Brewing up in Beijing


It had to be a mirage. A large frosted glass full of beer with a frothy head standing ten metres high in the Gobi desert, as the sands beneath were being blown into small drifts by the strong winds.

I had been travelling for two weeks along the Karakoram Highway through Pakistan into China and not a drop of beer had passed my lips. Apart from the can of Murree Lager that I had picked up from a insalubrious hole in the wall in the back streets of Islamabad, but that barely counted as beer as the sickly sweet Pakistani liquor had a quicker than usual passage into a nearby toilet bowl.

But this was unmistakably a massive advertising board for Tsingtao. The national beer of China. In the middle of the desert. A sign that my beer drought was about to end. Later that evening, having made it through the checkpoints and searches that are a way of life in the sensitive Xinjiang region, I relaxed in the hotel bar, knocking back many cold bottles of the lager from the small coastal town of Qingdao.

Almost any beer would have tasted good, well, maybe not Murree Lager, but Tsingtao was perfect. Produced in what was once the main German colony on the Chinese mainland, a combination of local yeast, barley, mineral water and rice results in a tasty and thirst quenching brew. OK, it would not exactly pass the Reinheitsgebot (German Beer purity law) but I knew it as one of the most reliable and tasty brews in the country. That was until I got to the capital, Beijing.

It may have taken China a few years longer than other countries to experience the pleasures of craft beers, but it is now in catch-up mode. Small breweries are springing up across the country. Nanjing has Master Gao, Shenzhen has Taps, Shanghai has Boxing Cat (the latter recently purchased by the global Anheuser-Busch conglomerate who clearly recognise a money making opportunity when they see one, if not always a quality beer with their flagship ale being Budweiser), but it is in Beijing that most of the small breweries are concentrated in.

It was too good an opportunity to miss, and I spent a week sampling beers at a number of breweries around the city, and here are the Far Flung Places top three breweries in Beijing. In reverse order, they are:

It might give you a headache if you drink too much, an advert for Airpocalypse Ale

1949 The Hidden City, Courtyard 4
Gongti Bei Lu, Chaoyang district

A dimly lit brewery tap hidden away in a hutong courtyard. Jiang A is packed with expats and only a few locals. The main claim to fame here is their Airpocalyspe, a double IPA with a 8.8% strength, a nod towards the appalling air pollution that Beijing can suffer, the price decreases in tandem with the air quality! Slightly sweet, but with a nice alcoholic sting in the tail. The Workers Pale Ale was my pick of the brewery, a great session beer brewed in an American style, with a full hoppy aftertaste.

A mention should be made of the Mijiaya Neolithic Ale  which is based on a 5,000 year old recipe discovered from an archeological dig at Mijiaya in Shaanxi province. A barley based brew using all local ingredients it is proof that our forebears knew how to relax at the end of a hard day hunting mammoths, although it was a little too sour and sweet for my tastebuds, but nevertheless a fantastic chance to experience one of the oldest beers on earth.

It may take you a while to get through tasting all these. Only part of the Great Leap Brewing's list of beers. 
#2. Great Leap Brewing
Rm 101 Ziming Mansion,
B12 Xinzhong Street, Dongcheng District

There are three locations for what was the first craft brewery in Beijing, which started in 2010. I went to the packed brewpub located near the Workers Stadium. Inside it resembled a typical British pub, although with a lack of scotch eggs or pork pies on the bar menu.

The beers however were great. Some interesting experimentation with local ingredients has resulted in the Honey Ma Gold, a dry flavoursome beer with more than a little spice, made with the addition of honey from apiaries near the Great Wall, as well as added peppercorns.

The Hefeweizen brew, Banana Wheat, went down beautifully on a hot Beijing day, a sweeter taste than the normal German brews I generally drink, but it was packed full of flavour and had a great wheaty nose.

I was hoping for more from the Cinnamon Rock Ale, which seemed to have lost any hints of my favourite spice in its overpowering hoppy taste, but this was made up for with the full flavour from the Pale Ale #6 a terrific drop made from 100% Chinese ingredients which kept me coming back for more.

Monkey's Fist IPA. Makes you thirsty just looking at it.

#1. Slow Boat Brewery
Dongsi Ba Tiao 56 Hao
Dongcheng District

The signs were still being polished on the outside of the new location for the Slow Boat Brewery when I arrived. Modern design with the beer tanks built into the middle of the three story building to remind you where the beer comes from.

The Slow Boat Brewery has taken off since it was launched in 2011, and its beers are becoming available at restaurants throughout Beijing, and with good reason, they are well brewed and are full of flavour. The brewery prides itself on using no chemicals or preservatives, and the beer is unpasteurised, which, fresh from a keg, has a taste that is very hard to beat.

As with all the Beijing breweries, there is a fair bit of experimentation. The Dragon Bay Agave Wheat, which tastes like a cross between a tequila and a wheat beer, is an unusual brew to start with, but it works, and has a long spicy aftertaste. The Peanut Butter Destroyer Pale Ale involves a small amount of actual peanut butter in the brew (not for those who suffer from anaphylaxis) which not surprisingly adds to the nutty flavour in this smooth tasting beer.

The only ale I tried which did not really work was the Hellburner Smoked Wheat, a little bit too smoky and tart for my taste. But the more traditional ales, such as the Captain’s Pale Ale and All Hands Amber Ale were nicely hopped in the American style and would act as great session beers.

My top recommendation would be the Monkey’s Fist IPA, a little strong at 6.2% alcohol but packed full of flavour, with a long fruity aftertaste. Wonderful to sip on as you rest up your legs after a long day walking on the Great Wall.

I talked to one of the brewers behind the Slow Boat Brewery, Chandler Jurinka, about his experiences as a brewer in Beijing.

FFP: Expats from outside of China mostly love beer of course, but how has Slow Boat found the reaction from local Beijingers?

“When we started out in 2011 most of our customers were Expats. Back then the feedback we received was that Chinese drinkers don’t like bitterness and won’t drink cold beer in the winter.

Men often came to the bar asking for sweet or “girl” beers for their girlfriends. But all of that changed a few years back. Local Chinese are now 65-70% of our customers. We find women often introduce Slow Boat to their boyfriends and IPA is far and beyond our most popular beer style with our Triple IPA (10.5%) being particularly popular.”
FFP: What is the story behind Peanut Butter Destroyer, a rather unusual beer?

 We’re always trying out new approaches to beers we’ve done in the past. It keeps us engaged and laughing. Kind of a way to entertain ourselves. Anyway, Daniel (Daniel Herbert, the co-founder and co-brewer) came up with the idea of doing a peanut butter and jelly beer and we all just looked at him in disbelief. Taking it as a challenge, he set out to prove us wrong. Using real peanut butter with lots and lots of pureed strawberry, I think Daniel did a damn nice job of making a very balanced PB&J Pale Ale.”

FFP: How difficult is it to run a small brewery in China?

“The raw materials for brewing are readily available and demand is growing, however the regulatory environment has not kept up with the market. Regulation still favors large scale brewing which is unfortunate because all of the innovation is being done at the nano-level.”

FFP: What are the future plans for Slowboat beers, as well as the brewery, in China?

“We just released “Luchador on a boat”, a Mexican Saison made with avocado honey, cumin, coriander, lime zest and tequila soaked chilies. This years seasonal brews are going to be seaweed pale ale, Maple bacon golden ale, and a chocolate sea-salt stout. And for the first time, we will begin actively distributing our beers to other provinces."

Even hunter gatherers made time for a beer, Mijiaya Neolithic Ale