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.
’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.”
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.