Yin Hai sprinkles the herb and rolls it tight, so his clientele can inhale China’s most exciting new vice. Despite how it may look, those customers aren’t smoking weed. They’re lighting up “joints” laced with hops.
“Most of my patrons have no idea what hops are,” Yin, the owner of the NBeer craft brew pub in Beijing, tells Paste during a recent interview. “People who don’t normally drink [hoppy] beer never bother to smell it when they have a glass. So I let my customers smoke it, so they can finally appreciate the aroma.”
Yin’s hop joints are just one of the quirky innovations bubbling up in Beijing’s brimming craft brew scene. NBeer may boast a wildly popular blueberry ale (brewed with fresh berries picked from the sprawling capital’s outskirts) and an American IPA laced with French saison yeast, but there are other brewpubs vying for the title of Beijing’s most creative craft beer. One of the most famous is Jing-A. Its brewmasters (Kristian Li, a Canadian of Chinese descent, and Alex Acker, from Connecticut) churn out wildly inventive flavors that cater to Chinese tastes—from their Shua Ye flavored ale, which is brewed with the sweet potatoes that are so frequently hawked on Beijing’s streets, to their Full Moon Farmhouse Ale, which is laced with the fiery peppercorn of China’s southern Sichuan province. Jing-A’s marketing is equally creative and offbeat— Li and Acker align discounts with Beijing’s measured pollution levels, and dole out pints across town while driving in their ‘egg’ dome scooter, a quintessential Beijing vehicle designed to easily maneuver through the city’s congested streets. Jing-A’s scooter is, of course, outfitted with a keg for easy deliveries.
Photo courtesy of Jing-A
Great Leap Brewery (housed across town, in one of the city’s ancient hutong alleyways) aims to be equally experimental, with unique flavors like its Chai Masala stout. Then there’s Panda Brewery, run by an up and coming Chinese hops alchemist named Pan Dinghao who is beloved for his honey beer. Slow Boat is another popular Beijing brewery, which is beloved by expats because its faithful lagers and IPA’s so effectively stave off homesickness.
“You’ve got your Slow Boats, and they do well making craft beer that is similar to what an expat might get back home,” says Carl Setzer, founder of Great Leap, before adding with a rueful chuckle, “but what we’ve tried to accomplish is a beer that more Chinese people will respond to. We’re not really interested in trying to replicate what’s going on back in the States. We want to focus our energy on beers that are uniquely Chinese, and customers reply in kind.”
But Chandler Jurinka, founder of Slow Boat, takes Setzer’s good-natured ribbing in stride, adding with a laugh that there’s nothing narrow about his brew-vision. He points out that Slow Boat brewed 56 different varieties last year, 11 of which are available year round (its maple flavored ale has been especially popular as of late).
“Slow Boat normally has 18 beers on tap, of which 5-6 are dedicated to IPAs,” Jurinka says, before adding: “That’s a silly amount of IPAs, I know. But we make the beers we love to drink, and hope that others will like them as well. In the end, we give beer drinkers plenty of reasons to come back and try something new.”
Despite the varied philosophies between Great Leap and Slow Boat’s owners (and the friendly trash talk bridging that divide), Yin says there’s little tension or competition between the city’s craft brew pubs. That’s because, before Great Leap opened in 2010, there were no craft breweries in Beijing. In the short time since then, local brewers have built a thriving scene, albeit one that is still in its early stages.
“We don’t have a competition with each other, even if we’re targeting the same patron,” Yin told this reporter during a recent interview for another magazine, before adding, “because of Beijing’s population, there’s more than enough people to go around. Now we have to reach those people. It’s not about market share, it’s about making a bigger market.”
Li agrees, adding that Beijing’s network of brewers have taught him endless lessons about all the details that go into pouring a frothy pint. He adds that Slow Boat’s love of IPA’s is not only an indication of expat tastes, but also Chinese aspirations, as many of them dive into craft pints.
“Our Flying Fist IPA is brewed with hops from the Yakima Valley in the U.S. It’s a strong, northwest Pacific style brew that hardcore hop heads love,” he says, adding that most of his Chinese customers and friends seemed to prefer sweeter ales at first, but have evolved into wanting more adventurous brews. “What we found is that Chinese females aren’t so much into the flowery sweet beers, or even the beers with Sichuan peppercorn and other Chinese flavors. They’re always ordering IPAs.”
Photo via Slow Boat
Wang Sha, a friend of Acker’s who hails from China’s western Xinjiang province, says her fellow Middle Kingdom drinkers have been happy to acquire a taste for IPA’s as of late.
“I started with lighter beers. But after awhile, I’d look at some of Jing-A’s stronger varieties, because I was curious if they would make me drunker, if I could handle them,” she said, with a laugh, during a recent interview.
Acker tells PASTE that switch from sweeter pints to the most bitter brews isn’t really all that shocking for Chinese drinkers that are new to the craft scene. He says it happens with all beverages. “It’s like how coffee drinkers start with something light and sweet. Then, eventually, they’re drinking espressos with no milk. Savoring that IPA hop aroma is the same thing— it’s pure and unadulterated.”
Acker is looking for more cultural overlaps between his customers. At this point, more and more Chinese patrons are trickling into Jing-A’s outlets, but Acker admits the vast majority of their clientele are expats. He says locals are catching on to the craft beer craze, but not in as big of droves as their expat counterparts. Acker and Li would very much like to tap into the Chinese market, which has a population big and broad enough to make their profits overflow.
Yin says his establishment has the opposite dynamic—hardly any foreigners come to his bar. But he doesn’t mind, because the place is constantly packed with Chinese patrons who are hooked on craft pints. He says it can be tough for members of Beijing’s different cultures to approach each other, especially in a setting where alcohol is involved and voices in strange new languages grow more and more boisterous.
“Chinese people can often find it intimidating if they see a bunch of westerners at a bar,” he says, before adding with a laugh that he hopes he and his fellow brewmasters can help change that soon. “That’s what beer does, it helps us all make friends.”