In 2009, I started home brewing. The first beer I brewed would turn into the Pale Ale #6. It was an amber colored beer that was brewed out of necessity due to a lack of raw materials. Local malt, local hops, whatever yeast was available at the time. It’s one of the simplest beers we have, but it’s also one of those beers that you brew that has real meaning. It’s called what it’s called because our landlord, upon signing the lease to Dou Jiao Hutong #6, said to me in accented, yet educated English, “Welcome to China, welcome to Beijing, and welcome to Dou Jiao Hutong #6.” The first time we brewed it at #6 it was a colossal disaster. It was the first batch we ran on that system. Everything broke. It came out OK anyway. We like pleasant surprises, but we also like not having everything break. Learning experience for sure. I’d like for this series to be about what goes into our recipes, why they are named what they are named, the history of the evolution of the brands, and the other shit that was going on at the same time.
After we got the #6 recipe right on our home-brew system and before we moved into the Dou Jiao Hutong #6 (#6) location, I wanted to brew that recipe that had always sounded like a good idea. Something with Sichuan peppercorn in it, which would become the Honey Ma Gold. This might come as a surprise, but the now common place staple of a lot of China’s best craft breweries was something that a lot of people laughed at me for trying. One local friend told me that, “No one will actually drink a craft beer that has Chinese local ingredients in it, they just want something foreign and imported.” This broke my heart for various reasons, but it didn’t make Liu Fang or I doubt our idea. Sichuan peppercorns are fascinating and yet under researched when compared to their usage in most Chinese cuisines across multiple provinces. More recently, we have educated ourselves on the bio-organic chemistry and learned why they numb and vibrate and do all the weird shit that freaks out your mom on her first visit to China.
When we first started brewing with them we failed, repeatedly. We couldn’t get the numbing, and we had contamination problems with various dosing methods. We almost gave up, but then we had the chicken wings at 1979. If you’ve never had the BBQ chicken wings at 1979, the house flavor is Sichuan peppercorn with a honey glaze. They were killer. We talked to the chef/owner/perpetually red faced dude that barked orders and occasionally manned the grill at the location near our house in Da Shanzi and he told us the key was to xxxx. He was right. I employed his secret and the next recipe was one of the most drinkable beers I had ever had. Pride ensued. We haven’t looked back. If you want the secret, go find that dude and get him drunk. He’s a chatty fucker.
The name for the Honey Ma Gold in English and Chinese is one of mine. The first batch of honey came from Shandong, Qufu, and so it had to have some Confucian connection, whereas Sichuan peppercorns have always reminded me of my first visit to Chengdu thirteen years ago and visiting the “Dufu’s Thatched Roof Cottage.” I wandered away from the English tour group I was slip streaming off of and found myself in the corner of one of those plaque lined rooms. The plaque that jumped off the wall was the English translation of one of Dufu’s poem’s about traveling in Sichuan province and it read, “Traveling in Sichuan is Harder than Mounting the Sky.” Fucking nailed it. Dufu became my hero. So the Chinese is the Fu from DuFu and the Zi from Kong Zi. Get it? Fu Zi? Not many people do, but Liu Fang thought it was cute.
The only other recipe we brewed at home before moving to Dou Jiao was the Cinnamon Rock Ale. If any of you are Great Leap originals, you’ll remember this beer used to be called the Cinnamon Rock Candy Ale. We dropped the “candy” in the name sometime in 2012 because it was too long to fit on the board and implied sweetness that isn’t necessarily the dominant flavor. I love this beer. Its one of my favorites. Its been a staple on our menu since we first opened and I take pride in the fact that its not overly cinnamon dominate. Sometimes there doesn’t need to be an in depth story behind our beers. As such is the case with this brand.
Our first experience with the need to improve came with the East City Porter. Again, for those of you who may have graced our door step at the beginning, this beer used to be simply called the “Oatmeal Porter.” When Blake Stone-Banks first came to Great Leap to interview us for City Weekend, this was the only beer out of the first four we made that he didn’t like. That hurt. You don’t and shouldn’t take it personal when someone says they don’t care for your beer. Some beers aren’t for everyone. But I knew this beer in particular was lacking. You know that in your heart when you taste a new beer and it just isn’t as good as you were aiming for. This is more of a problem for new brewers that haven’t really gotten the hang of expressing their idea into physical form. In our case it was also a lack of quality specialized raw materials.
With darker beers, the yeasts that give off ester appropriate aromas aren’t always the most efficient consumers of sugars, or “attenuators.” This means they leave a higher percentage of sugars behind versus more aggressive California or American ale strains. These residual sugars give what is commonly known as mouthfeel. Literally, because the beer has more residual sugars it feels fuller in your mouth. But sometimes the sugars inherent in simply modified or commonly modified malts are, well, boring. This means you want to work in what are called crystal malts. These are malts that are over modified. This means they are expensive and in 2010 they were hard to find. The only malting company, Weyermann Malts, that at that time had distribution into China just happened to be the international leader in malting technology. Long story short, these malts were expensive to purchase, but worth it to make more differentiable brands with character that were identifiable as unique. So when Blake Stone-Banks reacted justifiably to our first attempt at the Oatmeal Porter, I made it my mission to redo the menu with some of the malts that we had just purchased from Weyermann.
The result was a recipe that we’ve modified for scale, but rarely for flavor. We localized the name in 2011 because of our proximity to the Drum and Bell Tower and because we had become to truly relate to the East City District as our home. This brand isn’t for everyone, but we’re proud of it and it has collected multiple medals in Japan and Taiwan. One of my favorite memories of bartending was when the guys from Koryo tours came by with a group of their friends and colleagues. One of them ordered the East City Porter, took one sip and said, a little too loudly, “This is the worst beer I’ve ever tried.” He brought it back and wanted a refund. I asked him to take another sip and if he really didn’t like it I’d refund him. He finished that one, and then seven more. He still apologizes for what was most likely a clash of beer and chewing gum. I think he’s doing a pilgrimage in Nepal now. Good dude.
The first tea beer we ever did was our fifth unique recipe. I wanted to try something with wheat malt and the result was the DanShan Wheat. We don’t do it very much now because our menu is flush with wheat recipes and our other tea brands take precedent, but this is where we first got the idea for dosing tea in beer. We brewed the first batch in March 2011 with the expert guidance of one of Beijing quirkiest tea heads, Joel Shuchat. Anyone that has talked to Joel about tea feels his passion. He’s an intoxicating guy. I told him I wanted to do an amber wheat with a rich maltiness and wanted a tea to complement it. Joel didn’t even flinch. He came back the next day with broker’s ends of DanShan Gongfu Black Tea. The process was pretty fun. Figuring out how to brew and brew and combine the two brews was entertaining. The result was a solid beer that got us more attention for implementing Chinese ingredients in our beers. We saw more and more adventurous local consumers that were interested in whatever we were experimenting with. It wasn’t as big of a hit as the Honey Ma Gold, but the DanShan Wheat was the stepping stone tea concept that gave us the Iron Buddha Blonde, Hidden General IPA, Silver Needle White Ale and one of our proudest collabs, the Yunnan Amber. We still brew the DanShan Wheat every year or so out of respect for what it led to. Really great memory.
Liu Fang came in the house at #6, I think I was scrubbing the floor or something. Grandpa was starting to really enjoy my company. He always respected Liu Fang’s love for me for the first three years of our marriage, but I was basically a white dude that played on his computer everyday and grandpa was a hard working day laborer that didn’t really think what I did was work. But when we started renovating #6 he saw me work, hard, for the first time. He started calling me his boy. Anyway, Liu Fang came in to the house and showed me a picture she had just taken of Grandpa in the yard with a cigarette in his mouth and with Buddy in the background. That image was cemented in my mind. The men of the Liu family were inexplicably cool. I needed to brew beers that reflected that.
The first stout we ever made was actually the Chocolate Stout. The Chinese name was based on that picture of Liu Fang’s G-pops smoking his cigarette looking like he could give two shits about what was going on. So we named it 老头子乌啤 in Chinese. At Great Leap, we could give a shit about most transliterations of beer styles. In China, stouts are generally phonetically transliterated into two versions. Common at the time was, “斯涛特,” but then Gao Yan (Master Gao’s Gao Yan) changed it to “世涛” sometime around 2013. He made a pretty big deal about it, claiming it should be “Shi Tao” because in the British Isles where the style came from no one pronounces the “t” at the end of “stout.” I’ve busted his balls enough for this odd insistence. We’ll never intentionally serve a beer called a “Shi Tao” because it’s silly and non-descript in Chinese. We’ll always be alone in this, but we’re stubborn and don’t care. We like “wu pi” because it emphasizes color and substance. Everyone will live a long and healthy life despite this disagreement. That picture of grandpa as the epitome of a cool old Chinese dude led me to realize the meaning of family and honoring those we love with things that also make other people happy. It was when I knew I needed to make a beer for Liu Fang’s dad.
The result was our house style stout. It’s the basis for our other Liu the Brave variants, the Liu the Brave Chai Masala and Liu the Brave Mocha. It’s one of my favorite beers. Those of you who have been to our #45 location might notice that there is a large stained glass window of the logo for the Liu the Brave. That logo was created by Shift. Partners in semi-secret fashion as a surprise for Liu Fang. All of the images of her father were believed to have been lost in a house fire in her hometown around the same time that we opened #6. I asked the good people at Shift. to help me recreate an image of her father playing shadow boxing with a friend when he was in his 20s. They took photos of Liu Fang’s Grandpa, Liu Fang, her uncle, and our 8 month old version of Robby. The result is the loving tribute to her dad. I smile everytime someone orders that beer.
The next box we needed to tick on the “we own a craft brewery and people have expectations” list of beer recipes was the Little General IPA. At the time I was only buying local Qingdao Flower hops, or QDDH. The original broker we used didn’t give two shits about pellet quality or hop aroma on the domestically grown QDDH. We were the only customer they had that cared about it and we bought fuck all quantity. In their mind, we should be honored they even sold us hops. It was a much different time in our history. There is an infamous story of a very pregnant Liu Fang being called a dumb girl from the countryside (this has happened multiple times in our history. Hasn’t happened in a while though, can’t imagine why?) and me drop kicking a twenty kilo case of poor quality hop pellets at a jackass delivery driver. You make notes in your head when a vendor treats you like dogshit for simply wanting a good quality product delivered on time, in an acceptable state, at a fair market price. Fuck me for having expectations, am I right?
The first version of the Little General IPA was bitter, with a solid floral note and no dry hop aroma. Rule of thumb is you don’t dry hop with locally grown hops. It’s more or less a good idea to expose any hops grown in China for the sake of package stability and flavor. We sold out of that first batch of a whopping 180 liters in a weekend. I immediately added it to the regular rotation at #6. Since that first batch we have gone through a self imposed education of all things hops. I’ve attended and subsequently sponsored sensory analysis and quality assurance trainings in Beijing, Shanghai, and Taipei. We work with Hophead Farms and the eternal Nunzino Pizza to hand select the best quality hops from Europe and America for all of our more experimental beers. But since the day I lost my shit on that driver for insulting a pregnant woman for simply wanting delivery of goods purchased, I realized that the customer in the Chinese beer industry was too vulnerable to vendors who had a functional corner on our market.
Prices and service aside, Chinese craft breweries were being forced to accept hops and other raw materials that would not be acceptable in more established markets. This reality pushed me harder than most other motivating factors in our journey, and the biggest increase in quality can be seen in the current state of the Little General IPA and the Hop God 120 IIPA. These beers stand proudly next to any of our, or any other local breweries IPAs, that use imported hops. We achieved that through shear will by cutting out every aspect of the hop drying and pelletization process that strips aroma and oils out of the QDDH hop. Bryan Baird at Baird Beer and Ron and Bill at Victory Brewing Company had an equal hand in expanding our knowledge of quality control and best state hop dosing. We are still proudly the only craft brewery that uses local hops, but I expect that will change as more and more breweries go through the process that brought us to where we are today. The Little General is named after Zhang Xueliang, see our description of this interesting fucker here or here.
The expansion of our tea beer set brought us to our Iron Buddha Blonde. This is the beer that Michael Jordan specifically cited when we were designing China’s first collaboration beer, and one of my all time favorite recipes, the Yunnan Amber. The Iron Buddha was originally a response to a customer claiming that there was no real difference between a beer with tea in it and a beer without. The Iron Buddha Blonde started as a split batch. It was the same base recipe as the Prosperer American Blonde, and the only difference was the tea dose. Our 200L system at #6 allowed for me to split one batch between two 100L fermenters. So it was simple, one fermenter got a tea infusion and one did not. The beer was released simultaneously and for those that were curious whether tea dosing was a gimmick or an actual value add to the beer, they could try both side by side. We don’t need to do this in that method anymore, because our place in China craft beer history as the innovator of tea dosing in beers is set, whether people admit it or not.
The last of the first generation of Great Leap beers that have brought us to where we are is the first variation of the Banana Wheat. This would be the beer that overshadowed the DanShan Wheat as well as pushed us into more of a technical proficiency of manipulating inherent malt and yeast flavors and esters to create a classic style. The first time we brewed the beer, we had the classic wheat beer stuck sparge in the brewhouse that resulted in a very long and hard brew for the 200L output at #6 that we still thought was a respectable sized batch. You work hard for that small amount of beer. It was around this time that the Germans working at the 1308/Furst Carl/Elinger Brauhaus concepts started coming around for brewmaster’s tables and Saturday beers. Tobias Palmer and Andreas Rurhl were the most frequent out of the bunch and both expressed real concern, not for how the beers were turning out, but for my own physical wear and tear during these long brew days for such small output. Those first couple batches of Banana Wheat brought a lot of the realities of small batch brewing to the forefront of my train of thought. Turns out someone actually did the math on when a brewery can actually start making profit, not just revenue but actual profit, off of small batch brewing. Turns out if you actually take into account your own time and salary you can’t really make any money off of a system smaller than 850 litres per batch. So I was effectively losing money and killing my body brewing 200L batches third shift after I closed the bar.
The basic routine in those days was to open at around 2pm in the afternoon five days a week and close up around midnight. We were brewing 4-5 times a week, so opening days and brew days tended to overlap so we could have actual time off to prep for my son’s birth and then eventually to spend time with him. So the habit was to mash in at around 10:30pm when we were still open and then brew through the night and knock out at around 5am, get home a half an hour later, and get a couple hours of sleep before someone would wake me up to do something that was more important than sleep. At first I laughed at the Germans, which isn’t anyone’s habit, but then they got through to me when I started waking up with pain and cramping in my hands that required ice cold tap water to break up. Then I started listening more attentively. They at first convinced me to use one of the malt mills they had at their places. At the time, we were still hand milling everything with a crank box. Insanity. Thank God for the Germans. They put me on the right track and because of that, I can still feel my finger tips and my back isn’t too fucked up . . . and now my mill is nicer than theirs ;).
Alright, that wraps up the first period of active recipe development at #6. Most of those brands were solid enough to stay on and some are our best sellers. Stay tuned for more exploration, failure, and good memories.