FOAM PALACE I

Re­flect­ing how China’s craft-brew in­dus­try has ma­tured, pi­o­neer­ing Slow Boat puts an im­pres­sive new face for­ward with its big new brew­pub in Bei­jing, Mike Peters dis­cov­ers.

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE | DINING - Wu Yiyao con­trib­uted to this story. Con­tact the writer at michaelpeters@chinadaily.com.cn

’ve got my face stuck in a Mush­room Brown. It’s a dark and rich fun­gal ale, one of eight sea­sonal beers now emerg­ing from the fer­men­ta­tion tanks at Slow Boat Brew­ery’s new flag­ship pub.

But while I’m sa­vor­ing the dark, rich fun­gal ale at the beery new op­er­a­tion in Bei­jing’s San­l­i­tun area, the buzz on­line seems to be about… the burg­ers?

“Sorry, Great Leap,” one fan of both Bei­jing craft-beer pi­o­neers writes on WeChat. “I think this is the burger I love best.”

That co­founder Chan­dler Jurni­gan and his team have opened a three-story, 150seat show­case for Slow Boat’s pop­u­lar beers and peo­ple are tex­ting about the burg­ers shows just how far China’s fresh suds scene has come.

When the orig­i­nal Great Leap opened soon af­ter the Bei­jing Olympics in a cold, drafty — and vir­tu­ally empty — hu­tong, skep­tics won­dered if this was an­other for­eign idea that Chi­nese would never em­brace. To­day, de­spite the preva­lence of cheap bot­tled beer across the coun­try, cities from Shen­zhen to Harbin are boast­ing of their lo­cally brewed beers. And while you might think such a crowd in­vites cut-throat com­pe­ti­tion, the craft brew­ers have evolved into some­thing of a fra­ter­nity, sell­ing each other’s beers and team­ing up for reg­u­lar fes­ti­vals. Prices can range from 30 yuan ($4.50) to 100 yuan per liter; take-away “growlers” are pop­u­lar.

“None of us are Bud­weiser or Yan­jing,” says one craft-beer fan, who pulls taps part­time at an­other re­cently opened brew­pub. “Fresh beer is still a small seg­ment of the mar­ket, so every­body needs to pro­mote the value of craft beer at least as much as their own brands.”

How would-be beer moguls go about it varies. Trail­blaz­ers started slowly, while to­day, glossy beer bars seem to sprout like au­tumn mush­rooms: Leg­end, No 9 and Peip­ing Ma­chine Brew­ing are among the re­cent Bei­jing open­ings this year — with more com­ing in the ex­pat haven of San­l­i­tun alone.

How­ever, there are other busi­ness mod­els. Guangzhou Zhu­jiang Brew­ery Group, for ex­am­ple, plans to launch four fa­cil­i­ties to pro­duce craft beer and use on­line distri­bu­tion chan­nels to sell it.

In Shang­hai, in­dus­try watch­ers say there are 200 va­ri­eties of craft beer at high-end gro­ceries, brew­ery-run out­lets, bou­tique din­ing bars or through home-de­liv­ery ser­vices.

Wang Deliang, brew­ery re­search di­rec­tor with the China Na­tional Re­search In­sti­tute of Food & Fer­men­ta­tion In­dus­tries, told China Daily last month that in­vest­ments in the craft beer seg­ment have been ris­ing in re­cent years be­cause of po­ten­tial prof­its of up to 30 per­cent in the grow­ing nichemar­ket. Be­cause pro­duc­tion vol­umes are low, in­vest­ment is low com­pared to other al­co­hol en­ter­prises.

A key de­vel­op­ment: While craft brew­ers may be in­spired by West­ern mod­els, they don’t de­pend on for­eign­ers to sur­vive. Here, the butts on barstools are mostly Chi­nese these days, and more and more brew­ers are home­grown as well.

Slow Boat started as a craft-beer sup­plier for other restau­rants and bars be­fore open­ing up a mod­est shop in 2011 and its new flag­ship this fall. The menu is still mod­est, ap­peal­ing and man­age­able, from that pop­u­lar “fry burger” (55 yuan) with French fries in­side the bun to a sum­mery salad of wa­ter­melon, salmon and feta cheese.

Beer how­ever, re­mains the fo­cus, and in keep­ing with the trend— and the com­peti­tors— this crew is mak­ing lots of them.

Besides the Mush­room Brown, a pa­rade of sea­sonal brews in­cludes a rasp­berry pale ale, a Bel­gian wit, an Amer­i­can wheat and a choco­late sea-salt stout — a heady black beer in ad­di­tion to Slow Boat’s sta­ple vanilla stout. For hop heads, there’s no short­age of in­trigu­ing IPAs as well, mugs of the purest pride in to­day’s craft-beer art.

“For­get wine,” says Amer­i­can ex­pat Sonny Wil­lis. “For me, craft beer is where it’s at.”

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Eat­ing and drink­ing ar­eas of the new Slow Boat flag­ship can seat up to 150 peo­ple.

Food at Slow Boat (clock­wise from top) in­cludes a spicy “Aztec choco­late” dessert, the sig­na­ture “fry­burger” and sausage plat­ters that go with any beer.

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