Businessman finds Shangri-la in beer

When Songtsen "Sonny" Gyalzur opened his Shangri-la Highland Craft Brewery in 2009, all he wanted was to brew a beer he liked.

When Songtsen “Sonny” Gyalzur opened his Shangri-la Highland Craft Brewery in 2009, all he wanted was to brew a beer he liked.

Before he decided to put down roots in the picturesque Shangri-la, in the southwestern Yunnan Province in 2008, the now 40-something Swiss-born businessman already had real estate and hotel investments in places as remote as Lhasa and in Europe.

Unlike other people, who took to craft beer, or artisan beer, as a way to make a quick buck, Sonny didn’t expect his cravings for a good, fresh brew to evolve into a passion of starting his own brewery.

Craft beer became popular with discerning Chinese consumers around 2010. They were fed up with the bland, flavorless industrial lagers that had dominated the market for at least half a century.

When Sonny returned to Shangri-la, the hometown of his mother, Tendol Gyalzur, to help her run an orphanage she founded there, he had little knowledge of how beer was made.

In 2008, there was no beer available in Shangri-la other than Chinese industrial lagers, such as Tsingtao, Snow and Harbin. The thirst for a good pint became so intense that the businessman traveled to Switzerland to take a two-week crash course in home brewing.

“The teacher was a young German guy, the food was nice, and I was probably drinking more than I was learning,” Sonny laughed at his beer training at a small brauerei.

Two weeks later he returned to Shangri-la, intoxicated by the idea he could brew. But the difficulty of developing a personal hobby into a serious business left him scratching his head.

Home brewing is totally different from commercial brewing.

It requires adeptness, experience and good knowledge of one’s equipment, and consistency in product quality is the trickiest part of it.

Like many self-made brewer-entrepreneurs, Sonny encountered great difficulty in making the switch to commercial brewing, and a big part of the problems came from his use of the ingredients.

To give his beer a local flavor, he chose the highland barley (qingke), a staple food of the Tibetan people, to complement the traditional four ingredients used in craft brewing: water, malt, hop and yeast.

Since he started brewing, Sonny has stuck to qingke, which normally grows at an altitude of over 3,000 meters. But no matter how hard he tried, the malt liquid would not convert into beer. The mash even got jammed in the system.

Clueless as to what to do next, Sonny sought help from a decorated Swiss brewmaster named Freddy Stauffer to resolve the problem.

And the 76-year-old beer expert fixed the technical problem with qingke. He also taught Sonny the importance of mastering chemistry and biology to brew well.

“It cannot work by just mixing everything up. You have to analyze highland barley in the lab to see what kind of starch is inside, then you can adjust your recipe,” he said.

With decades of brewing experience, Stauffer was naturally hired as a technical advisor and became part of the original four-member team when Sonny founded the brewery. Nowadays, the Shangri-la brewery, nestled in one of the highest spots on earth, boasts around 50 employees and its capacity has grown from 200 liters a batch to 5,000 liters per batch.

Songtsen “Sonny” Gyalzur sits on a fermentation tank in his brewery in Shangri-la, Yunnan Province. —— Courtesy of Shangri-la Highland Craft Brewery

A distinctive feature of Sonny’s brewery is that a majority of his employees are orphans, who once were entrusted to the care of his mother.

Previously an orphan herself, Tendol was adopted as a child by a German couple and was brought up in Europe. She decided that the best way to give back to her native place was to provide a home for the orphans there.

In 1993, she opened her first foundling in Lhasa. Soon her charitable deeds became well-known in China and she earned the reputation as the “mother” of Tibetan orphans.

Many of them have since moved on to the next phase of their life. At present there are still nearly 50 children in the orphanage Sonny helps oversee. Among those who left Tendol’s foundling, quite a few have been trained as assistant brewers in Sonny’s company.

Unlike many modern corporations, his brewery is not rigidly hierarchical, as he gets used to being addressed as “Tschola,” Tibetan for big brother, instead of boss.

The linguistic barrier may be non-existent, but cross-cultural differences persist. Sonny said that people in Shangri-la, a backpacker haven, are a little “laid-back,” so when the strict and stern brewmaster Stauffer appeared on the factory floor, “the kids were a bit afraid.”

Sonny and his mother Tendol, who runs an orphanage in Shangri-la

In less than a decade, the Shangri-la brewery has pulled off feats that would have taken many small and micro-breweries decades to achieve. Its “Black Yak,” a Bohemian–style schwarzbier (black beer), won a silver medal in the European Beer Star 2016, while “Yalaso,” a lager beer, won silver in the Brussels Beer Challenge 2016. Apart from these crowning glories, the Shangri-la brewery’s products are also fixtures at many top beer competitions, home and abroad.

Sonny (second left) collects an award with his partner and brewmaster Freddy Stauffer (second right) at a world-class beer competition.

As the names of his beers suggest, local identity is one of the big reasons for his success, and that largely has to be ascribed to his experiment with qingke.

“The highland barley adds a little nuttiness to the beer, that makes it really stand out,” said Sonny.

Recently his experiment with new types of raw materials has been taken to a higher level. He pushed the boundary by working with Fraser Kennedy, a brewmaster at the Goose Island Brewhouse in Shanghai. Together they created a collaboration beer called “The Lost Horizon.”

“The Lost Horizon,” which falls into the category of barley wine, is a high-alcohol beer (ABV: 8.8%) best consumed in winter. It represents Sonny’s first effort in cross-brewing, and considering that it was a partnership with an established brand like Goose Island, he was filled with palpable pride as he recounted details of the cooperation.

And clearly the duo was conscious of choosing the right style of beer to brew, as they left out styles more familiar to the craft brewing community, such as IPA, or India Pale Ale. The reason is straightforward.

“If you give a Tibetan guy an IPA, he will think it is medicine rather than beer, because the taste is too bitter,” said Sonny.

Although he never really saw his partner in the flesh before they met, he said chemistry instantly began to build with a few initial phone calls and emails, in which both men got to know each other.

The bonhomie, in Sonny’s words, paved the way for future cooperation when Kennedy arrived in Shangri-la. He was greeted by the high altitude, serenity, blue skies, a hada (a white silk scarf Tibetans use as a greeting gift), exotic customs and a partner who had incubated “crazy” ideas for their cross-brewing project.

The Lost Horizon

Experiment

The host did not intimidate his guest with strong, potent qingke liquor, but both men gave free rein to their imagination and creativity, as they experimented with a rich variety of raw materials that had seldom been used in brewing before.

Among them were saffron, Buddha’s hand, juniper, Tibetan pinewood, local herbs and so on. After careful consideration, they narrowed the list down to a handful of candidates and finally went ahead with the juniper, which smells “earthy” and “woody” and could add a “subtle flavor to the beer.”

During the four-day sojourn in Shangri-la, Kennedy ate and hung out with Sonny’s family and got a glimpse into the local life. Unlike devout Buddhists, who often extol pilgrimages to Tibet and other Tibetan-inhabited areas as a soul-purifying experience, the New Zealander saw things less in spiritual terms. Yet he did concede that the trip broadened his horizons.

“When you travel to a place like Shangri-la, it’s when you can find new areas in your life that open up your eyes,” said the 27-year-old.

What inspired him most was the attitude of local people toward life, the way they feel passionate about their work, and their sense of community and family.

The broad smiles on their faces, despite the tough living conditions, prompted him to be critical of the fact that people often get frustrated by trivial setbacks.

“It was really a humbling experience,” he observed, adding that they hoped to bring a little bit of the spiritual side and mellow energy of Shangri-la to their beer. “Good beer has a soul.”

Sonny concurred. In fact, he is no stranger to the humbling power of the place he now calls home. His transition from a high-flying globe-trotting real estate investor to a dedicated brewer, is itself a testament to how his new adopted home deflated his ego and purified his soul.

In 2006, the career of Sonny as a full-time real estate businessman abruptly came to an end. He had a good run and did good business, oblivious to the boredom that gradually grew within him. Then, a business deal went sour and spurred bouts of soul-searching. He was restless in these years, driven by none other than the desire for greater success. It was time to stop and get away from it all, he told himself.

So he did. He gave his partner and brother both one third of the company, and took a flight to South America on the first leg of traveling around the world.

His wanderlust took him to South America, Australia and New Zealand, and finally to Shangri-la, where his mother persuaded her bewildered son to settle down and find a focus and horizon in life. This was the early inspiration for “The Lost Horizon.”

As he reasoned later, “everybody has the desire for their own Shangri-la” at different stages of their lives, and hopefully, “our beer will give you your Shangri-la and help you find your inner peace.”

That, however, depends on “how many glasses you drink,” he laughed.

Inner peace and a new direction in life drove Sonny to accomplish things with the stubbornness that he said he inherited from his mother. The tenacity saw him through his most difficult time when he first started the brewery.

Like many commercial banks in China, which are reluctant to lend to small-time businesses, the local banks in Shangri-la also turned down Sonny’s request for a loan. He had to find funding elsewhere. And with a tight budget, he completed even the construction work himself.

Sonny recalls driving a truck laden with construction materials up the hills and how children from the orphanage helped erect the walls.

There were several times when the local government officials came to visit. They looked for Sonny everywhere but invariably passed him by because they didn’t expect to see him “digging and laying the bricks.”

“For us in Switzerland it’s normal for the boss to pick up a shovel, but in Shangri-la it’s totally unique and special. It was a culture shock for me and for them (officials) as well,” he said.

Since the brewery was the outgrowth of a collective effort, Sonny believes that although on paper it belongs to him, in fact “it belongs to all of us.”

After eight years of hectic development, the Shangri-la Highland Craft Brewery broke even in 2016 and turned a profit in 2017. Sonny plans to reinvest profits to expand the capacity.

The expansion will likely see higher sales of its products in western China, a target market, as well as a better brand awareness among consumers that “the Shangri-la beer represents local identity,” that “it is my beer, your beer and our beer.”

Sonny has often been approached for comments on how he managed to lead a little-known brewery to global recognition. But he has a different definition of achievements. His biggest source of pride is not medals or awards, because “nobody will talk about it in five years.”

Instead, he has been proud of his brewery’s reputation for upholding corporate social responsibility. And this is demonstrated not just in his care of the orphans, but in the help he has rendered local farmers by encouraging them to grow qingke and buying their produce at what he said is a price over that of imported barleys.

He has a 1,000 mu (666,666 square meters) of land currently under contract with local qingke farmers. The income from selling qingke has lifted their standard of living.

The biggest “asset” of his company, he explained, is when he saw so many kids from the orphanage developed over the years from young men without a future or perspective of life into people with hope and passion for their work. “These daily experiences give me a lot of motivation to do what we are doing,” he said.

Fraser Kennedy, Sonny’s partner from the Goose Island Brewhouse in Shanghai 

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