Beijing III: Great Leap Drinking

Part five of a series on beer in Asia, and a continuation of Where the empty bottles outside tell you what’s inside and Getting stuff’d in Beijing.

Great Leap Brewing is probably the most visible of Beijing’s self-consciously “craft” beer bars and breweries. Now with three locations, we stopped into their original pub in the hipster-equivalent area of Nanluoguxiang for a sampler flight. GLB had something like 12 of their own beers on tap, but it was as dead as we were feeling at 8 pm on a Tuesday night after a day full of sightseeing.

Sleepy, subdued, and dark, it was warm inside the pub and I’m not sure who would want to sit outside on the massive patio area during these Beijing winters. The large recovered wood tables and bar were inviting. When the sampler arrived, we tried their original beer, the Honey Ma Gold, the Little General Session IPA, and the Cinnamon Rock Ale, but it was the Three Door Tripel that stole the show. Listed as “10-11% ABV”–you’d think they’d be able to tell the exact alcohol content, right–it smelled of finger bananas and was a bit on the sweet side, but it was still really bright and tasted deeply of the yeastiness you look forward to in an abbey ale. Hands down, it easily eclipsed the Chimay Tripel I’d had the night before.

Some very raw tasting notes.

Some very raw tasting notes.

While the other three beers we tried were trying to incorporate “local” ingredients using the novelty ingredient approach, none of them quite seemed to pull it off. Honey Ma is brewed with Sichuan peppercorns, but in the beer you’d honestly not notice a difference between those and black peppercorns. The Cinnamon Rock ale utilized Vietnamese cinnamon and Chinese rock sugar, but it was mostly just an unremarkable, sweet amber ale. Spicing with a light hand is always wise, but perhaps too light?

Unfortunately, the Session IPA and Rock Ale both starting throwing off hints of bile after we started chowing down on the complimentary Sichuan peppercorns and peanuts: perhaps it is not the greatest bar snack to pair with your beer. Happily, the pub is bring-your-own-food: either order in or bring your takeout here to eat. And there is plenty of good takeout in the area.

GLB’s other point to commend was its emphasis on using China-sourced foundational ingredients in their beers. That is, Chinese malt and hops.

Has anyone noticed recently that has been China the third-largest producer of hops in the world for a few years running now? [2013-2014 Barth Haas Report, p. 14] As far as my brief exploration of this has revealed, they mostly grow what are called Qingdao Flower (the Chinese characters for hops translate to “beer flower”), Gansu, Marco Polo and SA-1 hops, primarily in the Xinjiang and Gansu provinces. Qingdao Flowers are the hops that flavor Tsingtao, and Xinjiang and Gansu are next door to Mongolia, the geographic region where hops are thought to have originated from some 6 million years ago.

GLB obviously makes a point to utilize what is locally available and Qingdao Flower hops especially make an appearance in a number of their beers. No doubt it’s an economically wise choice as well, but nonetheless this deserves praise because it contributes to the seemingly ever-fleeting sense of place that might be found in beer production. It’s hard to think of a beer as “Chinese” when it’s made from, say, German malt, American hops, a European yeast, and incidentally happens to be brewed in China itself.

For what it’s worth, I’d love to try an all-Chinese IPA at some point, highlighting China’s ingredient sources. It can be done, and while sourcing a Chinese yeast might prove a slightly challenging, White Labs is expanding to Hong Kong. And I suspect that Great Leap Brewing are the best placed to make that happen.

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