Beijing’s Craft Beer Scene

Chinese beer takes an artisanal turn as creative microbreweries and brewpubs debut in the capital city.

by Mark Graham
Locals and visitors can enjoy Arrow Factory Brewing’s extensive selection at Charcoal, the company’s newest outpost.

Craft beer and Chinese culture: It’s an alluring combination that’s easily assembled in modern Beijing. Today, the city has seen a proliferation of brewpubs and microbreweries, many of them located in hutongs (alleyways) that capture the traditional spirit of China’s capital city. These establishments incorporate typically Chinese ingredients such as chrysanthemum tea, cinnamon and Sichuan peppercorns, and give their beers exotic names—Zombie Pirate Ale, Hop God 120, Flying Fist, the Man with the Golden Hop.

But these brewpubs are also focused businesses, founded by individuals dedicated to making the kind of unadulterated, unpressurised beer that was once nearly impossible to find in Beijing. The beers are tasty and reasonably priced, the food delicious, the surroundings convivial, and the patrons generally friendly folk who appreciate finely crafted brews. Here’s a taste of four places pouring Beijing’s best craft beers.

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Great Leap Brewing Co.

With multiple locations throughout Beijing, Great Leap Brewing Co. has come to be one of the city’s most acclaimed microbreweries. Photography courtesy Great Leap Brewing
Enjoy up to 20 beers on-tap, such as the Dubbel Happiness (left) or the Imperial Honey Ma Gold (right). Photography courtesy Great Leap Brewing
In addition to craft brews, Great Leap Brewing Co. offers a filling menu and relaxing atmosphere in the centre of China’s capital city. Photography courtesy Great Leap Brewing
On warmer days, Great Leap Brewing’s courtyard setting is perfect for drinking in Beijing’s authentic charm. Photography courtesy Elizabeth Phung

The original brewpub courtyard location of Great Leap Brewing is situated in a particularly hard-to-find hutong. According to Great Leap Brewing founder Carl Setzer, the challenge of finding the place is as much a part of the fun as the humble environment that greets guests once they arrive: “It is such a great walk finding it, and on a good day it is great to sit outside there in the courtyard, shaded by trees, drinking a pint,” he says.

Great Leap Brewing built on its pioneering hutong-location success by opening a purpose-built downtown brewpub, close to the nightlife zone of Sanlitun and, more recently, an outlet located only a short walk from Four Seasons Hotel Beijing. Both pubs have up to 20 beers on tap nightly, ranging from lighter lagers to heavy, porter-style brews, offerings that are consumed by an enthusiastic mixture of Chinese and expatriate drinkers. Setzer recommends the Honey Ma Gold, an exemplary Chinese craft beer with peppercorn and date honey, or the Little General IPA, made with hops from Qingdao.

Jing-A Brewing Co.

Jing-A Brewing Co. founders Alex Acker (left) and Kristian Li (right) began their crafting journey when they brewed a homemade IPA to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Photography courtesy Thomas Rippe
Complement Jing-A’s full-flavoured artisan beers with light nibbles at the brewery’s taproom. Photography courtesy Thomas Rippe

Founders Kristian Li and Alex Acker are an especially convivial duo who regularly organise fun events at their brewery’s Sanlitun premises. The Jing-A carte rotates regularly and, on any given night, might include Workers’ Pale Ale, Black Velvet Vanilla Stout, Lucky 8 Lager and Guizhou Smoked Chili Porter. Among its regular offerings is the Airpocalypse Double IPA, whose price is linked to the city’s notoriously poor air: When the pollution index goes up, the price goes down.

Jing-A started as a home-brew operation, and the reaction to their original beers proved so positive that Li and Acker opened a full-fledged brewery, using locally sourced ingredients such as osmanthus flower, peppercorn and hawthorn berries. “It was our dream to brew tasty, artisanal, small-batch beers in a variety of styles, using only the best ingredients,” says Li, a Canadian who has lived in Beijing for more than 15 years.

He and Acker later discovered a converted factory compound, now home to their recently opened taproom. The complex also contains an art gallery, a restaurant and ample outdoor space for al fresco imbibing during spring and summer evenings.

Slow Boat Brewery and Taproom

Sip on smoked porters, dark ales, IPAs and more at the famed Slow Boat Brewery. Photography courtesy Becky Lane
Brewed just outside of Bejing, Slow Boat Brewery’s 17 different beers are renowned throughout China. Photography courtesy Becky Lane

Slow Boat Brewery is run by American Chandler Jurinka, another long-term resident of Beijing, who brews ales such as Monkey’s Fist IPA, Man-o-War Porter and Dragon Boat Ale. Real ales were almost impossible to find on draft in Beijing until a few years ago; now his are highly rated by connoisseurs of the real thing.

The microbrewery, which takes its name from the song “Slow Boat to China,” has a production facility outside of Beijing that produced the equivalent of 485,000 U.S. pints last year. Its ales can be found in many bars and restaurants in the sprawling city, with more than 15 available daily at the brewery’s taproom—which also offers upscale pub food and a Sunday brunch. Jurinka, whose personal favourite is the Captain’s Pale Ale, plans to open an outlet in Sanlitun later this year.

Arrow Factory Brewing

For more than eight years, English-born Will Yorke has been quenching Beijing’s thirst for quality beers with his ever-expanding Arrow Factory Brewing company.

English-born Will Yorke opened and ran a kung fu school, worked as a teacher, and became a DJ before he finally found his niche as a restaurateur and brewer. “Coming from the U.K., I have been more prone the English bitter, but we are working for a market that requires a wide spread, so we have a much wider range,” he says. “We have always been serious about making beer, even when it was on a small scale, but now we have ratcheted up the level of seriousness.”

Today, Yorke has six locations in Beijing that serve naturally brewed beer, including his original Vineyard Café on Wudaoying Hutong; another nearby bistro, Stuff’d; and the Vineyard Café by the River, located within easy reach of the Hotel. Charcoal, another brewpub from Yorke created to brew large batches of natural ale, recently opened on the same site as Arrow Factory. Offerings here include the Pilgrim’s Progress Amber Ale, Guanxi Pale Ale, Longbow Men Session Ale and Dark Ages Rye Lager.