You’ve got to be at least a little bit nuts to travel to Beijing for beer. Because even though China leads the world by leaps and bounds in terms of beer production, brewing over half a billion hectoliters annually, per capita consumption is low—not much above 32 liters per year—and the impact of craft-styled beer on that total is so small as to be negligible.
All of which, I suppose, makes me nuts.
Although, to be honest, I didn’t travel 13 hours by plane from Toronto to Beijing strictly to drink beer. I did it mostly to drink spirits, or rather to judge spirits at the International Spirits Selection competition in Guiyang. But having been handed the opportunity, I figured that a few days beer hunting in the capital wouldn’t go amiss. And besides, I had a willing guide in my colleague Michelle Wang, founder of Chinese magazine The Beer Link, who had kindly offered to show me the ins and outs of beer in Beijing.
My first lesson is the one I noted a couple of paragraphs above, which is that you don’t go to Beijing for beer. The heart of craft brewing in China, such as it is, is Shanghai; Beijing is, for now at least, the poor cousin. That said, however, the city is not without its joys.
My first stop was NBeer, which many people will tell you is the best brewery in Beijing. It is not. It is, however, the hippest, in a sort of funky, punk rock kind of way. It is also the leading Chinese-run brewery in the capital. (Western ex-pat brewers, especially Americans, figure prominently in China’s craft brewing industry.) I tried numerous beers during my time at the busy pub, the highlights of which were not their own brands, but rather those of China’s homebrew guru—a sort of Charlie Papazian of the East, if you will—Master Gao.
Of the NBeer beers, I liked best a slightly burnt Black IPA with a too-sharp hop finish, and a balanced, herbal Summer IPA that drank almost like a session IPA, despite its 6.3% alcohol content. Other beers, like the butterscotchy City Lights Red Ale and Zhongnanhou Smoke, were more problematic, although the latter did at least provide insight into what a smoked Werther’s Original candy might taste like.
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Panda Brew // Photos courtesy of Panda Brew
My next Chinese-owned brewery foray was to Panda Brew, which has been around for two-and-a-half years, although only in its present location for 12 months. It caught my attention almost immediately with Too Naïve Pale Ale, a fruity, quaffable brew with a citrus hop character, and the fragrant Too Fool IPA, which struck me as an amped up version of the pale ale. Most interesting, though, was the Kuding Pale Ale, available in a contract-brewed and pasteurized bottled version, and a draft version brewed on-premise, which uses Chinese herbs as well as hops for bittering. The result is a fascinating and unique bitterness quite unlike that of a purely hopped beer.
The big three breweries in Beijing, however, are all ex-pat operated: Slow Boat, Jing-A, and Great Leap. Of the three, you’re most likely to have heard of Great Leap. It was also that which impressed me the least.
今天大跃啤酒要发布风谷南瓜啤酒！We are tapping the Imperial Pumpkin Ale! Made each fall with 100kg of local Chinese gourd pumpkins pic.twitter.com/dv1zRpWOI9
— Great Leap Brewing (@greatleapbeer) October 15, 2015
Perhaps it was because I had previously encountered high praise for the Great Leap offerings, including positive reviews by Michelle for The Pocket Beer Guide 2015, but almost every beer I sampled at the pub left me wanting more. I found the tea-infused Iron Buddha Blonde slightly tannic and dry, but unexceptional; the honey-ish Honey Ma Gold was cloying on the finish; and the roundly lauded Little General IPA was to me a muddled mix of fruity malt, citrusy hop, and yeastiness. Best was their summer session IPA, Hidden General, which showed lovely structure and floral character.
More impressive to me, in terms of recognized Western beer styles, was Slow Boat, which brews within sight of the Great Wall but has a cozy, relaxed tasting room in the city. All I sampled from the four-year-old operation was balanced and refreshingly well-attenuated, whether a Vienna lager, like the slightly earthy and a bit too sweet Endeavour, or a rich and flavorful ale, such as Sea Level Chocolate Sea Salt Stout, with subtle but evident salty notes on the finish. The latter was a standout, along with the Monkey’s Fist IPA and Slutty Mermaid Triple IPA—deceivingly even-bodied at 10.8% ABV.
The most aesthetically appealing and openly experimental brewery I visited was Jing-A. Originally called Capital Brewing and a mere two-and-a-half years old, the brewery’s one-year-old taproom reportedly sprang to life as a pop-up, but the exposed brick and wood certainly speak to permanence, as does its idyllic location in a courtyard away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Where the beer is concerned, obvious attempts have been made to embrace a Chinese approach to brewing, with rice, ginger, and wasabi appearing in the sweet and spicy Koji Red Ale; Sichuan pepper and Osmanthus flower in the floral and off-dry Full Moon Farmhouse Ale; and, most interestingly, a strong, experimental ale partially fermented by the wild baijiu yeast known as jiuqu.
In fact, of all the beers I sampled in China, that beer was, along with Panda’s Kuding Pale Ale, the most interesting when viewed from a work-in-progress perspective. Neither was quite where they eventually need to be, but together they help chart a path toward what might ultimately be the future of Chinese craft beer.