Brewery alehouses in Beijing bring European-style craft beers to masses
Fans and experts join forces to offer craft beers for thirsty expats and a growing number of locals in Beijing, writes Mark Graham
Brew pubs offering hearty English-style real ales and beers with unusual ingredients such as watermelon, Sichuan peppers and tea are proving to be hugely popular in Beijing, packed with drinkers who, at last, have an alternative to bland local offerings.
The main three newcomers, Great Leap Brewing, Slow Boat Brewery and Jing-A Brewing Company, initially targeted their craft beers at expatriates. They knew they would have a ready-made clientele of British, Americans and Germans pining for the high alcohol-content beer and pub atmosphere of their homelands.
But the alehouses have quickly developed a strong following of mainlanders, who have acquired a taste for more complex beers. All nationalities appreciate that the craft ales are brewed with real expertise - and sold at prices that undercut already-established outlets serving imported keg beers.
Serious drinkers, especially those who endured the wasteland years of having a choice of only bland lager, or paying a hefty price for a properly brewed pint at the German-style brauhaus operations, still can't quite believe places such as Great Leap Brewing offer up to 16 beers at any one time, all brewed on the premises by owner Carl Setzer.
"The beer I am proudest of - which is also our bestseller - is the Honey Ma," says the American, a sturdy, bearded, baseball-capped fellow who looks every inch the brewmaster he is. "It costs slightly more than our pale ale but it sells the same amount per day. Sichuan peppercorn is a brewing ingredient people often didn't know existed before we made the Honey Ma. Some brewers said it didn't go with beer."
Setzer launched the first incarnation of Great Leap Brewing in a scruffy hutong courtyard, a venue that still has a loyal following.
The new Great Leap bar is far classier, with the exposed brick and dark wood giving it the look of a hip American or British brewpub. The beers on offer on our visit include Little General IPA, Hop God 120, Imperial Pumpkin, Mocha Stout, as well as Hazelnut porter, made with local nuts and Cinnamon Rock ale, brewed with Chinese rock candy and cinnamon.
Three minutes walk away is the Jing-A Brewing, where pals Kristian Li and Alex Acker have turned their home-brew hobby into a viable enterprise. The business model is unusual: they run an independent operation inside the Big Smoke restaurant - which is also their main client.
Diners ordering the restaurant's American-style smoked ribs can choose various brews to go with it, including Worker's Pale Ale, or novelty beers that are brewed with ingredients such as watermelon, a summertime fruit much loved by Beijingers.
"It started as a hobby and became an obsession," says Li, an affable Canadian, who has lived in Beijing for more than a decade. "It was our dream to brew tasty, artisanal, small-batch lagers in a variety of styles, using only the best ingredients. I think the craft beer movement has momentum worldwide and it is time for it to come to China.
"We have six rotating beers; we just did a nice dark amber caramel-toasted flavour English bitter. Our Flying Fist IPA is the bestseller - the name comes from a kung fu move - and the Worker's Pale Ale also sells well."
As well as supplying the Big Smoke, the brewery also has beers on tap at 4Corners, a hutong bar, and offers a portable beer service for parties with the "Keg Egg", where draught beer is served from the back of a small motorised tricycle.
A brewer with more grandiose plans is Chandler Jurinka, whose Slow Boat tap room is a must-stop on any beer-themed tour of the city. Slow Boat has 12 different draught beers at any time, from strong stout to lager, with evocative names such as Monkey's Fist IPA, Three Sheets Coffee Porter and Big Swell Brown Ale.
Jurinka, an old China hand who previously worked in marketing, hooked up with fellow American Daniel Hebert, a skilled brewmaster. They decided to produced beer at an out-of town-brewery and sell it to bars and restaurants in the city, including the showcase Slow Boat tap room, located in an atmospheric hutong.
It launches its first bottled beers this month, including Zombie Pirate Ale, a medium-bodied offering made with American hops, named after the notorious Cantonese pirate woman Zheng Shi.
"There is no shortage of good beer now in Beijing," says Jurinka, who named the brewery after the song Slow Boat to China. "The Captain's Pale Ale is my favourite, it is very complex, there are a lot of different hops and grains that give it a real taste profile. It doesn't drop off like a lot of beers. It is lower in alcohol, 5.5 per cent, so you can drink a few of them and be none the worse for wear."
The beers range in price from 25 yuan (HK$32) up to 55 yuan, depending on the number, and quality, of ingredients, which compares well with imported draught beers. According to Great Leap landlord Setzer, locals think the beer is too cheap.
He adds: "Our reputation on Weibo is that the beer is strong, the price is cheap, the boss is stupid, go quickly. We like that because it means people feel the need to go there urgently. We always err on the side that allows the maximum amount of people to try our beer."
Great Leap Brewing
Doujiao Hutong 6
Tel: +86 10 5717 1399
No 12 Flagship Brewpub
Xiazhong Street 12
Tel: +86 10 6416 6887
Slow Boat Brewery Taproom
Dongcheng Qu, Dongsi ba tiao 56 hao
Tel: +86 10 6538 5537
Jing-A Brewery Company
Lee World Building, 57 Xingfucun Zhonglu
Tel: +86 139 1061 2493