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Beer in China

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.

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

Taking the odd left, a few steps down I found myself doing a double-take: a sausage shop named Stuff’d was advertising “hand made sausages & homebrew’d beer” on its sign! What was this paradise I had stumbled onto in China–two breweries within a block of one another? Madness! (Clearly I was foreshadowing the deep–if happy–culture shock when I relocated to the US later in the year.)

Stuff'd, the sausage shop.

Stuff’d, the sausage shop.

Stepping into Stuff’d (which, if I recall from my friends who spent time in the UK, is a pretty vulgar bit of innuendo over there), I looked confused enough that the barkeep sitting at his laptop got up to help out. He’s Swedish, and the American sitting down the bar have joined with the Brit who owns Stuff’d (that explains the name?) and started brewing in the first place to get Arrow Factory Brewing up and running. So named for the hutong where it sits, which having been named many things through the centuries at one point derived its moniker from an arrow factory. This brings to mind the early microbrewers in the 70s and 80s in the US, cashing in on a sense of history and tradition to market new ideas (e.g. New Amsterdam or New Albion), but basing it in a consciously local institution.

Of course, given the aforementioned legal nuances that prevent food preparation on site (although, when their beer was much more “homebrewed,” it was actually put together in a back room of kitchen), and with growth, Arrow Factory Brewing just opened a 120 hectoliter (102 bbl) brewery outside the city and are beginning to brew and distribute on a much larger scale. Asked if this was now a full time job, the American who has been here eight years said, “well, hopefully.” By the time I stepped into Stuff’d I was already pushing the time a bit, but the Swede passed a couple tastes of their Bitter End Rye Pale Ale (6.3%) and Guan Xi Pale Ale (5.5%). Both were properly bitter and very notably aromatic. The other two offerings were a porter and stout. John (the Brit) mentioned that they’d be introducing bottling and sampler flights in the next months or so, but it’s still something very few people are doing at this moment.

Shamefully, I lost my notes for this outing and can only remember that's the Swede on the left and the American on the right, and their beers on the board.

Shamefully, I lost my notes for this outing and can only remember that’s the Swede on the left and the American on the right, and their beers on the board.

In fact, the only craft brewery John knew of in Beijing that was bottling was Great Leap Brewing, probably the best known and oldest of Beijing’s relatively small scene. But that’s for another night. I made my way back to the cash machine and headed back into the depths of the hutong alleys I’d never be able to navigate if someone hadn’t shown me first. But if I learned anything in Beijing, it’s that wandering those depths can lead to some most excellent surprises.

It was still a forthcoming brewery when I popped in, but it's since come awake.

It was still a forthcoming brewery when I popped in, but it’s since come awake.


More to come…

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.