Brewing at the Top of the World

Bottles take nearly a week, trucked in on perilous roads, water and electricity are short, and sanitation is a joke. Yet the very fact that Lhasa Brewery even exists is something of a marvel, making Tibetan beer on the Rooftop of the World.

By Ron Gluckman /Lhasa, Tibet

PITY POOR SHENG PEI LIANG. The young Xian man had risen quickly to the heights of Chinese beer making. Still, he had many sobering moments as he assessed his latest promotion.

Sheng Pei was known as a problem solver. Perhaps that explains his problematic new posting. Still, with a smile, he casts the assignment in a positive spin. After all, nobody can deny that it was another step up - if only in literal terms.

Sheng, 36, was headed to the Tibetan capital to run Lhasa Brewery, which produces the world's highest-altitude beer. However, all other claims to fame are of a more disturbing nature.

"There were many surprises," he admits, recalling his first view of the plant. Simply put, the place was a total disaster.

The antique bottling line relied upon equipment rejected by other Chinese breweries. When machinery failed, which happened often, Sheng had to rig things together to keep the plant running. Replacement parts were unavailable, since most of the manufacturers from Eastern Europe had long ago ceased to exist.

Power outages plague the plant, which, oddly enough, comes under the direction of the local energy ministry. Still, the close relationship hasn't ensured a dependable source of juice. 

Once started, the heating and cooling processes vital to brewing should not be interrupted. Sheng says thousands of liters have been dumped in the past.

Supplies are a graver problem still. Even the beer bottles must come by truck on a torturous four-to-six-day road trip from Chengdu. Malt and hops have also been in short supply. Sheng spends much of his time trying to sweet-talk spare supplies from other Chinese breweries, which are reluctant to share the rare ingredients.

Indeed, Lhasa Brewery is utterly dependent on imports, even for demand. The main customers are the Chinese migrants, lured to the mountainous realm by generous government grants, and the nearly half a million soldiers that patrol the troublesome Tibetan Autonomous Region.

The very fact that a brewery was ever erected in such a remote and inhospitable site is a tribute to the style of socialist central planning now being abandoned even by committed cadres in Beijing.

Company documents report that the brewery was built in 1988 and began production in 1989, but both dates are disputed by local and western observers. Sheng concedes that the plant is sometimes shut down because of supply shortages and electrical outages, but the problems are far greater than he lets on.

During the course of the research for this article, we monitored the brewery operation over a two-year period and found that production was more regularly curtailed than the brewery was operational.

In any case, Sheng concedes that brewing has been of limited quantity and quality in the past. Production has reached 30,000 bottles per day, he says, but this is still a long way from the annual goal of 10,000 tons listed in company documents.

Growth is stymied not only by the cost of imported materials and outdated equipment, but also the logistics of marketing in a country with little infrastructure and virtually no distribution system.

And even if Lhasa Brewery could ship beer to the province's farflung towns, who would buy the brew? Tibetans suffer some of the lowest incomes in Asia - and the world.

Then, there are the problems of taste and tradition. Most Tibetans are followers of Buddhism, which prohibits alcohol consumption. Those who do drink, often turn to cheng, a wicked local brew of barley sold for pennies per glass at street stalls in Lhasa.

Marketing directives from Beijing make little sense in such stark surroundings. Sheng, with 12 years of experience brewing in Xian, Zhenzhuo, Heilang and Kafeng, admits following his intuition in attempts to improve production at Lhasa Brewery.

He began by establishing consistency with a familiar formula, the style of light, sweet beer favored by most Chinese. Over the winter, he added a new brew, with about 65 percent higher alcohol content. Last fall, the plant also began producing an amber draft beer, on a very limited basis; just 10 kegs per week.

As such, Lhasa Brewery may qualify as the world's largest boutique brewery. The sprawling site of five story buildings, built for an estimated US$20-25 million, brews draft exclusively for the nation's only luxury hotel, the Holiday Inn Lhasa.

The draft results from a rare partnership between foreign advisers and the xenophobic Chinese chieftains in Tibet. Martin Smura, Holiday Inn's German-born food and beverage manager, worked with Sheng to develop a beer that would appeal to western visitors.

When Sheng was unable to obtain kegs and taps from normal channels, Smura provided the materials, along with an ample supply of quality hops to brew the special draft. "At first, it had very little taste. We really had to keep adding hops to get it right," Smura says.

However, the use of outside expertise is the exception rather than the rule in Tibet. Lhasa Brewery remains a prime example of the inefficiency of the outdated communist system, which cannot cope with the challenges of running a business in the remote region that Chinese newcomers liken to their own version of America's Wild West.

Sheng says the brewery employs 200 workers, about half of them in the brewing operation. Several dozen day workers wash bottles outside the plant, in pools of murky water. They are paid per piece, and penalized for breaking the precious bottles.

Inside the plant, workers lounge alongside the ancient bottling line, which sputters and stalls regularly. Instead of automated measuring equipment, a pair of girls scan the liquid level of each bottle by eye. When one spots an unfilled bottle, she stops the conveyer belt and adds beer poured from an open pitcher.

The unsanitary conditions are even worse in the labelling room, where workers were observed napping on tables covered with thick glue. When the plant is running, they paste on labels by hand.

"The bottle labeller broke about two years ago," Sheng explains, pointing to the machine. "We cannot fix it or get parts."

Lhasa Brewery will probably never make a profit, "but it could," says one western observer. "But they need to relate costs to turnover, and they never have.

"The problem with this brewery isn't that the beer doesn't sell, it's the entire operation," he adds. "They have to invest in equipment, train staff, improve quality and minimize breakage."

Still, the brewery has found a niche, even if it happens to be a precarious one, perched on the rooftop of the world.

"The challenges are many," says Sheng wearily. "But we are strong and dedicated." As he raises a test glass of his first dark beer to his lips, he smiles, then adds. "Who would have thought? Beer in Tibet!"

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, but who roams around Asia for a number of different publications including business magazine, Asia, Inc., which ran this story in 1994.

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