How the Nectar of the Gods is Increasingly Being Made by the Man on the Street
Real Ale was once the preserve of uncool, scruffily dressed, ageing men with wayward beards; these days it’s drunk by scruffily dressed men with wayward beards, except today they are known as hipsters, and their tipple of choice has been rebranded: it is now called craft beer. The beer boom has left no stone unturned, seemingly hitting everywhere, from the trendy parts of east London right through to the dusty streets of New Delhi. China is no exception, and microbreweries have sprung up in Beijing, Dali, Qingdao, right through to the Pearl River Delta. As ever, Dongguan has not been too far off the pace, and a gaggle of keen hobbyists and potentially shrewd businessmen have quietly been ensuring that the city gets its fair share of the much loved booze.
These beer brewers are, at times, an eccentric bunch, and Alec Forsyth, 42, a Scotsman who has lived in Dongguan for the best part of 12 years, is not far off the mark. Beardless and slightly balding, one couldn’t get much further away from a hipster than Alec, who perpetually looks like he has just heard, or is about to crack a funny joke. A book seller by day, he devotes most of his spare time (and a fair chunk of his cash) to making craft beer, which he brews in batches of 100 liters at a time, on a near-weekly basis.
“When you suddenly have a stock of 400 liters of beer, and you are sat there thinking about how are you going to make more beer, and then you know you have a problem.”
What once was a hobby is now almost obsession, so much so that his ‘brewery’ now doubles up as a makeshift bar, his own drinking den, the Temple Bar and Brewery. But it is a stretch to call ‘Temple Bar’ a bar at all. Whilst it exudes character, as do those who drink in it, it feels more like an excuse for Alec to ply his mates, and anyone else within a square 100 meters, with beer. Always experimenting with new recipes, he generally has five of his own beers ready on tap: Famous Belgian Wit, Temple IPA, Temple Honey Pale Ale, and a hybrid he calls Kaiser, though he rounds this out by getting in a couple from the Strand Brewery in Guangzhou, called Cluster Truck and Synthetic Sunshine Ale. Though it might be in the future, for the time being this bar is no money spinner, “The equipment cost a fair bit, and I’m not even breaking even yet, but it is not costing me much either. I ploughed 50,000 RMB into this place, but I am slowly clawing it back,” says Alec.
This passion for ale is not something Alec hides very well—indeed, a common way for him to make new friends is to approach people, tell them the beer they are drinking is crap, and offer to buy them something a little more upscale. This method has even gone so far as to recruiting staff, “I met this Chinese guy drinking outside a 7-Eleven, drinking Budweiser, so I went up to him and said, ‘you are drinking the wrong beer mate.’ I bought him and an Erdinger instead, and he never drunk a Bud again. Four months later he quit his job; he works for me now.”
While China is a nation of beer drinkers, and sells more liters of the liquid than any other nation in the world, the beers it drinks are not renowned for their quality, and you invariably end up drinking low-rent lager, be it a Tsingtao, a Snow, or a Harbin, and it is easy to wonder if China has the thirst to fully embrace these artisanal ales with the more intense taste and higher costs that go with them. Alec is adamant they do, “God, the Chinese love the beer as much if not more than a lot of the foreigners. I have regulars. There is this one Chinese guy who comes in. He doesn’t speak English, but he loves the beer. He comes in and gets absolutely shitfaced–to the point where I worry about him getting home, “ he says. Adding, “The odd thing is his wife has my number, and phones me up to ask me if I am open. When I tell her, ‘yeah’, she says, ‘good, I am going to send him down to drink some.’”
Though beer-brewers are from all walks of life, there are a few tropes that seem to tie them together: few of them have much respect for beer less than five percent alcohol content; they are all a bit geeky; most hate mass produced beer; and finally, perhaps most importantly, they love getting other people to drink their beer, and by extension to get them drunk—the number of brewers that let me leave their home or premises, when ‘researching’ this article, without being completely walloped was zero.
Though he has only been brewing just three years, Matt Krakowski, 34, from Canada, already runs his own 200 square meter brew-pub in Huizhou, a large town a little over an hour’s drive from downtown Dongguan. Alongside being the chief brew-master, he designed and renovated the whole thing himself: Krakhuas Brewery is quite the achievement, and for someone who just two years ago was making small vats of homebrew, Matt has come a long way. “I don’t know how it all happened really, when I was a kid I used to make wine with a neighbor, so there is that,” he says. Adding, “I went back home for a holiday and there were all these IPAs (India Pale Ales) and what have you. There had been a craft revolution, and I felt really wronged; everyone was drinking all this really great beer that didn’t exist before, but in China I couldn’t find any. It sucked. So, I decided it couldn’t be that much harder than making wine. It turned out to be a lot more fun, if a little more aggravating.”
“I will make beer for the rest of my life, for sure. Of course, things always go wrong. You overshoot the temperature, or you have a boil over and it causes a mess. There are lots of details. Every time you brew something goes wrong.”
For Matt, at no point was there any mission to be a professional brewer or to open a pub. It grew organically, “I made this little man-den. I put in a pool table there and I decided to build my first kit. It made 50 liters a, time and it was just for me and my friends. But more people started coming, so I started selling the beer. I built myself a bigger kit that did 150 liters, and then I had way too much beer. Even for me.” he says. Before he knew it things had got out of control, “When you suddenly have a stock of 400 liters of beer, and you are sat there thinking about how are you going to make more beer, then you know you have a problem.”
In order to get rid of all his excess beer, Matt started having impromptu parties, doing small events, and before he knew it the wider Chinese community had caught on and were increasingly eager to sample his wares. “I started to have the idea of the bar. I met the right people and they wanted to do a bar with me, though it ended up much bigger than intended. I drew up a business plan, showed it to the investors and we went from there.”
One of the chief difficulties for brewers in China is getting ingredients that are of a consistent quality. One batch of malt or hops might contain a certain flavor, but you might order again from the same supplier and it comes out completely different. Getting the right flavor notes and the necessary richness of color on a consistent basis is vital, so many of the brewers revert to buying ingredients from Germany, which, of course, puts up the price. Craft beer in China generally costs anywhere between 30 and 60 RMB a pint, but enthusiasts don’t mind paying a small premium if they are getting a rich, higher-quality beer, not to mention the fact that it is generally a lot stronger than industrially produced beer. And strength, of course, is one of factors that brewers pride themselves on. Not simply for it is own sake, they claim, but that it is accepted that a stronger beverage packs more flavor. “I like a really cloudy beer,” says Matt, “when I look at it, I’m like, yeah, now that is a real beer. Once I made an 11 percent one. I like strong beer. If it is under seven percent it doesn’t really do it for me. It doesn’t have the flavors.”
Rodrigo “Eric” Moreira, 43 is an IT engineer, from Brazil and has been living in Guangdong for nearly four years. Has has only been making beer for seven months, but many of the Pearl River Delta’s hopheads and brewers claim he makes the best beer in the region. Alec, for one, rates Eric’s beer highly: “I’m just perfecting the process of my beer, but Eric has really got it down. He is an engineer, and has a very scientific mindset. I know that Eric is much more capable than me of understanding a recipe, and all the attendant physics of it. He uses gelatin for the clearing too, so he has nice clear beer.”
“I met this Chinese guy outside a 7-Eleven, drinking Budweiser, so I went up to him and said, ‘you are drinking the wrong beer mate.’ I bought him and an Erdinger and he never drunk a Bud again.”
For such a small set-up, brewing only 20 liters at a time, Eric’s attention to detail is incredible and the rig in his home looks like a small science laboratory. And, like all the brewers in town, he talks about his passion endlessly, “It is difficult to make beer in China, you can’t just buy a kit. You need to mill your own grain to make malt. You need to learn the process. Before I started I read non-stop for one month, forums, books, all of it. You need to read good books to show and teach you the flavors. After you have crushed the grain you have to soak it,” he says. Any new hobby has the risk of being a flight of fancy, something that is picked up with gusto, but quickly put down after a few months like an out of favor Christmas toy, but Eric doesn’t think that is likely to happen: “I will make beer for the rest of my life, for sure. Of course, things always go wrong. You overshoot the temperature, or you have a boil over and it causes a mess. There are lots of details. Every time you brew something goes wrong. You just have to pay attention but I love beer, doing stuff with my hands. I feel good about it. I relax. I sit here, cook the beer. One day I will have my own brew pub selling all my beers.”
Brewers: creative geeks, all
One of the other factors so prevalent in beer-making is the sheer nerdiness of it all. At times these would be brew masters seem to be talking in their own arcane language that is impossible to penetrate. They talk of sparging, wort, decouplers, PSI rates, fermentation chambers, exotic types of hop and grain, and obscure types of yeast. It is enough to give your non-brewing layman a bit of a headache. The brewers are effectively a subculture of their own, the oddest things turning them on, as Matt says, “For me my favorite thing is studying yeast. I love yeast, so I guess that makes me a bit of a geek. The yeast gives you the real flavor. The difference between ale and a lager or any other types of beer is about the yeast. Now, I am trying to bring in liquid yeast, that stuff is incredible.”
Who doesn’t want to enter that slight state of delirium, to loosen themselves, to be drunk, isn’t that the entire point of beer in the first place?
Brewing is not the only part of the process where creativity is used; they like to have fun with the names too: Skinny Bitch, Brain Slayer, Double Dragon, Late Night Ale–these are just Eric’s alone. Sometimes, the creative process appears to be a hankering after something lost, reaching back in time to an early way of doing things, perhaps even an attempt to escape the trappings of modern life. “I found it really liberating to do something that didn’t involve looking in front of a computer screen. When I’m brewing I carry about a pencil and notebook now. It is so old fashioned.” says Alec. Such sentiments are echoed by nearly all these artful beer chefs, the process of slowly doing something themselves, taking their time, leads to an intense respect of the boozy liquid, for some it almost breeds a feeling of superiority. “You get this appreciation of the beer you didn’t have before because it is your baby. It is like the difference between eating the same dish in a restaurant and when you cook it at home,” says Matt. “Knowing the process makes you appreciate it more. There is not a single Chinese commercial beer that I can say I can truly enjoy drinking. I can’t drink Buds or Asahi either; they are boring. I like complex hoppy flavors. Basically I have become a huge beers snob, before I didn’t care and now I judge everything that I drink.”
Occasionally, it seems that these artisans need not make beer at all. Any of them could just as easily try their hand at a bit of amateur bee keeping, or get into making their own leather shoes instead, and it is the act of making something, as much as anything, which gets them going. As Alec says, “There are some times when I compare it to making cheese. I like drinking my beer because it makes you think about the process. People can bore you with bread or cheese as much as I can about talking about beer.” It is a nice line of thinking, but it does leave out one small and very potent character in beer’s story: alcohol.
On being drunk
For all of its many component parts, it seems the thing that makes beer sing must surely be alcohol. Who doesn’t want to enter that slight state of delirium, to loosen themselves, to be drunk, isn’t that the entire point of beer in the first place? Those who make the beer, and they take it very seriously, are almost coy on the topic of drunkenness, as if it their professional duty to stay away from the subject of getting completely rat-arsed for the sake of it. On the one hand, they are all insistent that strong beer is the only way to go, “The one you’re drinking there is 4.9 percent,” says Alec, “anything less than four is a bit dull, but anything more than eight a little dangerous.” On the other hand, they are keen to point out that getting out of it for its own sake is not the point. “For me I love drinking beer, but getting drunk is just an occupational hazard. It is a great social lubricant, but I don’t make the beer just to get drunk. I will brew for the rest of my life,” says Matt. If this all sounds dubious, it need not matter. For millions the world over, getting sozzled is an attempt to escape the more mundane aspects of the everyday life. And if a few dedicated blokes want to descend into their man caves to put a little flavor in our brews, who, if anyone, will complain? Craft beer brewing in the Pearl River Delta is likely to continue for quite some time.
Read the brewing process here.