This summer remains a scorcher, but I [barely] braved the muggy heat to make my long overdue visits to these marquee brewpubs. On Wednesday, I navigated Beijing’s famous hutongs, first to Great Leap Brewing‘s original #6 location in Doujiao Hutong south of the Drum Tower (Gulou) and then several blocks away to Slow Boat Brewery Taproom in the Dongsi area. The next day saw me stopping by Jing-A Brewing Co., which has arguably the “fanciest” or most “upscale” location of these three, near Sanlitun in the 1949 Hidden City complex. Suffice to say, it was obvious to me why they all have done so well. Finally, after some noble-but-failed attempts, the American-style craft brewpub has carved out a solid foothold in this city.
Great Leap Brewing 大跃啤酒
With the earliest weekday opening time (2PM) of the three, this was the obvious place to start. While I normally would start with more subtle brews in one’s lineup, after strolling through dusty hutongs in the midsummer heat, I was craving for a hop fix and dove right into the IPA selection. I chose a sampler tray that included three of the rotating/seasonal IPAs.
The first I tried, Hidden General IPA 不让须眉, has a Chinese moniker with added meaning. The English name at first just seems like a variant of their standard Little General 小帅 IPA (named after Zhang Xueliang 张学良, aka the “Young Marshall”). But the Chinese labeling, 不让须眉, is a classical idiom roughly meaning “women are the equals of men.” The full idiom, 巾帼不让须眉 dates back to the Three Kingdoms period. Thus going back to the English name, you realize how the “hidden” part is Great Leap’s allusion to the legend of Hua Mulan 花木兰, the woman warrior who initially masqueraded as a man.
I think all three were perfectly drinkable beers and are within the bounds of the IPA style, but the dedicated hopheads you often come across these days could be somewhat disappointed. While Hidden General is under 5% ABV and is intentionally low in bitterness (with oolong tea and chrysanthemum flowers), and could also fit within the current trend of so-called “session IPA’s”, the other two are relatively lacking in the in-your-face citrus, pine and/or tropical fruit notes that many today associate with American-style IPA.
All this being said, Great Leap has always been more about adapting to local conditions/ingredients and presenting American-style craft beer to a local Chinese audience. Their IPA’s often include the domestically-bred Qingdao Flower hop variety (supposedly used in Tsingtao Beer), which is not particularly citrusy or tropical, but more floral as the name implies, and probably closer in lineage to classic European varieties. This syncretic formula has been successful for them, and shows more prominently in some of the other brews I tried…
Honey Ma Gold 甫子啤酒 is their first ever beer, flagship ale and remains their bestseller. It was a pleasant and tasty drink, obvious on the honey and floral notes, but the Sichuan peppercorn was difficult to pick out on this hot and muggy day.
A more dynamic story revealed itself with Cinnamon Rock Ale 肉桂冰糖. The cinnamon bark was fresh and piquant, but never strong or overbearing. Along with caramelized malts, candied rock sugar and gentle hopping, it was mildly sweet but well-balanced, with both apple juice and tea-like notes. I can see this easily pairing with any meat or tofu dish using soy sauce and five-spice: a combination that in Chinese cookery often also contains (you guessed it!) rock sugar.
Ok, so they may not be an IPA powerhouse, and provide more interesting Chinese-inspired creations, but I decided to delve further into the technical soundness of their brewing technique. This is usually found by trying a brewery’s attempts at classic European styles, and with lagers in particular. Without the aggressive hopping to hide any off-flavors – and in the case of lagers the simple difficulty in preventing them to begin with – these are often where the true mettle of a brewer is tested. Great Leap did NOT disappoint here, I’m happy to report!
Edmund Backhouse Pils 北京隐士 was relatively clean, with notes of white bread and crackers to the golden malt. The almost lemony fruitiness was slightly surprising until I learned that it used Citra hops, which of course deviates from traditional pilsners. But it was crisply refreshing while still flavorful, just the way a golden lager should be.
East City Porter 燕麦墨啤 is their stab at an English-style porter, brewed with oats. Oats are a cumbersome ingredient as they are sticky and cling to the equipment. But the extra effort pays off here. Smooth and chocolately, this will satisfy the stout and porter crowd with ease.
And to finish off my Great Leap adventure, their Scotch Ale/Wee Heavy fit the bill nicely. Aggressor 孟德啤酒 is toffee-like in its malt, and earthy in its restrained bitterness. Hints of dried dates and burnt sugar are full-flavored and complex without ever getting cloyingly sweet.
It is with these last three beers that I left most impressed by, even though the Chinese-themed beers were a welcome experience. They were proof to me that Great Leap is no longer just the product of a hobbyist homebrewer, but staffed by brewing professionals fully deserving of respect.
Slow Boat Brewery Taproom 悠航鲜啤
An extended stroll to the east brought me to a slightly different hutong vibe in the Dongsi 东四 area, just a block away from the Zhangzizhonglu Line 5 subway station. Housed in another unassuming little building, the tiny bar inside becomes a bustling 热闹 scene in the evenings. I also had the fortune of meeting one of the founders, Chandler Jurinka, that very evening. Turns out just as I was packing my bags and heading back to the US in late 2010, Chandler was in the process of coming in the opposite direction. Slow Boat started in 2011 and has been cruising along ever since.
Being Wednesday, they were promoting their weekly Hamburger Hump deal (order any burger, get a beer for 20 RMB) and to my luck it was their boldly hoppy First Immortal 第一仙 Double IPA , regularly 45 RMB. A hazy, unfiltered and unpasteurized concoction available in bottles, it was just what the hop doctor ordered. Here was the citrusy, tropical, pine resiny hop bomb I was craving! Cuts right through their decadently greasy Fryburger (winner of 2nd place at the 2014 Beijinger Burger Cup).
Chatting up the friendly staff meant a little less opportunity for my usual anti-social beergeek notetaking, but I did manage a few additional scribbles for brews I felt deserved extra attention. After a nice hop shock from the First Immortal, I went again to the lagers in getting a sense of their technical skill: Endeavor Vienna 奋斗者42号维也纳拉格 and Oregon Steam Boat 俄勒冈蒸汽拉格. The Vienna was a bit lighter in color than expected, but clean and presenting the malt and hops with pure intention, while the “steam beer” had slightly more caramelized malt notes and fruitier hints. Both were crisp yet flavorful lagers with no brewing faults, and worthy of applause.
Chandler noted that although the production costs of (and time needed for) brewing lagers was nearly twice or more than ales, the market remains unwilling to pay the price premium, which large industrial brewers can absorb due to economy of scale. This makes it all the more commendable for small nano-breweries like Slow Boat to offer well-crafted examples at the same price point of their ales.
That night I also had the pleasure of trying their limited seasonal offering, Sea Level Chocolate Salt Stout 海平面巧克力世涛. It was a tasty affair, with chocolate and coffee notes, hints of malted milk, with a refreshing bite possibly from the subtle addition of Himalayan salt. If you’ve ever enjoyed artisanal chocolates, many of which these days feature the savory-sweet combination of salt and sugar, this will be right up your alley. Get it before it’s gone!
Careful with Slow Boat’s beer sampler flights however – the sample size is a generous 6 ounce pour! (Most places, including in the US, tend to offer 4 ounce samples.) As a result, in order to more… :ahem: fairly… evaluate additional beers, I ended up revisiting Slow Boat again later on Thursday night.
Thus my efforts to sample more of their limited/seasonal IPAs had to wait for Day 2, which started with a comparison between an IPA featuring Calypso hops and another with Mosaic. Both were golden honey-hued brews, with the former giving off more apricot/peach notes and the latter more typically tropical, citrusy and piney. Also on deck was the Slutty Mermaid Triple IPA 性感美人三倍IPA – a definite hophead’s brew; and the Moby Dick Red DIPA 大白鲸红双倍IPA – a showcase for how to balance strong maltiness with bold hopping.
While all these beers would make any North American beergeek feel right at home, it seems like the locals are quaffing their share of these often extra hoppy libations all on their own. It’s a fun sight to behold.
Jing-A Brewing Co. 京A
The Sanlitun-adjacent area surrounding the 1949 Hidden City complex has seen countless venues come and go. I remember – many times fondly, other times, not so much – numerous late nights (and early mornings) that either started, passed through, or finished in this GPS-challenged vicinity. To get to Jing-A Brewing Co., you pretty much enter the area from Gongti Beilu and keep making left, then right, turns until you reach one of the most easterly points. Or follow their map, which looks deceptively easy, but still could prove challenging to the less spatially-aware.
The venue is comparatively quite large, with numerous outdoor picnic tables to further supplement capacity. Those of you familiar with the trendier craft beer venues in the West might be forced to do a double-take and remind yourself that this is indeed Beijing, China. You’ll see charcuterie, cheese courses, and even salads served on wooden cutting boards, and beer flights are served in small snifters. While this “vibe” isn’t a definite negative nor positive signifier for me personally, I concede that amongst a vocal segment of consumers, there is a backlash against what are perceived as overly “upscale” or “hipster” craft beer bars.
But before I could ponder this debate some more, I was quickly greeted by a friendly server and handed an informative menu. As it so happens, this Thursday afternoon was only a couple days after the inaugural World Baijiu Day, and Jing-A’s contribution to the event, Qu Brew, was still pouring. Qu 曲[麴] is the Chinese equivalent (and ancestor) of Japanese koji, a combination fermentation starter of mold, yeast and bacteria. Given the limited time availability, I quickly ordered a glass, along with an extravagant sausage platter courtesy of Andy’s. Served in a wine stem, the cloudy, coppery brown, amber brew did for a moment indeed remind me of Chinese rice wine or huangjiu. Although with banana bread esters and clove/anise-like notes, for a beer it honestly was more reminiscent of a dunkelweizen, at least to my palate. Your mileage may vary, but this relatively strong ale was an intriguing and perplexing drink that I ultimately did enjoy. Others sitting beside me at the bar were more mixed in their opinions. I suspect the word “baijiu” might have prejudiced some of them against it, but hard to be sure…
Moving onto a sampler flight, I figured I would stay on this line of fermentation inquiry, so the first sample snifter was their Koji Red Ale. Its Chinese name is a little more risque: 艺妓的胭脂, or “Geisha’s Rouge.” Despite the related microorganic roots, the beer was totally different from the Qu Brew. Hazy pink in hue, it emitted pu-erh tea aromas, along with quince and goji berries. The fruitiness of the esters translated into a very faint sweetness, in an overall relatively dry beer. In the way sake is often lighter and more delicate than the robust and rustic huangjiu, the different starters impart their distinctness to the final product.
Next up was their standard bearer IPA, the Flying Fist 飞拳. Golden honey in complexion, and bursting with guava, passionfruit and starfruit, transitioning into peaches and apricot, with hints of fresh bread underneath, and a balancing graprefruit rind bitterness. Full of flavor yet crisp and refreshing. This was archetypal of contemporary Citra-infused IPA’s on the cutting edge of today’s craft beer movement. A beer both for hopheads and all-day quaffers alike, I found myself consistently coming back for more. Any homesick American craft beer fan will at least temporarily forget all their China-related expat woes sitting with a pint of this pressed to their lips.
Of course, the other two samples in my flight were no slouch either, so I don’t want to do them the injustice of not mentioning them. The Black Velvet Vanilla Stout 黑丝绒燕麦香草世涛 is actually an oatmeal stout according to its Chinese name, and it delivers as expected: milky and smooth, with fresh but subtle vanilla that doesn’t overpower the chocolate and coffee notes of the roasted malt.
As for the Airpocalypse DIPA 空气爆表双IPA, when I spoke with co-founder Kristian Li the next day, he thought maybe this batch wasn’t tasting as fresh as it could be. I still thought it was excellent, full of grapefruit and pineapple, with bold bitterness from resinous, piney hop. But I eagerly await the next batch. In a sardonically dark sales promotion, the beer is discounted 10% for each 100 points on the Air Quality Index (AQI) according to the US Embassy’s measurement. The beer is FREE anytime the score goes “beyond index” (usually over 500). I guess that’s one way to cope with the smog 😉
The following day when I met with Kris, I also got quick tastes of the flavorful Worker’s Pale Ale and the Full Moon Farmhouse. As a frame of reference, I’d say the pale is similar but slightly maltier than something like Sierra Nevada’s flagship. A good everyday drink, especially for those who want a break from the craft beer world’s endless hop craze. The farmhouse is more typical of American saisons that tend toward the fruity and sweeter side of things. Not my personal preference, being a Saison Dupont devotee, but it will get the job done.
Finally, it would be remiss of me to forget a shout out to their Mala Popcorn Chicken 麻辣鸡米花. HOLY CRAP THIS $#!+ IS DELICIOUS!
I’m probably going to repeat this ad nauseum over the next few blog entries, but: What a difference less than 5 years can have on a city! In the span of time it takes to finish high school, the capital of the world’s most populous nation has transformed from having American-style craft beer periodically doled out of imported shipping containers in bottle form only, to having multiple top-quality options, fresh from the source. And not just mindless copycats, but from brewers experimenting, innovating and adapting to local conditions. Beijingers of all stripes have a bright, beery future ahead as these pioneers keep pummeling through the obstacles that once seemed so daunting.
(NOTE: sorry for the lack of pictures, everyone – perhaps I’m still getting used to having a smartphone, Luddite that I am.)
(FULL DISCLOSURE: on the second night visiting Jing-A, several drinks and the mala chicken were compliments of the management.)