Wine tastings are becoming commonplace for China’s emerging middle class as discerning consumers are demanding new and unusual blends. Jennytha Raj and her co-founders at Drinking Buddies Distribution and Beer Club are banking on applying that same concept to craft beer.
Beer sales by volume have been dropping in China for the last three years, but the change has been fueled by falling demand for cheap brands. In their place are premium and unusual beers supplied both by domestic craft breweries as well as imported labels that are becoming increasingly appealing to younger, affluent consumers. Many of the better-known names in the craft beer industry, like Scotland’s BrewDog and Denmark’s Mikkeller, have been vying for a piece of this market, but thanks to a handful of savvy entrepreneurs, much smaller players are getting the chance to introduce their brews to curious Chinese consumers.
Drinking Buddies, which more commonly goes by its Chinese name, 啤友汇 Piyouhui, operates as a subscription-based tasting club. Customers sign up through WeChat, then receive a box of six different bottles of craft beer shipped to their door every month. Their brands are grouped by country, with most recent places covered including Korea, Ireland, and the UK. The hook? The breweries are typically smaller operations that the average consumer will likely have never heard of.
For example, one now sold-out Drinking Buddies partner brew hails from The Tickety Brew Company, which was started by a husband and wife duo in the small town of Stalybridge, Manchester. Another, Brew Age in Austria, refer to themselves as “gypsy brewers” because they are so small that they don’t have their own brewery, instead teaming up with local partners to produce their brews. The only way these sellers would be able to come to China is through a small-scale distribution avenue like Drinking Buddies, who can handle everything from the marketing down to the customs papers. The latter part is particularly challenging for the smaller brewers because the styles of the beers are so unique that their names often don’t have a Chinese translation.
The exclusivity of the beers is partly what fuels interest from Drinking Buddies’ Chinese consumer base, which is currently spread out all over the country. Raj said they are able to supply beers to a few retailers and bars in Beijing and Shanghai, but stock is still limited based on the capacity of the microbreweries they work with. The limited supply means tasting club members are able to show off the beer they receive to friends as they will likely be the only ones among their circles to have access to it. “I notice members are posting pictures on WeChat Moments of themselves hosting dinner parties and introducing the beers,” Raj said.
So far, Raj said, it’s clear that Chinese clients are responding well to their service, which lets consumers sign up for a three-month trial membership for 650 RMB (about US$95), all the way to a “gold” level year-long membership for 2,000 RMB (US$290). But members also have the opportunity to purchase beers they like individually, and Raj said there are “people buying boxes upon boxes. The amount I would normally sell to a retailer, they’re buying for themselves.”
Even though it may seem that many of their customers would have graduated to buying these more unusual brands from being craft beer drinkers on the regular, Raj said many of their Chinese customers are new to drinking craft beer and have misconceptions about it. Thus, becoming part of the Drinking Buddies club also means getting access to events where they have tastings and workshops. Raj starts newcomers off with the lightest brews and will explain the complex flavors, brewing processes, and brand story.
“We keep it really educational because we’re trying to teach people how to drink beer,” she said. “Craft beer is a case of sipping and tasting it, and when I explain that it’s just like wine, that’s when they get it.”