Friday, June 21, 2013

What's in a Great Leap?

There's a difference of opinion among my friends about a new brew pub that has just opened up in our neighborhood. It's called Great Leap Brewing, and its name is an ironic nod to a terrible time in Chinese history, a time when millions died of starvation and disease and others suffered unimaginably.

The Great Leap Forward, from 1958 to 1961, was Mao's attempt to move China from a rural, agrarian society to a communist one that used collectivism and industrialization. It was a massive failure, with some estimates saying as many as 45 million people died when peasants tried to make steel out of scrap metal and the harvest was neglected or inefficiently planted. There are many people alive in China today who remember being hungry.

Today we have an ironic, postmodern, hip take on the language of the near past. Great Leap is "Beijing's finest craft brewery," with one location in a hutong, and then this new spot, all exposed concrete and gleaming metal and wooden booths, a few steps outside my apartment complex.

On the menu are the city's best hamburgers, thin fries, greasy onion rings, salads, chili, and other bar food, plus ales, pale ales, porters, and other beers. The pub's insignia shows a Cultural Revolution style fist clutching a mug of beer.

I understand the reluctance to trivialize a time of terrible suffering by making it into a place where expats slug down beer while watching ESPN recordings of the Celtics or the Yankees. At least one of my friends simply refuses to go there. 

I’m not crazy about some of the too-clever names of some of the other places around Beijing, either: Mao Livehouse, Bu Zhi Dao (which means I don’t understand), Propaganda, and another brew pub, Slow Boat Brewery. Slow Boat, however, is a more innocent reference to the Frank Loesser song that first used the term, “slow boat to China,” which Miss Piggy sang on the Muppet Show and Paul McCartney sang to honor Loesser. (Thank you, Wikipedia.)

Several of my friends have asked if the founders of Great Leap Brewing were aware of the significance of the term when they named their pub. I find it impossible to think that they weren’t fully cogniscant of its meaning.

So why do I still go there? I think I allow myself a certain rationalization about some activities I do in a place like China. I cut myself some slack. Great Leap is an oasis of Americana in a country where few people speak English, where the tap water could poison me, where the grilled meat I buy on the street could easily be rat, and where the sidewalk could open up in gaping holes that could kill me. Finding a place where I can get an enormously satisfying hamburger is a small triumph. And the ultimate irony – that I get fat on Great Leap beers, burgers, and fries – is maybe the price I’ll have to pay.


  1. Hello, I'm a representative of Great Leap Brewing, I apologize it took me so long to find this. That's Beijing printed an interview with Carl Setzer and Liu Fang, husband and wife co-founders of GLB, in their Nov 2014 issue. Carl addresses your question clearly in that issue, but in case you cannot find a copy, here's the relevant passage:


  2. I appreciate the response Kevin. Even so, I'm sure that most customers think of the Great Leap Forward when they think of Great Leap Brewing, no matter how many other explanations Carl and his wife offer.