If the Slow Boat brewery taproom has a reputation for serving the best burgers with its excellent range of craft beers, and Panda is the best decorated (but serves the worst craft beer IMHO), while Jing-A is the most overpriced and Arrow has the scruffiest premises, then Great Leap must surely take the prize for having the noisiest taproom in Beijing.
Great Leap Brewing (大跃啤酒 – Dàyuè Píjiǔ) operates three brewpubs in the Chinese caital (together with an offsite brewery in a converted farmhouse in northern Beijing, near the Great Wall) – two in the Dongcheng District and one within spitting distance of Sanyuanli market (in my view, one of the best covered markets in the city).
Its first premises, which opened in 2010, were set in a classic hutong (alleyway) in Beijing’s Gulou neighbourhood near the Bell and Drum Tower. It is still on my to-visit list, though Wikivoyage describes it as quite possibly the most difficult bar to find in Beijing!
But tonight we are going in search of the one near Sanyuanli – in Xinyuan Street, to be precise. At 530 square metres it has a reputation of being the largest brewpub in mainland China.
Finding the premises isn’t the hardest thing about this location. Finding a way in is! In the main road is a door, which though clearly marked…
… still has people trying their luck. Walking round the corner has another entrance – except it’s not, either. (出口- chūkǒu – means exit!)
But once you have got this far it doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to turn clockwise through 300 degrees to find the real entrance!
The name "Great Leap" was, apparently, chosen to reflect the risk the two founders were taking when setting up the business, as well as alluding to the Great Leap Forward, that ill-fated economic development programme launched by the late Mao Zedong.
Before you even enter the premises, you are accosted by a list of just some of the 40 brews they get up to. There is always a minimum of 12 on offer, but they also have many varieties produced on a seasonal or rotating basis.
The blackboard over the bar area lists the brews currently on offer. As well as bar seating, there are plenty of tables where the patrons are scoffing in to a plethora of snacks… The place is heaving; and with not one, but two birthday celebrations this evening, the noise levels are already reaching a high count of decibels.
In common with the majority of the other taprooms in BJ, Great Leap proudly shows off its equipment as a backdrop to the décor. It’s all a far cry from the boring old Tsingtao and Yanjing beers that Chinese are so familiar with…
Even the birds-nest of barrels and pipe-work are on display to add to the atmosphere…
And a nice touch for Beijing (which has such a bad reputation for the quality of its air): an air purifier is positioned close to the bar area more, I suspect, as a marketing gimmick than actually doing much useful (though perhaps I am being unfair in this regard?)
Great Leap and Slow Boat take differing approaches when it comes to the ingredients they use. While Slow Boat imports practically everything, including malt, hops and yeast (China’s food is forever in the news for some tainting scandal or other), Great Leap uses local hops and highlights a range of Chinese ingredients, from Sichuan peppercorns and Yunnan coffee beans to organic honey from Shandong province and a variety of teas, such as Tieguanyin oolong. It currently produces well over 300 kegs a month, ranging from pumpkin to mocha stouts, as well as bog standard pale and blond ales, retailing for about twice the price of a Tsingtao or Yanjing.
Just as with the other craft breweries, you can plump for a sampler tray if you’re not quite sure which ale floats your boat. My friend is very taken with the sound of a Banana Wheat Hefeweizen (ABV 5.5%) “made with 100% domestic wheat and barley malt with a traditional Bavarian wheat yeast to bring out natural banana flavours and subtle spice”. Well, you can certainly smell a tinge of banana, but IMHO it is lacklustre and is nothing I’d write home about!
The Cinnamon Rock Ale (ABV: 6.2%), is somewhat better. It is brewed with whole bark Chinese cinnamon and Chinese rock candy. “This ale finishes dry with a subtle spice and the rock candy ferments fully to remove any lingering sweetness. Made with 100% locally malted barley and 100% local Qingdao flower hops from Xinjiang and Gansu,” we are told. Pleasant enough, but I don’t think I would actually rush back for more of this brew.
Little General IPA (ABV 6.5%), a medium full Chinese IPA, is much more to my liking. “Hoppy but not irresponsibly so,” the blurb continues. “Made with indigenous unprocessed whole flower Qingdao flower hops from Xinjiang. Named after the only patriotic hero – Zhang Xueliang – to be recognised by both China and Taiwan”… before the final flourish: “the Little General is an act of balanced beauty”. Yes, I will definitely go for this little beauty again.
And finally Great Strong Smoked Ale (ABV 5.5%). For some reason the official blurb is pretty quiet on this one. Yet for me it is the crowning glory of the evening. With strong hints of Austrian smoked cheese (yummy, yummy) it is one brew that seems to find instant favour with everyone.
And lest you can’t remember which is which, the well-trained 'fúwùyuán' makes sure to place the glasses in the requisite order according to the invoice.
Naturally a glass, or four, of craft beer would probably be too wet without an accompaniment of bar snacks; so we order a vegetarian pizza which turns out to be extremely good … much better than it looks, actually.
But although the beer-battered onion rings with honey-mustard dressing look pretty tempting, they are oily in the extreme, and by the time we are halfway through them, our stomachs are complaining.
The seasonal hand-cut sweet potato fries with horseradish aioli dip also look PDG, but they are as dry as the beers are wet, and it is hard labour to even get through half of them. Hmmm, perhaps the beers aren’t too wet after all!
Nope… on reflection those beers are neither too wet nor too dry.
Now who pinched the remains of that Great Strong Smoked….?