A Blogger's Guide to Beijing

You've read the blog... now get the book. The Blogger's Guide to Beijing is now available in eBook format in five volumes from Amazon. Click here for more details...

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Jing-A… It’s all about the beer!

“Not sure what I'd do without Jing-A. Great service, cool crowd, and no shortage of cute guys. Love it!”

A review on TripAdvisor of one of Beijing’s newest craft beer taprooms – 京A Taproom (pron: Jing-A, 京 being the Chinese character meaning ‘Capital’) – peeked my curiosity, (though not, I hasten to add, for the cute guys!).

Located in ‘1949 The Hidden City, Sanlitun’ in the one part of Beijing that I really can’t stand, however, made me think twice about wanting to visit there. Sanlitun, IMHO, is full of overpriced and underperforming bars and restaurants which cater to stupid tourists who leave their brains at home when they go to discover the world.

But a new taproom with a reputation for good craft beers deserves to be tried out, at least once I think. So an incredibly cold night with a howling wind adding an extra -8 wind-chill factor sees your favourite blogger putting personal issues aside for the good of the blogosphere as a whole.

The taproom looks a bit like a warehouse, with wooden tables, brick walls, and a polished, modern weathered-metal bar. Incandescent yellow light bulbs are strung out on black wires, while hand-painted beer menus in Chinese and English hang on either side of the bar. There’s even a famous Mao quote painted between the two beer menus.

Jing-A’s owners, originally from Connecticut and Toronto, have a range of American-style beers on offer, which are ‘localised’ to reflect the host country. The drinks menu features a few core beers, such as their award-winning Flying Fist IPA and their popular Worker’s Pale Ale, as well as something called Mandarin Wheat.

Airpocalypse Double IPA is particularly popular because of a clever marketing strategy: On bad air-quality days – something for which Beijing is famous - the beer gets discounted the worse the pollution becomes.

Also on offer are guest beers and collaborations with other Beijing craft breweries which adds a nice touch. Beers infused with fresh pomegranates, Tibetan barley, chili spice, ginger, chestnuts, pumpkin and cinnamon all add interesting additions to what’s on offer.

As with most of the other craft beer taprooms, samplers are available so you don’t feel obliged to part with so many hard-earned RMB for something you might not actually enjoy. A tray of four samples will set you back 80RMB, and reactions from our little gathering ranged from “yummy – I will definitely go for that again” to “Brian, you’re welcome to finish mine” – which applied to about half the eight samples we ordered. (We all liked the IPAs but found the Vanilla stout, Red ale and Mandarin wheat beer all somewhat lacking in substance.)

No taproom would be complete without some tasty nibbles to complement the quaffing sessions; and Jing-A provides bar snacks and menu items, which – this being Sanlitun – work out a little pricey. The Red Ale battered cod fish with potato wedges left me feeling decidedly underwhelmed, not just by the small quantity, but by the blandness of it all. But its litre stein of sweet potato fries was a lot more satisfying….

… though its Mala Popcorn Chicken – fried chicken with Sichuan peppercorns, fried peppers and peanuts, served with chilli sauce and aioli dip – sounded a lot better than it actually tasted.

Summing up Jing-A, the general opinion is that it’s both clean and spacious, and a lot better laid out than the other taprooms in Beijing (with the possible exception of Panda Brew).

But as one dissatisfied customer pointed out, “I know it’s Sanlitun, but you can't go in there without your wallet being gang-raped.” And another major gripe amongst web reviewers: “A good bar that's really starting to be undermined by its staff (or lack of)”.

So I guess it’s all about Jing-A being “something of a curate’s egg”. If your wallet is shy by nature, it might be kinder to pay heed to the glitzy sign reading "BEER" which lights up a back corner. Yes, my advice is: forget the overpriced nibbles and stick with the slightly less-overpriced beverages. It’s really all about the beer!

Cute Pandas… Shame About the Brews

The signs are quite common around the centre of Beijing. Panda Beer has made a name for itself, not least for the cute pandas that can be seen gracing drinking establishments, especially in the touristy areas.

But until recently I had no idea where to find the epicentre of this mini-empire. Every time I went to what looked like their taproom, it was closed. So you can imagine my delight when I finally discovered the correct location of my third micro-brewery in Beijing – not at 67 Beixinqiao, as widely quoted on the web, but at 14 DongSiBeiDaJie, within spitting distance to the south of Beixinqiao station on Line 5. It’s a large place compared with the other microbreweries I have so far been to in Beijing; and it’s clear that a great deal of investment has been put into the place to give it a gleaming concrete and steel look.

The taproom is located on two floors, with the ground floor taken up in part by the actual brewery itself. It makes a good backdrop, but the upstairs is roomier, and you can peer over the balcony to see the brewing if you still have a mind to…

It is clear that the marketers have had a field day with this brand. Bottles featuring panda eyes and panda bottoms add a requisite smile factor…

And the bilingual pamphlet to be found at the door has welcoming text, albeit that you’d think that someone might have checked the English before sending the pamphlet to print...

Foreigners are visible by their almost total absence here. (For me that’s a plus!) And the beers on offer seem to have been tweaked for Chinese tastes.

Google-Translate seems not to have been able to cope with the nitty-gritty stuff about the beers themselves, or perhaps that was deliberate?

Reading through some of the reviews on the likes of TripAdvisor, it is perhaps understandable why the clientele appears almost 100% Chinese. “Kuding Pale is not a bad beer. Have found plenty of other better places for Craft Beer. Disappointing.”
“Very disappointed with this brew. The beer was extremely tasteless. The aroma was very bland and there was more than average amount of foam and lace. The beer was somewhat pungent and the taste stayed in my mouth long after I swallowed it down. Not a very good beer.”
“Orange to amber pour, high carbonation and big bubbly head. Low retention, sticky lace.”
“Smells of bubble-gum, banana, flowers, acidic apple, so nice fruity hops, with some hints of caramel.”
“Carbonation remains big, it's also a bit too light, almost watery.”

My friends and I all decide to try the Panda cider, having been sampling other beers earlier in the evening…

But the reality is that the cider is disappointing. Sweet and sickly, with little apple taste and certainly nothing to write home about, though it appears to find favour with some of the Chinese.

It’s a shame really, but given the existence of other hugely better craft breweries in Beijing, I doubt I will be making a fast return here, by subway, bus or motor-scooter!

Arrow Brewery – Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover

If SlowBoat represents the face of American craft beers in Beijing, then it’s the Arrow brewery that fights one of the British corners in the Chinese capital. Set up three years ago by a Brit – Will Yorke – with Swedish-born Thomas Gaestadius, the tap room can be found in Jianchang Hutong within a short walk of BJ’s tourism landmark, Yonghegong Lama Temple. (Cross the road, walk past the Confucius museum and turn right at the mini police station.

Daylight shows that Arrow is housed within a scruffy complex in a not-quite-so-scruffy hutong (alleyway) with an attached restaurant called Stuff’d. But you can order beer in the restaurant just as you can order food in the tap room, so I guess this is the nearest you can get to a lounge/public bar arrangement.

It is clear that the owners have done their best to give the place a smile factor – and SF #1 is either a very long black pig or two short ones sticking its/their nose/s through the wall. Why is it that everyone passing by seems to be drawn by a seemingly magnetic force into giving the pig’s rump a resounding smack?

The inside of the tap room continues the art-scruff look (is paint really so expensive in China?) Lest you should need directions, there’s a sign pointing to “Cold Beer Warm Hearts” (which reminds me of a sign I saw on an island in the Philippines – where the daytime temperatures are always in the mid 30s – “Beer as cold as the heart of your ex-Girlfriend!”).

But in fact this taproom made up the original brewing space before expansion allowed the brewing to be moved to a new venue to the north of the diplomatic quarter, again with its own attached restaurant. They now brew 1,000 to 2,000 litres per week, also supplying craft beer to other restaurants in town. So a visit to the new facility is also now on my agenda… watch this space!

Arrow microbrewery is now growing organically, with most of its profits reinvested in expanding capacity to capitalize on China's new thirst for craft beers. Only five years ago, China's craft beer scene was virtually nonexistent, with only 20 microbreweries operating across the entire country. That number increased to around 200 in 2015, according to industry sources.

China's overall beer market is worth an estimated 543.3 billion yuan – the world's largest by volume at 47.5 billion litres, according to Mintel Research. Craft beer, however, remains a niche product, accounting for less than 1 percent of the Chinese beer market, meaning that it is still a barely tapped business opportunity.

There are slightly fewer brews on offer here than at the SlowBoat, but the range is probably wider, and to help the customers (well, those in the know anyway) each bev has its alcoholic strength posted together with, probably more importantly, its IBU number to indicate its bitterness quotient, ranging from “Seeing Double IBA” with an IBU of 77 to “Hefeweizen” at a mere 13.
The Smile Factors continue with some of the naming: “The Bitter End – Till death do us party – Rye PA”; “Two birds – Helles – You lucky Bastard”; “Man with the golden hop – Country Ale – You only live once”; “A whiter shade of pale – Hefeweizen – Tom on the beach”; “Blonde on blonde – Belgian Ale – Double trouble”; “Pilgrim’s Progress – Amber Ale – The answer to your prayers”… well, you get the idea!

They might have skimped on the decoration here, but no cuts have been made on anything to do with the beer…

Most of the drinks won’t give you much change from a 50-kwai note (~£5) but a more savvy way to try out the variety on offer is to order a sampler of six beers that costs 65¥. The barman will write down the names of the samples so you know what to order next time.

On quiet(er) nights there are usually specials on offer …

… and the clientele is made up of around 50% Chinese and 50% laowais (literally old outsiders, or foreign devils).

It’s good to see that the Chinese are being taught such useful words as “loo” (is that tough on the visiting Americans? Perhaps not! LOL)

Tegestologists, meanwhile, can add to their collection from a pile of mats strategically placed near the door; though why no one appears interested in using them for the purpose they were intended beats me.

Arrow is definitely a 6 out of 10 in my book, and worthy of another visit next time I’m in the area… or perhaps to their newer taproom? Ahh, decisions, decisions!