab. But, we are running our brewery as a brewery not as a brewpub.
So, the orphanage and the brewery go hand-in-hand?
It's very important for me that the kids learn something. I realized that it’s not that we train them, it’s that we educate them first. Then, we train them so they can have to ability and skills to work in the brewery. We have a cooperation with Wuhan University for learning to brew, and they have a cooperation with Doemens in Germany. So, we work with them to come over and teach our young guys on different subjects of brewing.
That’s a lot of work that we put into our brewhouse. Our Swiss Brewmaster, he just went back to Switzerland and will be back in another two weeks... He keeps on teaching our guys to run the brewhouse.
Well, I have to ask. What does your mom think of you now?
[laughs] My parents–both–are very proud of the orphanage project we did. They're very proud, and we want to make sure we don't lose our Tibetan culture.
Photography by Tiffany Yang. Additional brewery photos by Giorgio Giacomelli.
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. Thanks to Giorgio Giacomelli from Shangri-la Brewery for handling all the logistics and The Turtle Bar for hosting our interview.