Author Archives: Brendan Galipeau

About Brendan Galipeau

Brendan Galipeau is a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii and an expert in the natural resource endowments of the Upper Mekong River.

Shangri-la Highland, China’s newest micro-brewery

On June 20, 2015, a new face entered, or rather re-entered, the growing craft beer scene in Yunnan. The Shangri-la Highland Craft Brewery, founded and chaired by Songtsen Gyalzur (known as Sonny), officially opened for business. Though hailing from similarly mountainous Switzerland, Sonny, a Tibetan, has deep roots in Shangri-la, from where his parents emigrated.

The impetus for Shangri-la Beer began in 2009, when he first traveled to his family’s homeland in Yunnan and visited an orphanage run by his mother. Coming from a real estate background back in Switzerland, Sonny opened a restaurant to give back to the local community. As part of his mission, he worked to employ and train former orphanage residents. With business booming, customers soon began asking him if any beers were made locally in Shangri-la. That is when Sony decided to open a brewery that would use local ingredients.

After some research, Sonny learned that most Chinese beers, such as Dali Beer, are made using larger quantities of rice. Collaborating with a Swiss brew master, he instead developed beers using highland barley grown on farms near the city. They then opened and developed a small brewery, which sold four bottled beers — mostly in small quantities — to local restaurants in the old town.

These beers, which are now produced at a larger facility, include Tibetan Lager, Tibetan Pale Ale, Black Yak — similar to a porter with some hints of coffee — and Supernova, which is a strong flavorful ale with hints of licorice. The beers were, and still are, all brewed using a combination of naked highland barley and imported Belgian malts. Seasonal microbrews are also planned for the future.

Following the initial success of Sonny’s small and unofficial brewery, the local government approached him, suggesting he open a much larger, officially licensed operation with their support. Officials believed this would be a good way to help local farmers sell their barley. Construction on the new brewery facility began in March 2014, with its official opening ceremony taking place in June.

It was, for Shangri-la, quite a spectacular event, attended by notable dignitaries, both local and foreign. Large scale festivities were held, including traditional Tibetan dances. There was, of course, free beer for all. Sonny also introduced the crowd to the brewery itself and explained his philosophy of brewing good beer – at one point comparing a good beer to a beautiful Tibetan woman. The opening itself was paired with two other notable events in Shangri-la over the weekend, the annual horse racing festival, and the celebration of Shangri-la’s establishment as an official city.

To capitalize on the two-day event, Sonny and his company also worked to formally establish a sister-city relationship with the skiing town of Arosa back in Switzerland. As such, the opening celebration for the new brewery included speeches of recognition from both the Swiss ambassador to China and the mayor of Shangri-la. City and federal governments on both sides were very supportive of the Swiss-Sino relationship, and used the brewery as a vehicle to support it. Fortunately, and following much effort, bureaucrats in Beijing also came through to encourage the idea.

Sonny’s Tibetan beers are unique, a fact his brew master attributes to the alpine water used in the beer-making process. For Shangri-la Beer, brewing is not just so much about the hops which have become so popular in American microbrews. Sonny explains that, unlike hops-based beer, his are more focused on malts — for both flavor and for the utilization and development of local Tibetan yeasts and highland barley. The beer also has no additives or stabilizers, as part of an all-organic mission statement.

During our interview, Sonny explained that he feels the beer is truly Tibetan. It is made by native people with local raw materials, resulting in brews typifying the social custom of drinking barley chhaang — a strong Tibetan alcoholic drink often made from barley.

With its new brewery and bottling factory, Shangri-la Beer has moved beyond the scale of a microbrewery, but Sonny maintains the company is committed to maintaining a quality and unique product. He explains that to make a micro-style beer that can be legally bottled is very difficult due to the required production size. Obtaining an official health and bottling license from Beijing took a huge amount of effort. The minimum production capacity required for such a license is 18,000 bottles per hour. Yet even at this quantity, Shangri-la Beer remains something of a mystery to the wider world. In the very near future, however, Sonny’s brew will arrive in Kunming.

This post originally appeared on GoKunming, and appears here with full permission from the author.

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A Tibetan Christmas in Yunnan

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Nestled on the banks of the Upper Mekong River — or Lancang (澜沧江) as it is known in China — are several Tibetan villages of mixed religion where Buddhist and Catholic families live together and often join in each other’s festivals. While engaged in research on the history and budding economy of winemaking in this region, I was able to take part in the annual Christmas mass and festival in the village of Cizhong (茨中). Here, celebrations are a two-day event and the largest festival of the year for the area.

First, a very short primer on the history of Catholicism in Yunnan’s northwest, and how the religious observance of Christmas became a major festival for local Tibetans: Yunnan’s official renaming of the nearby Zhongdian region as Shangri-La — based on James Hilton’s classic 1930’s novel Lost Horizon — actually gains a small bit of credence as the real location of Hilton’s story thanks to Cizhong and its nearby villages. In the book, the fictional Shangri-la is a mixed monastic community where Tibetan Buddhists, Chinese, and western Catholics all live peacefully in together. This is largely true in Cizhong today, though Catholicism historically faced a somewhat violent reception from some in the region, while other peopele openly welcomed it. French Catholic missionaries first arrived in northwest Yunnan in the nineteenth century, and viewed their work as a gateway to expanding their teachings across greater Tibet.Brendan 2

Never being able to reach very far into this isolated and at times violent country — often due to resistance from local Buddhist lamas — the French would eventually manage to set up a community of churches and convert many Tibetan communities in northwest Yunnan along both the upper reaches of the Lancang and Nujiang rivers. They were never quite able to penetrate much farther into Tibet. Even in these areas, religious crusaders at times faced violent repression from local religions leaders and in many cases even death.

Yet the French persisted in their missions, and were later joined in the early to mid-twentieth century by request by a group of Swiss from the Great Saint Bernard Hospice high up in the Alps. These priests had already become quite famous for providing mountain rescues and services to Catholic pilgrims crossing the Alps en route to Rome. Their expertise in mountain travel and high-altitude living were crucial in helping to continue and eventually take over the work first begun by the French in Yunnan.

Today in Cizhong, where the original cathedral built by the French in 1905 still stands, about 80 percent of villagers still actively practice Catholicism. They are led by a Han Chinese priest from Inner Mongolia who arrived in 2008, sent by the Catholic Association of China. Prior to this time, the village had no priest, and so no formal masses were held after 1952 when the remaining French and Swiss Christians were expelled. Villagers nonetheless maintained their religion and began to openly pray together in the 1980s after Deng Xiaoping lifted bans on organized religion put in place during the Mao era.

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2014 Christmas observance

Christmas today in Cizhong is a major event, and the non-religious portions of the festival are in fact celebrated by both Catholics and Buddhists alike. Major preparations and community events for the festival began on the morning of Christmas Eve, when many villagers gathered together at the church to clean the building and decorate it for the festival. Lunch was made for those working through the afternoon, and then everyone returned home before dusk.

The decorations set up in the church were predominantly what one might equate with a Western Christmas celebration: Statues of Mary and Joseph in shrines on each side of the altar were surrounded by strings of lights, and a similar statue of Christ was placed high up on the wall behind the altar for all to see. Several plastic Christmas trees which grace the inside of the church year round were also cleaned and redecorated with Christmas lights.

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A very elaborate nativity scene was set up to one side of the altar, decorated with pine boughs, with lights on its roof. In addition to the boughs, the areas in the front of the church are also decorated with branches from a local broadleaf evergreen tree with red berries from the genus Photinia. Local elders say they have called this plant shengdan shu — or ‘Christmas Tree’ — since the time of the French and Swiss fathers.
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Around 7pm, villagers slowly began to arrive and file into the church for the evening mass, which began this year around 8:30. It should be noted that Christmas seems to have become quite a publicized event in Cizhong, perhaps due to the attention it receives in tourism materials. The mass not only included Cizhong villagers but many foreign — particularly French — and Chinese tourists, photographers, and other academics including myself. Christmas Eve mass continued for just under two hours, after which everyone returned home until the next morning. Both Christmas masses, and particularly the morning mass, were much more extravagant than a typical Sunday service. Large numbers of villagers showed up from all over, dressed in their full traditional Tibetan regalia. This drew even more tourists.

The Christmas morning mass — which actually didn’t begin until almost noon despite villagers arriving around 9am — also included a full processional composed of the priest and his assistants walking into the church in their robes, with candles, a cross, and incense censer. None of this is normally used for weekly services.The language of the mass in Cizhong is peculiar.  Many familar Catholic songs sung by villagers are sung in Tibetan using the translations originally created by the French and Swiss. Conversely, the mass and bible readings themselves are conducted by the priest in Mandarin Chinese, so the service is quite syncretic and eclectic being Chinese with Tibetan chanting.

Later an engaged couple walked down the aisle to receive a special Christmas blessing from the father. They were followed by a procession of children in traditional Tibetan clothing and Santa hats, followed by traditionally dressed women bearing gifts for Christ. The priest and his village assistants accepted the gifts and then placed them in front of the nativity scene that had been set up below and to the side of the altar.

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The Afterparty

Following the Christmas morning mass, everyone — villagers, tourists, and anyone else in attendance — gathered in the courtyard in front of the church and began the afternoon festivities of drinking and performing traditional Tibetan dances and sings. During this portion of the day, Buddhist locals also arrived to join in the festivities.

To begin, everyone first simply found a spot in the courtyard to enjoy the sun, the company of others and cake donated by all the village families. It was served followed by a choice of barley liquor — known as qingkejiu — mixed with meat, or a locally made rice wine called mijiu mixed with egg.

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After a short time, traditional circle dancing began, accompanied by singing and several men playing traditional string instruments called piwang. The singing is always done as a back-and-forth exchange, with men and women each singing separately while dancing on opposite sides of the circle which rotates around as more people join.

While the merriment ensued, a lunch of several Chinese-style dishes was served in a small museum room next to the church. Here, several tables were set up and groups of locals and visitors rotated through to sit down and be served. After they finished, the tables were cleared and a new group welcomed in to eat.

Dancing continued, and by this time many of the villagers had joined in. The men particularly all seemed to be sporting a bottle or can of beer. By around 5pm things began to wind down with most people returned home, while the tourists and other visitors headed back to their guesthouses. And with that, my Tibetan Catholic Christmas on the Upper Mekong came to an end.
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Tibetan Wine Boom Threatens Food Security

The growing Tibetan wine industry raises concerns about local food supplies and pesticide use.

Many familiar with China and Tibet, may have heard about China’s “Shangri-La,” a region in the northwest of China’s Yunnan Province bordering Tibet and Sichuan that was officially renamed in 2001 after the location of a mystical Himalayan paradise in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon.  The goal of this naming campaign was to heavily promote and extend tourism throughout the region, a strategy that has proved highly effective for the local government with the number of both Chinese and foreign visitors continuing to grow annually and with the increasing expansion of a tourism industry catering to the desires of travelers wanting to experience both Tibetan culture and local natural wonders.


Grapes on vine in a village near the Yunnan Tibet border

Grapes on vine in a village near the Yunnan Tibet border

Over the last decade, a significant corporate and agricultural development project in the region has involved the growth of a Tibetan wine industry among rural villages on the upper Lancang (Mekong) and Jinsha (Yangtze) rivers.  About nine years ago, the provincial government approached villagers across the region’s warm and dry rivers valleys and encouraged them to begin growing grapes to annually sell to the newly established Shangri-La Red Wine Company, a new corporation with close government ties that markets its wine as being distinctly Tibetan and coming from “Shangri-La.”  As part of this program, villagers were given grape seedlings and concrete trellises to support their new vineyards.  Slowly, more and more villages have caught on to this practice and pattern of agriculture to the point that in several areas, fields have been transformed into monocrops, though this is not the case is all locations.  Indeed in some of the region’s villages, a diversity of crops including wheat, barley, buckwheat, corn, and in the southernmost areas rice, are all grown.


The government introduced Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards to the  village along the Upper Lancang in Yunnan close to Tibet.

The government introduced Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards to the
village along the Upper Lancang in Yunnan close to Tibet.

Though I had been traveling and studying in this region for seven years and had indeed witnessed grape growing, it was not until 2011 when I arrived to conduct research on the potential impacts of hydropower resettlement in the region for my master’s degree that I began to realize what a large undertaking has occurred with grape agriculture and the major impacts that this has had on local livelihoods.  Discovering these issues, I began to explore them more deeply, writing a chapter in my MA thesis focused on the topic (which is soon to be published as an academic article), and now looking at this grape agriculture, its history, and the changes associated with it in great depth for my doctoral research.


Original Rose Honey vines in the church yard at Cizhong in the  south of Yunnan’s Tibetan region

Original Rose Honey vines in the church yard at Cizhong in the
south of Yunnan’s Tibetan region

Despite their recent expansion across the region, grapes and wine actually have a long and interesting history in the region in isolated areas.  In the late 1800’s, French Catholic missionaries established a strong presence in the region, primarily in the neighboring Nu (Salween) river valley but with a few successful churches and Tibetan converts in the Lancang as well.  While establishing their churches, the French also began to plant grapes and to produce wine, a practice which is still carried on to this day by villagers in Yunnan’s southern most Tibetan villages in Cizhong.  Unique to Cizhong on the upper Lancang is also a variety of grapes known as Rose Honey, a strain that was thought to have been completely wiped out by a blight in France but was found preserved within the church walls at Cizhong.


Township government Cabernet vineyards planted outside of Cizhong’ s church

Township government Cabernet vineyards planted outside of Cizhong’
s church

Based on my own interviews and ethnographic work in the region, the Rose Honey grapes are in fact only grown by a limited number of villagers and today are primarily unique to Cizhong alone.  When the prefectural government and Shangri-La Red Wine Company introduced and encouraged grape growing throughout the region approximately eight years ago, they provided a new variety of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, which is the only variety that this company will purchase.  Therefore the majority of the communities in the region grow and sell these grapes, though in some cases around Cizhong they also produce some wine to sell to tourists themselves, though this is not the case everywhere, especially in the most upstream areas closest to Tibet where some villages have no knowledge of wine making.  Unlike the Rose Honey grapes, the Cabernet variety also requires significant chemical inputs by way of fertilizers and pesticides.


From a sustainability standpoint, this increasing reliance on chemicals is one of two major areas of concern and interest – the second is food security.  Villagers themselves are not unaware that they are becoming increasingly reliant on chemicals and that this may be causing problems either.  In one village where I work, only two years ago it was a very common practice among households to intercrop vegetables for personal consumption among grape vines.  However starting this year I both noticed that the practice has decreased and was informed that this was due to villagers own worries about eating foods exposed to too many chemicals and possibly now toxic soils.  Similarly, one of my informants in Cizhong prides himself on two features of his grapes: they are completely organic, and he only grows the Rose Honey variety he obtained from the church yards.  This man has pointed out that most people in Cizhong use many chemicals because the Cabernet grapes introduced by the government won’t grow without them, while the Rose Honey grapes can be grown without any inputs.  Using these characteristics he markets the wine he makes as being both organic and of the historically significant Rose Honey variety, and has managed to develop a very good income for himself by selling wine to local government officials for banquets and to a restaurant in the famous tourism city of Lijiang to the south.


Cizhong villager tending his organic Rose Honey vines.  He makes and sells wine  himself rather than selling grapes to a company.

Cizhong villager tending his organic Rose Honey vines. He makes and sells wine
himself rather than selling grapes to a company.

Food security and changes in traditional cropping patterns and ways of life are also a major issue created by grape growing.  In the downstream regions around Cizhong, the majority of villagers still grow large amounts of grain including rice (the northernmost rice in the Mekong and the only rice grown by Tibetans), wheat, barley, corn, and buckwheat to fulfill their own subsistence and livestock needs.  This is not the case upstream however where villagers now grow little to no grain in exchange for grapes as a monocrop; by doing so they then rely on the profits from grape sales to purchase grain for subsistence and also fertilizers and pesticides.  This has brought about two issues.  The first is major changes in diet, as people who traditionally subsisted on wheat and barley are now purchasing rice and in a sense becoming “Hanified” by their diets as they move away from eating traditional Tibetan foods.  Second, there is now a great reliance on the government and the Shangri-La Red Wine Company to purchase grapes, which are the number one income source and thus hugely important in securing funds to purchase adequate amounts of food to eat.  However from year to year, selling grapes is a major issue of concern, particularly being able to sell them at the ideal time when they are first ready to be harvested because if one waits too long they begin to rot on the vines and lose weight which is how they are measured for sales.


Interview with an 85 year old Cizhong villager who learned to make wine from French Catholics in the 1930s (photo by Sun Fei).

Interview with an 85 year old Cizhong villager who learned to make wine from French Catholics in the 1930s (photo by Sun Fei).

Since the harvest season of 2011 when I first began studying these issues, the company purchases have consistently arrived late every year, which has created serious worries among villagers about their ability to sell the crop.  Despite government assurances that the company is guaranteed to arrive by a certain date each year, this has not appeared to actually be the case, and securing maximum prices and value from grapes from year to year is a constant struggle for villagers as well as the new reliance on outside food purchase which are well captured in the following quotes from interviews:


“Before we planted grapes we didn’t have to buy corn and pesticides, but now we do.  However our income is still better growing grapes. If you plant grapes your income will increase, but you also have to spend more money to buy food.”


More or less, villages fully recognize the vulnerabilities involved in switching their cropping to grapes, but have still chosen to do and have invested much time and energy in doing so because of the high monetary returns that they provide.

An abbreviated version was posted here earlier this week on



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