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This time last year, Wang Fan’s business was on the ropes. Wang — commonly, affectionately referred to as 光头 or “Baldy” — is the founder of Wuhan’s first craft beer brand No. 18 Brewery, and in early March of 2020, the city was still one month away from emerging out of the world’s first and perhaps tightest coronavirus lockdown.
With large swathes of the population confined to their homes for 76 days, the challenges for a hospitality business were immense, even if they were overshadowed by the human tragedy unfolding in the city of 11 million.
It was, Wang admits, their “darkest time” and No. 18 almost didn’t make it through. “We closed all five of our outlets and our brewery, and the direct economic loss stretched into the millions,” he says.
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Given what was happening in the city, Wang’s concern naturally went beyond that for just his own business. He helped organize meal kits for homeless people sheltering in underground carparks, while head brewer Jiang Qi was among those who signed up to help medical staff get to and from work in the midst of the pandemic.
As Wuhan’s situation improved, Wang and his team took to selling beers via livestreaming in an attempt to revive the brand’s fortunes. Then, once it was possible to reopen, one of No. 18 Brewery’s first actions was to begin work on a special new brew to commemorate what Wuhan had been through. In April last year, they released “Wuhan Jia Ha Zi You,” or “Wuhan Stay Strong.” The beer — a lightly sweet sakura-flavored offering that also referenced the city’s famous cherry blossom season — came in limited edition cans with labels that peeled back to reveal a scroll-like timeline of imagery from Wuhan under lockdown.
View this post on InstagramA post shared by No.18 Brewing & Co. (@18brewery)
A post shared by No.18 Brewing & Co. (@18brewery)
Images of medical workers in hazmat suits, empty city scenes, and photos of residents coming together to support people in need featured next to a poem from Wang Xiaobo that read, “If I can shine, don’t be afraid of darkness; if I am so beautiful, then all fear can be dispelled.”
“The design of that can was inspired by the team’s hope to spread the real situation of Wuhan to more people,” says Wang Fan. They made 100,000 cans and sold out in minutes.
“At that time, I was really worried that people wouldn’t be accepting of drinks produced in Wuhan,” he says. “There were all sorts of stories on the internet. But fortunately, there were even more people who supported us, and because of everyone’s backing, we survived the most difficult moments. The epidemic has made us more united, and made us firm in the belief that we will continue to do community work and devote ourselves to public welfare in the future.”
One of No. 18’s brewpubs (photo courtesy of No. 18 Brewery)
Among those helping spread word of the Jia Ha Zi You beer were more than 100 craft beer bars across China, proof Wang feels that even as the country’s craft beer scene has witnessed explosive growth in recent years there’s still a feeling of community among those involved. “There is healthy competition [as the market grows], but there’s more cooperation. And we’ve benefited a lot from the growth in the market — we’ve gone from having one shop and one small brewing workshop to having eight beer bars across the country and the first specialized brewery in central China.”
No. 18’s development since its founding in 2013 has certainly been phenomenal. It’s partly testament to an expanding market that has had some analysts excitedly predicting 30% year-on-year growth, even as craft ales continue to make up a small fraction of China’s 85 billion USD beer market.
Wang was running just another music bar in Wuhan when, in 2011, he came across a bottle of Brew Dog’s Punk IPA. “When I drank it, I felt like the taste was amazing, so I went down this rabbit hole, looking for all kinds of beers from everywhere, and slowly became moved by the craftsmanship involved,” he recalls. He began selling some craft beers in his bar, saw business pick up and soon transformed his venue into Wuhan’s first dedicated craft beer bar.
The original No. 18 bar (photo courtesy of No. 18 Brewery)
In 2012, he met Jiang, who was studying home brewing, and the two formed a partnership to create their own beer that has now lasted almost a decade and seen them rake in multiple international awards in the process.
And while Covid-19 nearly delivered a knock-out blow for No. 18, they’ve ultimately come back stronger. Their signature Tiao Dong Who IPA — named after the Wuhan tradition of jumping into the city’s eastern lake to mark the end of summer — can now be found in bars across China and beyond, while the brand has begun opening brewpubs in other cities, such as Hangzhou.
Nevertheless, Wang is keen to emphasize No. 18’s enduring commitment to their roots. “In my eyes, craft brewing is more synonymous with independence, creativity and localization,” he says. “So persisting in local culture and creativity will continue to be the foundation of our livelihood.”
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