My name is Zhang Yindi, the Beer Lady. I am Shanghainese, grew up in Changning district. I graduated from Shanghai Fudan High School and then got a job after. When I quit my job, I decided to run a small business of my own – so I opened the first Beer Lady.
It was a small grocery store on Fahuazhen Lu right opposite a police station. There were two universities in the vicinity, Jiaotong University and East China University of Political Science and Law, so there were always lots of international students around. They would pop by after a night out to grab whatever beers I had in stock, mostly local brands like Tsingtao. That’s when I started toying with the idea of getting imported craft beers - I just thought it might be a good way to boost sales.
One day, a Belgian craft beer distributor popped up to my store to buy cigarettes. He had just sorted out some business with a pub in the neighborhood. He asked me if I would be interested at all in carrying his brand. "You know what?" I said to him, "that’s exactly what I’ve been meaning to do but haven’t got the resources to get started." I asked him to send me a crate of every type of beer he had and told him that if there was any leftover that didn’t sell, I’d just drink it myself. That’s how the story of the Beer Lady started.
I had always known that there was a market for craft beers in the city, but what I didn’t know at the time was just how enormous the market was. When that Belgian distributor approached me out of nowhere, it felt like the opportunity that I was looking for came and found me, rather than the other way around. So I just held on to it without giving it much thought. When the stock of Belgian beers sold out as soon as they were put on the shelves, that’s the moment I was certain that there were blanks to be filled and that I could be the one who filled them.
On top of everyday groceries and beers, I also had a photocopier inside the store. Since the police station was right across the road, many foreigners would pop inside to make photocopies of their passports for police registration. What they didn’t expect to see were rows after rows of imported beers kept in coolers. They kept coming back and brought their friends along. That’s how more and more people found out about my little store without my having to advertise it: through a photocopier and word of mouth.
Back then I didn’t speak a word of English, that is, except a simple hi or hello. So my way of communicating with my foreign customers was mainly through hand gestures. Most of them spoke a fair amount of Chinese – that helped too. But the language barrier was not an issue when you could easily make each other understood through the shared love of beers. That was how we bonded, and it has always been my favorite way of making friends.
In 2015 the Beer Lady really got a boost, after an article about my store appeared on SmartShanghai and all of a sudden everyone was talking about me and my craft beer shop. I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would expand the business to such a scale, nor have I imagined myself becoming first port of call for craft beer distributors and exporters from all over the world.
The original store on Fahuazhen Lu is now closed because the lease was up, and it was time to move on to something bigger. I now have five stores across the city in Changning, Huangpu, Baoshan, Putuo, and the new one in Songjiang district. The Songjiang store will be the largest one spanning a total of 4,000 square meters with more than 10,000 bottles of beers on display. It’ll be a beverage supermarket of not just imported beers but whiskeys, champagnes and wines, a restaurant serving all kinds of food and a beer museum rolled into one, as well as a venue for hosting big events like company events, birthday celebrations and weddings.
We now have beers from more than 50 countries. The best-selling ones are all imported craft beers, especially the ones from Belgium - they are better adapted to the taste of Chinese customers. The top three beers are from Belgium, the UK, and Germany. My personal favorite are the ones with strong and smoky flavors. I like Trappist beers a lot, and I like both the red and blue Chimay. Also Delirium. More than 90% of the stock are international brands and I’ve tasted every single one I carry.
Shanghai has always been an international metropolis that welcomes everyone with open arms. I want the same kind of vibe for my stores: welcoming and cozy like a home, and like a home, my stores are open 24/7, all year around. There were more foreigners at the Beer Lady before, but over the years it has become roughly 50/50 foreign/Chinese. It depends, because each shop has a slightly different business model.
I spend every day looking after all the stores, making sure that everything is running smoothly and welcoming old and new faces. You can’t start a craft beer business without first of all being a real beer lover and connoisseur. I was lucky to find my calling and luckier still to become sort of a pioneer in the market.
I have never felt that there were any difficulties or challenges in business. You sought your own challenges, and you solve your own difficulties, one at a time. After I’ve been through everything in this business, I don’t think the challenges are a big deal. I just want to have an exciting life.
At this point in my life craft beer is not just what I do but who I am — it’s what I live for.
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