A glass full of a dark amber brew is an inseparable element of Beijing life. Scorching summer heat begs for a “cold one” to extinguish overworked sweat glands, and the ungodly low temperatures of winter call for a glass of deep, dark stout. Unfortunately, us Beijing dwellers have not been blessed with a climate you could call pleasant—except for the two weeks in September and May, where I am actually comfortable—which might explain why drinking is such an integral part of our lifestyle.
There is a beer for every occasion because if you start downing hoppy IPA’s with lamb skewers from the street vendors, you might not get too far into the night. That’s where those huge cans of horribly light Snow and Tsingtao come in. While light on ABV and special traits, they are a great match for flavour-rich Chinese cuisine and works wonders for soothing a fiery, hotpot-burned tongue, while also maintaining a pleasant, low-level buzz.
Besides tables filled with tall green bottles, Beijingers have also been flirting with the idea of brews with a stronger character. I say “flirting”, because it has yet to become a full-blown committed relationship. Even though the city is home to several craft breweries, and the oldest beer recipe in China is claimed to be 5,000 years old, the culture of contemporary craft brewing is still relatively young.
That’s where the local breweries come in. They are innovating while at the same time trying to balance flavours and educate urbanites about beer. I personally also take great pleasure in the manifestations of creativity when it comes to amusing titles (Little General IPA, anyone?) and fascinating label design.
“Beijingers appreciate creativity and culture, and are not afraid to try new things,” says Jing-A Brewery’s sales director, Laurel Liu. The brewery first opened seven years ago and now serves beer on tap in two central locations and bars around the city, but I often just pick up Jing-A’s bottled brew from a corner store.
The early stages of the craft brewing scene also allows makers to experiment and get creative with their recipes. “Trends in craft beer are always changing, just like they do in the world of music or art,” adds Liu. “When we first started brewing, West Coast hop-forward IPAs were all the rage. More recently, hazy New England-style IPAs and kettle sours have become more popular, and so we've used those styles to tell stories and commentaries about Beijing”.
Jing-A brews Dongbei NEIPA, Pai Huanggua (拍黄瓜 is a cold Chinese dish consisting of cucumber, garlic, soy sauce, and sesame oil), a smashed cucumber kettle sour, and even incorporate mijiu (rice wine) and baijiu fermentation techniques into brewing to make uniquely Chinese beer styles.
It is always exciting to see local makers pull out a traditional element and incorporate it into a completely different field in an eclectic “mix & match” game of flavours and genres. Who would have known you can now drink your smashed cucumber starter? China’s rich history provides a pool of endless inspiration for creatives in any industry, but this interpretation is especially poetic as it pays homage to the city and culture that cradles the maker as well as the product itself.
Tracy Wang, a long-term Beijing beer writer and aficionado, lists brews that have remained popular in the city throughout the years. “Flying Fist IPA at Jing-A, Honey Ma, Little General IPA at Great Leap Brewing, Money’s Fist IPA at Slow Boat, Ligui Black IPA at NBeer, and Seeing Double IPA at Arrow Factory. IPAs are an all-time popular beer in the brewpubs,” she adds.
Beijingers are not pretentious when it comes to drinking but the recent drive for increasingly high-quality tipples is adding fuel to the city’s beer culture. Good appearance, balanced flavours, and consistency are some of the desirable qualities that beer drinkers in the city pay attention to. We like to come back to our favourites and get them exactly how it was the last time we had it.
Liu is also convinced that the trend of looking for more interesting options of your favourite drink is not unique to beer. “Coffee drinkers might start out with powdered Nescafé, but before long, they’re drinking single-origin espressos and flat whites. If anything, people in China are even more open to change than in other parts of the world.”
Craft beer culture development is one of the many illustrations of economic development and the luxury to appreciate things because of quality rather than quantity. That’s why Beijingers are buying 330-millilitre IPA bottles versus 550-millilitre Tsingtao ones (though in reality, we do still buy both, depending on the day).
The stance on craft beer is not yet clear in Beijing, as it commands a role of its own rather than as a foil for a plate of pork dumplings. Drinking while eating is so inseparable in Chinese culture that craft breweries in the capital often boast wide-range menus, with Chinese and Western food, which is not always the case with European breweries (sweet potato fries or normal fries?).
“Craft beer is not just a product passively sitting on the shelf or on taps. It is alive, has feelings and memories. It needs love!” says Tracy Wang. It is an exciting time for brewers and drinkers alike. With innovative flavours and a constant striving for better quality, Beijingers are bound to be in the centre of a fast-paced beer-volution.