German brewing veteran making China’s best craft beer in Shangri-la

When Ralf Koch first came to Diqing two years ago, he fell in love with this place. Apart from the nice air and fascinating scenery, he was also attracted by the local people here. Luckily, he found a good job in the heavenly Shangri-La city and settled here.

Before coming to China, Ralf worked as a brewer for over 30 years, starting from 1983 in his hometown Cologne, Germany. Now he is a brewer at Shangri-La Beer Factory in Qingkou Industrial Zone of Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan province.

Shangri-La Beer Factory is located in Qingkou Industrial Zone of Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan Province. It officially started in June 2015. Photo: Chunmei

According to Zhuoma Lamu, assistant to the vice president of the factory, there are in total six flavors of beer the factory is making, and the price ranges from RMB 12 ($1.79) to RMB 35 ($5.23), much higher than a “store brand” beer. This is because, Zhuoma said, the Shangri-La Beer Factory is trying to make the best craft beer in China, and targets the “mid and high-end” beer market in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai where people can afford and like to pay for high-quality beers.

“Even the lightest Shangri-La beer with 3.5% ABV needs to be brewed for two to three weeks,” said Zhuoma, “While an ‘industrial beer’ focuses on quantity, Shangri-La beer focuses on quality.”

The most important ingredient of Shangri-La beer is qingke, a typical grain grown on the Tibetan plateau where Shangri-La beer factory is located. Besides, the clean air and water also contribute to the making of the Shangri-La beer. Thanks to Ralf’s previous work experience and cultural background, the Shangri-La beer is more likely to meet the tastes of both the local Chinese and European and American customers.

Ralf Koch standing at the bar in Shangri-La Beer Factory. Photo: Chunmei

According to Zhuoma, Shangri-La beer is not only sold to nearby provinces like Yunnan, Qinghai, Gansu and Tibet, but is also trying to find markets in southeastern countries as the tropical weather will help to attract more customers.

Besides brewing beer, Ralf also has other work to do in the factory, such as ensuring the quality of the product, maintaining the devices and training orphans employed in the factory.

The bar in Shangri-La Beer Factory Photo: Chunmei

Inside the Shangri-La Beer Factory Photo: Chunmei

The CEO of the factory is a Swiss-Tibetan entrepreneur named Jiesu Songzan whose mother was born in Tibet but was orphaned at 7. After staying in Switzerland for years, she returned and started two orphanages, one of which is in Shangri-La city. She convinced Songzan, who had built a profitable property development company in Zurich, to come too and use his business skills to employ orphans.

The factory was first planned in 2010 and officially started in June 2015 with support of the local government and Shangri-La’s sister city Arosa in Switzerland. 

The craft beer revolution that has upended alcohol consumption in the US, Canada, Europe and Japan began to touch China in the late 2000s. Its popularity has been swelling in the market in the past two years, according to an article by the Globe and Mail.

Three different types of Shangri-La beer Photo: Chunmei

While it would be the best time for Shangri-La beer to “enter a super cycle for craft beer”, as Songzan put it, it also seems to be a perfect timing for Ralf to enjoy life in this tranquil and beautiful place while doing what he is good at.

Having just crossed the age of 50, Ralf said he is planning to buy an apartment this year in Shangri-La and considering to settle down in this place. Ralf said living and working in Shangri-La has two challenges: one is to create beer that suits the taste of both foreigners and Chinese alike, and the other is “being far away from everything”. “If you wanna go to Shanghai, you need six days,” he said.

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