Three years after we first talked to Yue Han (约翰) — aka Uncle John — about opening Uncle John's The Brew Pub, we meet up with him again for a conversation — a walk through the past, present and future of John and his business partners' take on craft brewing in Yunnan. In our interview three years ago, John predicted the craft brewing trend probably wouldn't last, that consumers would soon move onto something new to tickle their fancies. And yet here he is, speaking with us in a larger version of the original Uncle John's. Craft beers seem to have staying power in contemporary Yunnan after all.
As we begin to talk, John relates a nice anecdote. Two months after publication of our interview, the American agricultural officer in Chengdu came to visit and ended up recommending Uncle John's beer for the 2018 World Beer Cup. This led to the pub being one of only a few Chinese suppliers at the event in Nashville, which John was able to attend in person. Following this achievement, John joined forces with Willem Rahtz and Mr Duan to launch a new and larger venue called Uncle John Craft Beer. We talk to Willem, John and Duan about their ideas and vision for the new place, a conversation which ranges from grabbing a fortunate location to the experience of swimming in a pool filled with beer.
The past affects the future
John had an international career as a civil engineer with German companies, and during his travels for work he discovered European beers for the first time. It was love at first taste, he says. Three years ago, after he retired from his job, he could finally realize the dream of opening a brew pub in Kunming. In preparation, he had been experimenting for years making his own brews at home.
In China, many people don't know how to make beer, or even what the ingredients typically are, so John felt it was his personal duty to introduce the story of craft brewing to the Kunming public. One way John addressed this was by featuring a small hop garden in his first location, teaching the curious that these strange plants do indeed go into some beers.
Willem, on the other hand, hails from the UK, where he once studied fine arts. He has been a long-time Yunnan resident, even though he never planned to stay this long. Arriving in 2001 as an artist, he came back in 2004 with the intention of staying one year while studying Chinese and making art. He never left. In 2005 he began traveling to Shangri-la (香格里拉), where he eventually built his own workshop, art gallery and home.
Locals appreciated the space he designed, and this led to six years of design, renovation and furniture making projects. Woodworking brought him back from a peaceful life in Shangri-la to Kunming four years ago, where he now resides with his wife and two sons. Becoming a father, he says, has inspired him to develop something new, something that can really grow in China, in terms of long term stability and leaving a legacy.
Willem met John at the the latter's pub with the hop garden, and the two became good friends. They bonded over quality beers crafted by John, something Willem was missing from back home in the United Kingdom. The two initially hit it off when John explained the creativity and skill that goes into making good beer. Diligence and passion, chemistry and creative fusion combined to create a high quality product that impressed Willem.
Fast forward to today
Today Willem and John are partners, together with their third associate Duan. This partnership created a new twist for John's brewing endeavors — creatively connecting old European beer traditions with Chinese culture. With this in mind, the trio works to position Uncle John's at the forefront when beer culture moves out of Kunming and begins to sweep other parts of the province.
So, if John brings the brewing skills, I ask, what does Willem add to the partnership? First, he coordinated the renovation of the new Uncle John's and designed the space — taking special care with the bar area — which is very long and made of walnut sourced from Shangri-la. It's this bar that invites people to sit close to where the beers are poured from 32 taps, and from where they can talk to the brewers and ask questions. This is quite the opposite from typical Chinese bar culture, as customers generally take the seats at the bar last. Uncle John's introduces this international feature, says Willem, and a new more participatory way of drinking, by way of intentional design.
The trio say they were lucky to finally find a large enough space in a buzzing and popular area frequented by both foreigners and locals. They had already scouted all over Kunming for a year in search of the right place before the owner of the Banzhu Cuiyuan (版筑翠园) development approached them. He felt the neighborhood needed something like Uncle John's, saying there were enough places for good coffee and food, but not for craft beer.
The floor plan for Uncle John Craft Beer is an open the space where the brewing process is completely open to the public. The design reflects the intention of sharing with the pblic, explains John, with its long bar and fermentation tanks visible behind glass. They want to engage the customers in the beer-making process, firstly by making it visible and secondly by talking about it, they say — answering questions about the intricacies of creating something special. One idea is to do small, limited edition brews. Some of these will be created together with John by small groups of people eager to learn. Those draughts will be saved on the premises for the people who made it. Engagement, says John, is the key concept behind the new pub.
Apart from design, Willem contributes his international background and experience to the venture, which is all about international quality standards and intercultural exchange. As Willem has gained so much from living in China as a foreigner, he explains, he also wants to give back.
Uncle John's doesn't just sell a glass of beer. They sell the knowledge, history and culture of beer. This culture comes in many forms — taste, equipment, ingredients, environment, and design. They want to broaden the perspective of their customers concerning the huge differences between various types kinds of beer.
The right equipment equals quality
In order to be able to brew and bottle on premise, Chinese brewers are required to build large-scale factory setups. However, in April 2019, a national policy recommendation paper advised loosening start-up laws for microbreweries and the way they are issued operating permits. John expects these and other policy changes to be adopted soon, saying if that is the case, we should expect a boom in small craft beer options in the near future.
John goes on to explain how they use two international brew systems at Uncle John Craft Beer. One is a classic German-style brewing system, while the other uses more modern American-style equipment that first came into fashion in the 1970s. The difference is that in the American system dry hops are added to the beer, creating the typical hoppy flavor of India pale ales.
Each of the seven fermentation tanks at Uncle John Craft Beer holds 1,000 liters. Every month, two brews per tank can be produced, equating to 14 different varieties totaling 14,000 liters of delicious beer per month. Each of these are then stored in kegs that are kept in a walk-in refrigerator behind the pub's 32 beer taps, which means that the distance that the beer must travel from keg to tap is very short. This optimally preserves temperature and quality, John explains.
Beer, beer and nothing but the beer
Uncle John currently uses only imported hops and yeast. The hops are sourced from Germany and the United States, while the yeasts are carefully selected from options in Belgium, Denmark and France.
When we ask the three about their favorite beers, we don't get a clear answer. According to John, all beers are equally wonderful. Every beer is brewed by someone, and the reason a beer is created is because it is a great beer, he says. Brewers do their best, and after that it is up to the customer to decide if they like it. It is out of the brewer's hands at that point. John says he has no preference for any of his creations, just like a parent does not prefer one child over another.
There are more than 200 individual types of beer in the world, and John says he aims to brew all of them at least once so everyone in Kunming has a chance to try them all. Today Uncle John Craft Brewery produces 20 different beers, a selection augmented by Chinese and international "guest" options.
The future is bright, and sudsy
Looking at the future, the three business partners see a craft brewing festival on the horizon. The changes in legislation will open up the market much more, they reason. Uncle John will be happy to host and participate with other craft brewers and help them get their products out. His idea is to get them all together in one big space — the new pub — which John feels is great for hosting events of this kind. Furthermore, he says, they want to stage live music performances, utilizing their space as a true international event venue.
There are many more plans for the future, the three tell me. Uncle John plans to open a third bar in Kunming next year, and many more throughout Yunnan and beyond after that. They have also been asked to open a branch in Chengdu with a local partner there. This is no mean feat, as the scene in Sichuan is already a crowded market with several great brewers.
What they are most interesting in, however, is a plan for growing their own hops. Willem collaborates with a Canadian agricultural expert who specializes in cherries, apples, pears and hops. Together they have staked out two locations and are in the process of securing land and building teams to start up their first hop farm. Growing hops locally will benefit the whole community, Willem says. First, local brewers will have an extra element of control over their ingredients. This will spill over to the local brewery community, consumers and, hopefully, farmers. The introduction of a new agricultural product will create new jobs, which is good for Yunnan in general, says John.
As a parting question, we ask John and Willem who they would most like to invite to to their pub. Willem mentions an interesting quote, one that is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin — "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy". Franklin didn't actually say it, but Willem says he would love to host him and show him what good beer from the future is like.
Who John really wants to invite is his wife, because she has supported him throughout the years, through the difficult times when he had no job and no income. He would like to invite her to swim in a pool filled with beer with him, to enjoy the beer together. They will swim and drink all night, he says.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated the laws surrounding small-scale brewers and their ability to bottle beer on premise had changed. This is incorrect. The article has been changed to properly reflect the current legal situation.