Look at all of these damn craft beer bars. It's like a drunken gold rush. Kinda makes you think you shoulda got into that whole thing, oh say, 10 years ago when it was all kicking off. Between the ample choice in locally created, local pride craft beers to big league, respected international household names, it's hard to think of a time when none of it existed.
SmartShanghai got in touch with Shanghai Love founder Kai Parsal to talk about that time. Founded in 2016, Shanghai Love was among the first locally produced suppliers of craft beers to bars and restaurants around town. After growing the business from humble homebrew beginnings, expanding with an emerging market, and weathering COVID setbacks, just a few months ago, Shanghai Love opened their first brick and mortar taproom on the Maoming Lu side at Fengsheng Lu.
So this is like a "local lad does good" kind of story.
SmartShanghai talked to Kai about his journey to opening Shanghai Love, brewing something from nothing.
SmSh: So, maybe, to start, can you introduce yourself? Who are you? Where are you from? How long have you been in China?
Kia Parsal: My name is Kia and I'm from the US — from California, a small town called Santa Barbara. I came to Shanghai 10 years ago, February 1. So it's almost exactly been 10 years. And, yeah, I founded Shanghai Love in the summer of 2016. It's my second brewing company. The first one was called Song. Made that with a partner also in China.
SmSh: In Shanghai?
KP: Yeah. We had a little taproom in Jiashan Market. So, originally, when I started this, I got into it with a partner. And he was supposed to be the one in charge of the brewing and I was supposed to take care of the business side. Then he just got overwhelmed with his family business. He couldn't do anything anymore. We didn't really see eye to eye on how to move forward, so we dissolved that company.
After that, I started Shanghai Love on my own. With Song, we were just doing homebrews in the beginning...
SmSh: So, I'm picturing like a bunch of beer in a bathtub in some apartment with, like, tubes and shit everywhere. Buying bags of hops off taobao...
KP: No, it's funny. So, it started with just like, pots — like an actual homebrew kit. And we actually set up a mini brewery inside of this factory in Pudong. We had access to this factory space that makes solar panels, and they had extra space. So we bought our setup out there. It was 100 liters, so it was bigger than your average homebrew kit.
Then we just started brewing there with whatever ingredients we could think of. Just hand-bottling. We put ginseng in our beer and all this other Chinese medicine, trying to experiment.
Then we just popped up that beer festival — one of the ones at the Cool Docks.
Anyways, we had so much fun at that and got great feedback, so we came across the space in Jiashan Market — tiny little space. And the rent was only RMB 6,000 a month. 8 taps. So, it was something we could just have fun with and not worry about losing too much money.
So, yeah. I had this tiny, little taproom. It was super fun. But yeah, unfortunately, my partner and I, we just didn't see eye to eye anymore.
SmSh: And so you came back with Shanghai Love?
KP: Yeah, when I was doing the design for Song, it was kind of all over the place. It wasn't super tight knit. What I wanted to do was make a new catalog with a clearer direction.
At the time, nobody was drinking IPA. I don't know how long you've been here...
SmSh: Enough years.
KP: Yeah, there you go. So, you've seen it evolve, right?
SmSh: I was in Beijing at the time of the, sort of, craft beer revolution. I missed the start of it but was there when it really starting taking off. Great Leap, Jing A, Slow Boat... from pretty small beginnings, they all moved into these new, huge, slick venues while I was there.
KP: Right. At the time here in Shanghai, we had Boxing Cat and maybe one or two others but none of them were doing commercial distribution yet. Wholesale distribution. They were only brewing for their own venues.
So, actually, we were one of the first to start doing distribution.
SmSh: Oh, so the the original the original motivation was to bottle your own IPA and distribute? Opening a taproom wasn't part of the plan?
KP: Yeah, exactly. We wanted to bottle and keg our own brand and distribute. The initial intention was, ‘yeah, let's make beer for restaurants and bars that want to offer a locally made craft beer.'
SmSh: So, you're banging on peoples' doors trying to sell?
KP: Yeah, just hustlin' at first. Going into bars at first and trying to get on their menu. It wasn't selling direct to consumers. I had a strong enough network at the time because I'd already been in Shanghai for a few years. I had some F&B experience. I had opened a restaurant in Wuhan. I was always involved with the industry like that.
So I, you know, dug into my connections. And I'm also a foodie. I knew a lot of chefs and they were all willing to take a chance on a brand, like, ‘yeah, local craft beer!'
A lot of them at the time were Western chefs so they understood the concept of craft beer and knew what was going on with it in The States. Much more than the local market did at the time.
SmSh: So what kinds of places were buying Shanghai Love?
SmSh: What are the legalities like? In making and selling your own beer? What are the regulations involved? Do you have to apply for licenses? Get approval or something?
KP: So, basically, for any packaged product in China, you need something which, at the time, was called a QoS. It's just like a kind of a health and safety standard. They come and do the inspection, they make sure that you're a certified factory that is cleared to make this product — whether you're making you know, water, toothpaste, or beer. They have different codes and different licenses and different product categories for everything you can do. So, we worked with multiple breweries that had licenses in their areas — some were cleared for only kegging, some for only bottling...
SmSh: So you're working with established local breweries and renting their equipment? And the licenses go through them?
KP: Yeah, at the very beginning what we were doing, we just go to the brewery — we had our own brewing team. We had a full-time brewer working for us, her name was Wendy. And we would just go down to the brewery and use their equipment and buy all of the grains ourselves.
So, we actually had a van, we'd pick up the grains and some junk, and then drive out to the location, which is actually in one of the watertowns just across the Shanghai border.
Their setup was not very good at the beginning. But we've been with them as they've grown too. Since then, they've made a lot of modifications. And I've bought a lot of new equipment. We've bought some of our own equipment and put it in there
Yeah, that that brewery is quite fascinating because it's evolved into something different. At the time, they were really just two of us. I don't know if you remember another guy, David Westwood. He was basically making this British style ale. It didn't last very long. But at the time, it was just us two. And it was, like, kind of cool. Like, nobody's really doing this.
After he went bust, it was basically just me and then slowly you start to see a few more people come...
SmSh: I heard there's tons of people brewing out there now.
KP: Over 100, I think, from all over. There's just people non-stop. We're fighting for time in the tanks now. They're quite clever. Right place, right time, I guess. It's a very clever concept.
SmSh: You still working with them to make your kegs and bottles?
KP: Yeah, I'm their oldest customer.
SmSh: I imagine your quantity has gone up somewhat.
KP: Yeah, of course! Exponentially. Exponentially, for the first three years and then COVID hit during the fourth year.
SmSh: Yeah, how's your COVID been?
KP: Sucks! Yeah. Because my approach has always been to not be very traditional. Beer brands are always trying to be in pubs and bars. But I was trying to do that but also get into more restaurants, fine dining, hotels, and hotels and nice restaurants on The Bund.
SmSh: Yeah, The Bund...
KP: ...Was hit pretty hard. So, yeah, that made our business go down quite a bit. We pivoted and we bounced back. I've since launched another beer brand called Sita that's just focusing on lagers....
SmSh: This is a separate thing from Shanghai Love?
SmSh: What's the motivation behind a separate lager brand?
KP: Shanghai Love is all small batch and quite expensive, accordingly. We're using premium ingredients; we're only brewing 1,000 liters at a time. So, the cost gets quite high.
Anyway, I'm always in bars seeing Asahi, or Stella, or Tiger. And then I was like, ‘you know what, screw these guys'. Like, ‘let me make a lager'.
But it's so difficult to match their price point, right? There's so cheap. And I basically said, ‘you know what, I got to step it up and just roll the dice and brew at a much larger scale...'
So, Sita is now a much more accessible brand. And because it's much lower ABV, the cost of producing it is very much lower than Shanghai Love beers. It works. I mean, it's a different ballgame when you put a lager out to do five times the volume.
SmSh: Are you already out there in the bars?
KP: Yeah, for over a year now.
SmSh: Getting back to craft beer, how would you describe the China craft beer situation? How would you describe Shanghai's craft beer scene to people back home?
KP: It's exciting. Yeah. It's ever evolving. There's new blood. People are still excited. It feels like it's still on the upswing.
Back home it feels like maybe people's tastes are shifting. Maybe they're tired of IPAs 1000 different ways. Right now they're looking for, you know, hard seltzers. Or ciders. Or highballs.
Whereas here, you know, people got into the IPAs quickly. And the creativity in making them is still there, with all these different local ingredients. It's still new.
SmSh: Do you see it sustaining in China? Or is it a fad that is going to fade eventually?
KP: I'm really good friends with the neighbors. Goose Island. We're good buddies. But yeah, they gave me some really interesting stats. When you look at craft beer and the percentage of overall beer sales in America. It would be you know, in the teens, or maybe 20 percent — something like that. But if you look at the percentage of craft beer as a total part of the market in China, it's less than 1%. Right. Okay, so the room for growth is in the rest of the country, which doesn't even have access yet
And China is by far the biggest beer consumer in the world. So yeah. Yeah, for sure, there's definitely still room to grow. We still have Snow as the largest beer producer in this country...
SmSh: So what's your opinion of Snow?
KP: You know, I'd rather drink that than water. When I go to a hot pot in a third tier city. It does have a role.
SmSh: Let's talk about your beer. Do you have like an overarching style or aesthetic?
KP: We try to stay as local as possible. But to be honest, I have not been doing as good of a job with that as I've been wanting to. Just, generally speaking, we don't make anything too light. And we're very American West Coast. Our IPA is definitely a West Coast style.
And then we keep it true. You know, I'm not gonna make a 5% beer and call it an IPA. I've seen that.
We try to choose to stay true to style but also have fun.
In general, that's the great philosophical debate — fun or tradition, I guess. I was having a conversation with some friends a while back about whether or not there should be any regulation to naming beers. The Germans have laws about their beer. And there are pros and cons to that...
KP: But then craft beer broke all those rules. And then what's the point? Why do you want to make regulations again?
But at the same time, in a new market —I don't know. Maybe there needs to be rules. Like, if you go to The States and served a 3% beer calling it an IPA you'd get laughed out of the market — you wouldn't even have a chance.
But if you did that in an emerging market like China or India ‘Wow, this IPA is really easy to drink!'
Let's just make something that's lighter and more tailored to the Chinese market and call that an IPA. But then it's like, no... no, it's not. And then here I am making a real one and people are now going to be like, "you're doing it wrong."
So maybe we should have rules? But then, I don't know because British-style IPs are already so much different...
SmSh: So, your IPA is sticking to some rules...
KP: It's a very typical West Coast-style IPA. The closest thing probably is Stone. You know, you get a lot of influence from your local legends. So, yeah, it's using six different hops. We kept it relatively low on the malt because I don't like super malty IPAs. Some people like to put more darker caramel malts in there and have a more complex malt body, which I'm just not into. I like to keep the body pretty clear and with a decent amount of bitterness.
SmSh: Can you tell me about a couple of your beers that you're proud of that are unique and interesting.
KP: My favorite is the coconut IPA. The coconut IPA is basically kind of a twist on a regular IPA. It has the same malt mill. And a lot of the same base hops and then it's infused with toasted coconut chips from Indonesia.
SmSh: What's the weirdest ingredient you've ever used to make beer?
KP: Red dates. Which are a huge pain in the ass to work with. 200 kg of red dates. It was a collaboration with a good friend of mine named Miss Diddy that used to work for Goose. And, yeah, they just wanted to do something made with dates because it's supposed to be good for women in China — if you catch my drift. And I know it was our first routine — our first "date". So that's the joke there.
SmSh: There's the artistry. What have you got planned in the future in terms of brewing?
KP: We want to finally play around with some IPAs. I'll bring back the IPA Plus, which was a big hit. But I just didn't have room in our catalog when we were only doing wholesale distribution. So, that's basically a Double IPA, borderline Triple IPA. I'm going to try to get it above 9% this time. Then a Double Hazy IPA, and then a session IPA. So, we'll kind of round out the IPA category. And then after that, we'll do another barrel aged beer. Our first barrel aged beer was a very popular. So, we'll probably do another barrel age and hopefully another sour beer. So, yeah. I definitely want to get into sours for now that we have a taproom we could play around.
SmSh: Let's talk about the taproom. You mentioned earlier that this was never part of the plan?
KP: I needed a place to, like I said, play. Now, I can bring more excitement to our brand and show people that we love to be creative. And hopefully, that creativity and dedication that are centered will help the brand image overall, and people understand what we're all about.
You know, even with the way we set up our bar, it's definitely not the typical pub, right? If you go to a typical western pub, they're very casual. And we're not trying to be fancy or anything, but we want to definitely want to do something different, a little more premium.
SmSh: Yeah, lot's of interesting things on the menu. Very not craft beer bar.
All of our food is Asian. It's mostly Chinese, Japanese, and Southeast Asian. We've also expanded the drinks beyond the beer. We sourced our own wine and we already do our cocktails... Where does a beer brand slash cocktail brand slash wine brand go? Let's see what the future has in store for us.
SmSh: How about events and things?
KP: Lots of collaborations beyond just the beer. For our rotating guest cocktails, we have the guys come down and guest bartending nights. This one's designed by Tim from Starbucks, one of the best bartenders serving what could arguably be the best Coffee Martini. It's basically a whiskey coffee martini with peanut butter and pineapple and coconut syrup. Our house gin is the Crimson Pangolin Jabberwocky gin. So Mark Lloyd [J. Boroski] is gonna come here and do a guest show. We're also doing lots of tastings and guest chef events.
COVID put the halt on our beer festival but we're hoping to bring it back soon. Our "Love Wins" LGBT event...
SmSh: Here's a question — have you brought Shanghai Love to Beijing?
KP: Why not? I love Beijing. They might not love us... [laughs].
SmSh: I get that impression. There's an imbalance of love in the Shanghai-Beijing relationship. Anything else to add?
KP: I don't know. Yeah. Geez, there's probably so much more to talk about. But I think the main the main things that I would like to highlight about our brand is just our dedication to support the local community.
People want to talk about "being local" with ingredients but for us it's so much more. It's about being friendly with all of your neighbors and all of the other bartenders and your peers in the industry, and other brewers in every other city. And I think we're we're quite blessed, especially in Shanghai to be very supportive of each other. I won't name other cities but I've seen in other cities — quite strong rivalries.
And it's kind of sad to see that. But generally speaking, I think our industry is great.
There's a good amount of love.
Shanghai Love is at 221 Maoming Bei Lu,near Nanjing Xi Lu.