Craft Beer… in China!?
Let’s be brutally honest: Chinese beer is pretty shit.
If you’ve ever endured the piss water that is Tsingtao, Snow, or Harbin, you’ve come to the same decision that most of the world has: Chinese beer is even worse than American beer.
Thankfully, China (like the rest of the world) is in the midst of a craft beer revolution. Mass produced beers still remain the norm in bars and clubs, but enterprising locals and expats are combining to create some beer that is not only good, but great.
From Master Gao’s in Nanjing to Boxing Cat in Shanghai to the ever increasing stable of craft breweries in Beijing, the ‘craft’ is undergoing a decidedly less unpleasant great leap forward.
Touring Beijing’s Breweries with Lost Plate
It’s one thing to know that Beijing has a craft beer scene and quite another thing to navigate it.
If you’re just in town for a few days to check the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and eating peking duck off of your bucket list, chances are you’re not going to be feeling especially confident about navigating the labyrinthine lane ways of Beijing’s hutongs.
The tour is an exploration and celebration of Beijing’s developing craft beer scene, and takes guests to four of the city’s hottest brew pubs – Slow Boat, Great Leap, Peiping Machine, and Arrow Factory.
Our chariots for the evening were a pair of tuk tuks, complete with a palette cleansing supply of Yanjing beers for the dry periods of 5-15 minutes between bars.
Stop #1: Slow Boat
Slow Boat is an unassuming bar in an unassuming location. A cramped space of benches and long tables crammed into a blink and you’ll miss it spot on a hutong you’d never wander down if your Google Maps hadn’t told you to.
The tight confines and the hustle of the place is endearing. You might jostle for position at the bar or feel the brush of somebody sneaking behind you to get to their seat, but it’s all done with a sense of camaraderie. You’re all refugees from horrendous beer in this brave new world.
Our visit to Slow Boat included a flight of their most popular beers: the popular Monkey Fist IPA, the sweet Agave Wheat, the thick Sea Anchor Stout, and the remarkably flavourful Peanut Butter Destroyer.
Best Beer: I’m a sucker for their session IPA, the Monkey Fist. The Peanut Butter Destroyer was also a fun one.
Nosh: If you’re wanting to fill your stomach while you wet your whistle, Slow Boat does some amazing burgers. I’m partial to their award-winning fry burger, while Richelle swears by their blue cheese laden Anxiety Burger.
Homesickness can be a powerful motivator.
It can inspire you to redecorate your apartment with the entire catalogue from IKEA or beg for a care package of goodies for home.
For the men behind Slow Boat, their longing for a little taste of home inspired them to start brewing American style beers in the beating heart of China’s largest city.
Slow Boat is one of Beijing’s oldest craft beer breweries, and weaves North American brewing traditions with a distinctly Chinese twist. With a name inspired by the famous “Slow boat to China” song and adage, Slow Boat’s footprint extends beyond Beijing – with its beer available all over the country.
Stop #2: Great Leap #6
The next stop on our whistle-stop tour of Beijing breweries was Great Leap Brewing – another staple on the Beijing beer scene.
With three locations around the city, Great Leap is an immensely popular spot for a few quite bevvies (check my Aussie slang guide) and a bite to eat. Each of the venues has the same amazing beer selection, but offers up something different from a food standpoint.
- GLB #6: Bowls of spicy peanuts are the only menu item, but customers are encouraged to order from the many delivery joints nearby. The staff have menus on hand, and the spacious beer garden/hutong courtyard is a great place for a feast.
- GLB #12: Sometimes known as Great Leap Burger, this larger space offers up American style burgers to compliment the selection of beers. I actually visited this location way back in 2015 when I was touring Beijing.
- GLB #45: Great Leap Pizza, as it is more affectionately known, this embassy adjacent location serves a variety of flavourful New York style pizzas.
Although our visit to GLB #6 came on a Monday evening, the national holiday on Tuesday meant it was standing room only out in the quaint hutong courtyard. The beers flowed, the warm evening air soothed, and the general jubilance of drinking ‘on a school night’ made the atmosphere infectious.
We sampled a quintet of Great Leap beers: the Banana Wheat, the fantastic Honey MA, the not-so-cinammon Cinnamond Rock Brown Ale, the iconic #6 IPA, and the tasty Liu Stout.
The bar’s hutong setting means it can’t stay open terribly late, but it’s cruisy beer garden and the option to have food delivered makes it a really laid back spot for a few beers.
Best Beer: It’s hard to go past the infinitely drinkable Honey MA.
Nosh: Grab a delivery menu and try your luck.
Great Leap is named for taking a ‘great leap of faith’, rather than being a reference to the unfortunate period in Chinese history that many assume it is.
Started by a Chinese-American couple, Great Leap prides itself on using Chinese ingredients in all of its beers. Where other local craft brewers import, Great Leap’s locally sourced ingredients make for a unique experience.
Stop #3: Peiping Machine
The next stop on our tour had a special meaning for Richelle and I, as the industrial Peiping Machine was where we had our first ‘date’ way back in October when we were still figuring out whether we liked one another or not.
Spoiler: We totally do. She’s the bee’s knees.
A converted machine factory, Peiping Machine is a more modern looking brew pub. It’s all full length windows, exposed brick, and steel girders. A totally Chinese venture, Peiping Machine shows that good beer doesn’t need help from the west.
We once again settled in for a selection of beers here, with the Jinga Pomelo and their wheat being especially good.
If I’m being totally honest, the beer had definitely gotten to my head by this point in the evening. Our time at Peiping Machine is remembered with the fondness of a warm, beer-scented hug.
Best Beer: The tangy Jinga Pomelo was a nice twist, but the unassuming dark beer was the most drinkable. Wish I’d caught its name!
Nosh: Peiping has a small menu of Chinese inspired creations. We tried their jianbing (Chinese savoury pancake) and found it definitely hit the spot.
Peiping Machine is a ‘brewer’s club’, meaning its members get together regularly to try their latest recipes and innovate. This, in turn, means that the beer selection is ever changing.
The bar’s sizable selection is further complemented with craft beers from across China and around the world.
Stop #4: Arrow Factory
The final stop on our Beijing brewery tour was a decidedly convenient one for Richelle and I, as Arrow Factory is just a short walk from her Andingmen apartment.
Another expat inspired creation, Arrow Factory beers are a staple at western restaurants in and around Andingmen’s hutongs.
It was late in the evening by the time we reached Arrow Factory, meaning there was plenty of space for us to splash ourselves around and chinwag loudly about everything from Westworld to learning Chinese to the frustrations of renting in China.
Here, we sampled the Guanxi Pale Ale, the fruity Whiter Shade of Pale heff, the ominously bitter Heart of Darkness Belgian bruin, and the Dark Ages IPA.
This is the venue I most need to revisit, as my state of intoxication was such that, completely voluntarily, I even indulged in a little beijou to finish out my night.
For those playing at home, beijou (Chinese sorghum wine) is awful. Just awful.
Best Beer: The Whiter Shade of Pale restored my faith in hefeweizen after too many Blue Moons had killed my love for wheat beer.
Nosh: Stuff’d, located next door, does amazing gourmet sausages.
Like Slow Boat, Arrow Factory was also the love child of a pair of expats who loved beer and wanted to bring something a little different to the craft scene.
A quick look at their beer selection will hint at a distinctly European take on things, and it’s evident in their unique selection of beers.
With (many) beers in our belly and a newfound understanding of Beijing’s beer scene, it was time to stumble our drunk asses home.
A quick stop off at Moxi Moxi for amazing Israeli food (their felafel pita is ambrosia), a convenience store drive by for water, and it was home to contemplate the hangovers we’d doubtless be nursing come the morning.
Spoiler: We were both rather hungover.
Why Take a Beijing Brewery Tour?
You might be reading this and be thinking, “But Chris, why do I need a tour when you’ve so nicely painted us a word picture?”
It might seem as simple as typing the above four bars into Google Maps and sallying forth, but I can assure you it’s not.
- For one: Google Maps is blocked in China, you 笨蛋 (stupid egg).
- For two: China is just a pain in the ass to navigate sometimes, and Beijing’s winding hutong alleyways are especially so.
Lost Plate’s brewery tour not only includes a tuk tuk to take you from place to place and a full cooler of beers to keep you going between bars, but the expertise of the tour leaders can’t be ignored.
Any idiot can go to a bar and drink beer, but part of Lost Plate’s charm is that you’re learning about the bars, the beers, and the people behind it all.
Have you ever done a brewery crawl in your travels?
DISCLAIMER: My Beijing brewery tour with Lost Plate was provided free of charge. All thoughts and opinions are my own.