China’s emerging middle class, with its disposable income and interest in western products, has embraced microbrews over watery lagers. The country’s capital offers a wealth of drinking options, from giant brewpubs to tiny hidden gems.
You’ve probably never heard of the world’s best-selling beer. It’s called Snow, and it’s from China, the largest beer market on the planet. Snow is a typical Chinese brew — which is to say that it’s a mass-produced, watery lager whose primary appeal is its affordability. But more sophisticated beer styles have emerged lately in China, thanks to the rapid growth of a movement Westerners know well: craft brewing.
Chinese consumers traditionally favor weaker beers and sweeter, less-bitter flavors. But palates have been changing. Carl Setzer, the American-born co-owner of Beijing’s Great Leap Brewing, one of the first craft-beer pubs in China, told me that many young women in Beijing have become quite fond of strong, hoppy IPAs, like Great Leap’s Little General and Hop God 120 Imperial. “They find them really refreshing,” he said.
Germans founded the brewery that makes the Chinese beer you probably have heard of, Tsingtao, in 1903. A little over a century later, around the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, foreigners introduced the country to specialty beer. Soon after, a nexus of small-batch brewers — mostly expats — and restaurateurs in Beijing began creating their own product. Less than a decade later, you can find beers brewed in the style of California IPAs, English bitters, and Belgian saisons in virtually any large Chinese city.
Most of the people drinking these more sophisticated brews are members of China’s fast-growing middle class, who can afford higher prices and value Western-style premium goods as status markers. Craft beer, with its emphasis on freshness and quality ingredients, also appeals to Chinese consumers worried about food safety. And in a country where almost everything — from urban development to manufacturing — happens on a massive scale, these premium brews offer an antidote: they’re small-batch, individual, human.
China’s microbrews aren’t available in the U.S., so you’ll have to head there for a taste. (Beer is best drunk where it’s made, anyway.) While craft beer can be found all over the country, Beijing, where the movement began, has the most diverse offerings, so it’s an ideal place for a pub crawl. First stop: Great Leap.
Setzer, a Cleveland native, opened Great Leap with his wife, Liu Fang, who grew up in Shandong, in 2010, making it the oldest craft brewery in the city. I met them at its flagship location, a big space built of rough wood and distressed metal on a pleasant, tree-lined lane in Dongcheng District. A mix of Chinese and foreigners sat drinking beers made with local ingredients, like Honey Ma Gold Ale, brewed from Qingdao flower hops, Sichuan peppercorns, and northern-Chinese honey.
Great Leap launched as a pop-up selling beer at art openings in Beijing’s now-gentrified Factory 798 Art District. Convinced that a bigger market existed for craft brewing, the couple secured a broken-down courtyard building in central Beijing for use as a “beer club.” Great Leap quickly became a full-time business, which today has three booming brewpubs across town.
Still, creating a consistently excellent product in China is no easy task, Setzer told me. Challenges include sourcing quality ingredients and complying with unclear, sometimes arbitrary rules. Out of necessity, “everyone in this town started illegally,” said one brewer, who asked not to be named. Chinese bottling regulations, for instance, require a considerable amount of filtering and pasteurization, which turns complex beers into boring ones. It’s actually easier, from a legal standpoint, to import lightly filtered, unpasteurized beer than to bottle craft beer inside the country.
One brewery in Beijing, Slow Boat, gets around that problem by brewing and bottling some of its beers in California and shipping them to China. “What we’re doing has no additives,” said cofounder Chandler Jurinka, who grew up in Rockville, Maryland. “We don’t really filter the beer, so all the good stuff is still there. It’s a living product.” He agreed with Setzer about young Chinese women’s love for big IPAs: “They come up all the time and say, ‘I want your most bitter beer.’ ”
In 2011, when Slow Boat opened its intimate taproom in the Dongsi Shitiao neighborhood, most Chinese consumers didn’t know how craft beer should taste or why they would pay many times more for it than for Yanjing Draft, another mass-produced Chinese brand. “We were literally building the market as we were serving it,” Jurinka said. Today, customers fill Slow Boat’s new three-story brewpub in Doncheng District to order beer flights and fill growlers to go with Monkey’s Fist IPA or Zombie Pirate Pale Ale.
Despite Slow Boat’s success, Jurinka believes that China’s nascent craft-beer culture will become sustainable only if more local entrepreneurs get involved. “Right now, the industry is being built by foreigners,” he said. One notable exception is Yin Hai, the owner of NBeer Pub, a bar off a re-created Qing dynasty shopping street in Xicheng, an area not often frequented by expats. “We started in this location to get Chinese customers,” he told me. He appears to have succeeded. When a friend and I visited, the place was packed, but as far as I could tell, we were the only foreigners.