By Bill Covaleski
I have to admit, I love July the 4th, primarily because of the fireworks. I certainly appreciate the patriotic expression the day brings each year, but for me, nothing beats seeing things blow up.
While passing the roadside fireworks stands this week my mind wandered back to China, where I traveled in late May as part of an exploratory American craft beer trade mission supported by the US trade organization, Brewers Association, that most of the 1,759 US breweries belong to. How ironic that the most American of holidays is intrinsically tied to Chinese made products.
Doing a bit of research, I learned that the United States lags behind Europe as the largest export market for Chinese made fireworks. We consume 31.8% of their output, whereas all of Europe is blowing up 41.3%. What’s all this fiery fun translate to in dollars you ask? In 2010, Chinese fireworks exports totaled $553 million, down $4 million from 2009. According to one article I found, China has been producing 90% of the world’s fireworks for 20 years now. Another article confirmed that claim as an American pyrotechnical display company owner speculated that 95% to 98% of all fireworks used in the US were Chinese made.
The staggering success of China in the fireworks business is certainly understandable, as fireworks were a 7th century Chinese invention. Please don’t mistake my musings here as envy. I happen to admire a dominating performance, for the right reasons. Besides, I’m not sure I’d want a fireworks factory in my backyard, from the simple standpoint of safety.
With what you hear about lax manufacturing regulatory oversight in China, maybe manufacturers there enjoy more ‘freedom’ than their American counterparts. That’s both a potential advantage and a disturbing thought.
While visiting Beijing, I had the pleasure of sampling the crafted work of an American, brewing in the pub he had established in a traditional neighborhood. Carl Setzer is a 20-something native of Ohio who left behind a globe-trotting job in IT to satisfy his curiosity and challenge himself as a brewing entrepreneur. At his Great Leap Brewing Company he produces beer of immense flavor and character compared to what is conventionally available there. If you go to their website you can see the seductive courtyard where I enjoyed pints of his pale ale and IPA on a warm but breezy evening amongst an evenly mixed crowd of ex-pats and Chinese locals.
Opting to be located down twisting alleys rather than touristy avenues, Carl wanted to assure that his customers “were serious about these beers.” Reception for his output has been so strong that he’s building a second brewery to boost production. That said, Carl notes that a few neighbors have chosen to deposit their trash over his courtyard wall, perhaps as more of an expression of their own, generations-long oppressed ambitions, than in envy of his unbridled ambition. The under-construction brewery is in Mutianyu, in the shadows of the great wall, a day trip from Beijing. Here is Carl, in front of his developing second location. Confidence in the local builders was not in question, but he and I took some pictures as we admired some of their ancestors’ work.
In our hour-long return trip with his wife and 5-week old-son aboard, Carl exuded a rational, yet fearless confidence that is uniquely American. I recall realizing that not all of the world possessed his (our) perspective for the first time as a student at Doemens Institute in Munich in 1993. Our student group which included Swedes, Nigerians, Thais, Italians and Indians, to name a few nationalities represented, talked long into the nights about brewing techniques and life’s larger issues. Hopes and dreams were shared, but I stood alone in dreaming of running my own brewery. What I learned then was that entrenched social structures and lack of access to financing had bred entrepreneurial ambition out of the majority of the world’s citizens. And here I was, poised to return to the US with my German brewing knowledge, sign my life away for loans with my best friend since the age of ten, to make beers for you.
I’m very glad it’s worked out so far.
And I hope that the illuminating blast of fireworks sparks the creative and industrious minds of a few Americans this 4th to seize the freedoms they have, both here and abroad, to live out their entrepreneurial dreams. Hand-crafted fireworks is unoccupied territory, I believe. Well, maybe that one was a bad example…