Change is Brewing: The Women Who Are Transforming Asia’s Craft Beer Industry

Sep 25, 2019

Craft beer isn’t the sole domain of men anymore. Across Asia, trailblazing female brewers are transforming the industry. Craig Sauers talks with some of the best in the business.

Even after helping to build China’s biggest craft brewery from the ground up, Liu Fang still hears about how women don’t belong in beer. The co-founder of Beijing-based Great Leap Brewing, a woman who also co-authored a proposed national standard for craft beer in China, says it’s common to hear that women shouldn’t be making beer. Their voices get ignored, their opportunities limited in patriarchal societies that consider perfect women to be wives and mothers. But times are changing—and fast.

Liu Fang, founder of Great Leap.

Liu represents a new wave of women in Asia who are turning the male-dominated beer industry on its head. At Great Leap, she has cultivated a flat hierarchy among a team of 200, where all voices factor into decision-making and women assume prominent positions organically. “Most of our managing roles are filled by strong females,” she says. Among them is Wiebke Marie Hence, who left her job with Guinness to oversee the construction of Great Leap’s new 18,500-square- meter facility in Tianjin, the port city near Beijing. Add in Foo-Lan Xin, the highly regarded Singaporean brewer who previously worked for boundary-pushing Warpigs in Copenhagen, and you begin to see what Liu means.

“For most of my career, I’ve had the good fortune of working with people who treat me as their equal,” Foo says. “My parents have always been skeptical about my life choices in a ‘Goodness, what’s she up to now?’ kind of way. They were slow to accept it but really embraced the notion after a couple of years.”

By contrast, Kaori Oshita never needed to win over her parents. In fact, by pursuing a career in craft beer, she has carried out her father’s dream. “My father was running a retail liquor store [in Osaka], but he wanted more diversity in the selection of beers he sold. Back in 1996, the Japanese craft-beer market was very small, so I had to make the beer myself,” she explains.

The oldest of three sisters, Oshita took on the burden of learning to brew at a pilot program in Hiroshima while she was still a student. Within a year, Minoh was born and beer became the family business. Since then, Minoh has been a fixture at the World Beer Awards, taking home prizes nearly every year. From their pilsner to their IPA to their dry Irish stout, the sisters have won almost too many medals to count. Twenty-three years later, they still run the brewery together, but without the support of their father, who passed away in 2012. If he were around today, though, Oshita thinks he would be excited about the growth of not only his daughters’ work but Japan’s beer scene as well.

Kaori Oshita has been brewing Minoh for 23 years.

“It’s a good environment with a lot of information exchange,” she says. “There are so many women in the Japanese craft beer industry. Not just brewers but bar owners and customers, too.”

Making beer, however, isn’t exactly glamorous. “The year we opened Minoh, I lost more than nine kilograms. I wasn’t used to the work,” she notes. Brewers lug around 23-kilo bags of barley and stand over steaming-hot kettles filled with boiling water all day. They also repair leaky barrels, clean metal equipment, and hoist heavy boxes of bottles. “You have to be tough,” Oshita says.

Winnie Hsu agrees. “Brewing, cleaning, brewing, cleaning—it’s hard,” says Hsu, the creative engine powering Taihu, Taiwan’s most innovative brewery. But she doesn’t entertain the notion of women not being equal to the task. “I’m not really interested in that. Sorry,” she says with a laugh. “At least half our team are women. I didn’t go out looking for [women]. They applied and were great fits.”

But the unflappable Hsu does harbor a hard-earned appreciation for the effort that goes into making Taihu’s ever-growing portfolio of beers. The Hop Lanterns IPA series, for instance, saw her creating a new India Pale Ale every month. She also makes a beer for Taiwan Pride each year based on the colors of the rainbow. The first two Pride releases have incorporated butterfly pea flower (violet) and cranberry and lychee (red). “A yellow beer would be boring,” she says.

On top of developing new products to keep up with demand— Taihu doesn’t just have a cult following; the beer is available in 7-Elevens and Starbucks in Taiwan and mainland China—she also manages the brewery team and creates production schedules. “I can’t really relax,” Hsu says.

Winnie Hsu creates beers for Taihu, Taiwan’s most innovative craft brewery.

Not that she would anyway. A self- described workaholic, Hsu regularly puts in 70-hour weeks and travels overseas to represent Taihu at beer festivals or collaborate with other breweries. In June, she went to the Netherlands. In July, Bhutan, where she brewed a beer with Namgay Artisanal Brewery (which specializes in native ingredients, nicely exemplified by their red rice lager) during the country’s first-ever craft-beer festival.

“I told Peter [Huang], my boss, that I want to retire when I’m 40, but that’s next year,” she jokes. No, don’t expect her to ride off into the sunset. For pioneering women like Hsu, brewing beer isn’t a job—it’s a lifestyle, a never-ending pursuit of new ideas. “Even now, I’m still learning, but I have total creative freedom,” she says. “I love it.”

4 Other Women On Tap

Winnie Hsu recommends some of her favorite bars and breweries elsewhere in Asia where women run the show.

Lezzet Craft Beer Bar, Osaka

“My good friend Artie Kure runs this bar in Osaka. She’s a draft system line technician and beer judge, so she really knows her stuff—she also speaks Turkish fluently! There are over 30 kinds of beer on draft, including Minoh.”

Vaneheim Brewery, Seoul

“Jungha Kim makes traditional German beer styles at this cozy brewery on the eastern outskirts of Seoul. Her beer has won medals at big competitions in Japan and Australia, too.”

Craft Beer Base, Osaka

“Ai Tani is a beer judge and a true pioneer of beer in Japan. She runs this excellent bar in Osaka. She always has hundreds of beers from Japan and beyond to purchase, and she always has exciting beers on tap.”

Harvestmoon Brewery, Chiba

“Brewmaster Tomoko Sonoda is behind Harvestmoon Brewery in Chiba. I met her back in 2008 at a Pink Boots Society meet-up in Denver. She specializes in German styles like pilsners and schwarbier, and she sometimes uses Japanese ingredients to give them more character.”

Sindhorn Midtown

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