Beijing I: Where the empty bottles outside tell you what’s inside

Part four of a series on beer in East Asia.

In Beijing, bars, bottle shops, and corner stores announce the beers you’ll find inside not through fluorescent signage, but by the the empty bottles lined up on their outside facade. Rows of empty bottles, a bottle tree, a hanging garden of bottles, and so on declare variety and speak to the apparent popularity of Trappist beers in Beijing. Rochefort and Chimay are abundant, and Delirium, Liefmans, and Lindemans are also everywhere. Duvel and Vedetta almost seem pedestrian by the standards here.

Walking down the back alley understatedly known as Beixinqiao 3rd Lane–famous among Beijingers for its variety of ethnic foods–I stumbled across the tiny Hippo bar, which seats about four people and has a wall of Orval bottles gracing it. I swear I felt like the fish that found the ring on the label in that moment.

The lovely, quiet Hippo Bar. Seek this out!

The lovely, quiet Hippo Bar. That’s about the entire place in your view. Seek this out!

One night I needed to find an ATM, and our French Airbnb host John, a cosmetic company’s marketing creative director, offered to drive me to the nearest on his eerily quiet electric moped. I feared for my knees–stuck out on the sides–as he quickly weaved his way left and right and through terrifyingly small spaces created by people and traffic all through the hutong alleys that splinter the city blocks of this older Beijing neighborhood. Arriving at the main road, John merged into traffic on the wrong the side of the road, playing chicken with a Mercedes. I was a bit glad to be dropped off shortly thereafter.

Throwing my task to the wind of not really being in any hurry, I set out in the opposite direction from my ATM and headed into the neighborhood across from the Yonghegong Lama Temple, one of the city’s many tourist attractions which we never ended up visiting because, you know, it was too close? Alleys abound in this part of Beijing–many parts of the city, really–and it’s remarkably just how busy they constantly are. It seems as though you’re never alone on a hutong alley, with pedestrians sharing space with cars, scooters, and tricycle pickups. No one really slows down, so the pace of movement in the thin alleys can be overwhelming to someone unused to it and/or gawking at the many small details to see. I.e. me.

Getting to Beixinqiao 3rd Lane:

While our alley featured the aforementioned Hippo bar after a plethora of Chinese ethnic and regional eateries, a couple more bars with, you know, just a tree of Hoegaarden empties, fruit shops and impromptu vegetable stalls set in the back of truck, crossing the street was like jumping over to Pearl Street in Boulder. No more haphazard commerce, but the pruned and trimmed retro-hipster feel of a place that caters to expatriate residents and well-off locals. No judgment, I’m just saying you probably won’t find boutiques selling vintage clothing and such on most Beijing street corners. This was the domain of Westmalle and Maredsous. A place for refined tastes.

Which reminds me, I’ve been wondering why the Trappist and premium Belgian beers are so readily available here (besides the marketing prowess of say, Moortgat). Given that the Chinese love for European wine is well-documented (and real, I might add: it’s exceedingly difficult to find Chinese wines in the grocery stores I’ve popped into, but there are lots of French options), it seems logical to project a similar dynamic onto beer. That is, the corollary to premium European wines in the beer world could be premium European beers. I.e. the esoteric Trappists. Or, again, maybe it’s just that Moortgat and some of their European beer exporting peers wisened up quick that there’s a huge market waiting for them in China and jumped in headfirst. American brewers: take note! (Well, depending on the follow-on effects of this week’s plunging Chinese stock markets.)

Just to give an example of how refined the tastes were in this neighborhood, the beer fridge in the local convenience store didn’t just stock Chimay White, Blue and Lindemans Peche. Sure, they had those, but they also had two types of gueuze and a healthy selection of American imports as well (Rogue Ales are very generally well-represented in China). Heck, it was a tad surreal to see three Americans studying abroad picking out a six-pack of beer that would rival a lower-middle-average bottle shop in a larger American city. We didn’t have that on my study abroad in Uganda.

Inside Panda Brew.

Inside Panda Brew.

Meandering on down this alley, I came across a bar called “Panda Brew” with a bunch of eponymously labeled bottles on a barrel out front. That looked mighty promising, so I ducked inside and sure enough, a microbrewery! (Well, technically none of the places I visited in China have actual breweries on site; rather, because of some kind of law that says food cannot be prepared on site with out a special license, they have to brew outside the city and then set up their own pubs inside it. This is also the case with certain run of the mill restaurants.) Sparse, small, and very minimal apart from two angry urban panda bears graffitied on the wall, Panda Brew featured six taps and distressingly, no bottles to take out. Nor a sampling flight option.

I was to find this is pretty much the case with everyone in China: a few places do growlers, one bottles a beer, and the rest serve it all on tap. Kind of annoying when you want to truck it with you in the suitcase. Oh well. Not really fancying anything on offer–the wit had won some kind of domestic award, but it’s winter in Beijing and most certainly felt like it to my tropically-primed bones–I continued on my way.

Outside Panda Brew.

Outside Panda Brew during the blue hour.

In the hopes of keeping things concise, I’ll continue this next week.

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