If you live in Beijing, or are just passing through, chances are that you’ve tried the lukewarm beers of the Great Leap Brewery. Whether or not you’re a fan, there’s an undeniable charm to the idea of a hutong microbrewery tucked away behind the Forbidden City. A few winding alleys away, however, in the hutong home of a micro-micro amateur brewer by the name of Hardy Simes, a small batch of homemade beer sits modestly on his kitchen table. For Hardy, an ordinary plastic water cooler serves as a makeshift fermenter, nursing in its belly a rich mahogany-colored mixture of water, mashed barley grains, hops, and that all-important ingredient in the transformation of grain into alcohol: yeast.
Last weekend, I joined Hardy Simes for the bottling of his latest batch of homemade beer. Hardy, who has been living in Beijing for about five years, began home brewing in his courtyard by accident, having inherited a set of equipment from a fellow beer enthusiast a year ago.
Over the course of an hour, Hardy introduced me to the ingredients and equipment of his home brew. Beer begins with barley, and so did we.
We all know that yeast is the mother of fermentation (in fact, the Chinese word for “yeast” is literally “fermentation mother” 酵母), but not all grains and yeasts are matches made in heaven. Grain starches must be broken down into fermentable sugars for yeast to feed on, and that process requires starch-digesting enzymes. Through a course of trial and error over the long course of human history, we’ve discovered that the grain best at generating the enzymes necessary to turn grain starch into fermentable sugars is…you guessed it: barley!
One of the most unforgettable lessons Hardy impressed upon me was the importance of sanitization in home brewing. There is something in the air (particularly the Beijing air – ed.), and it’s not just the enticing aroma of homemade alcohol. Aware of the risks of cross-contamination, I stepped back from the equipment, snapped pictures, and let Hardy do all the heavy-lifting of bottling his beer.
By heavy-lifting I mean heavy-duty cleaning. Pots, fermenter, bottling bucket, bottles and the tubing needed to transfer the beer were all soaked and scrubbed thoroughly in a weak bleach solution – then rinsed with boiled water. Sterilization is probably the most fundamental aspect of home brewing. Keeping the equipment clean and covered reduces the risk that airborne microbes and contact germs will invade your beer and frolic at the expense of your drinking pleasure.
As he boiled and scrubbed and cleaned, Hardy ran through the steps of home brewing with me, a surprisingly uncomplicated process with a fascinating science behind each step. If you’re unfamiliar with the brewing process, like I was, here is an overview of the stages, simplified and adapted to the equipment and ingredients that Hardy had on hand:
- Mashing/Brewing – Roasted barley grains are ground in a coffee grinder, put into a cheesecloth bag, bouquet-garni style and boiled in water for about an hour; hops are added at different stages to provide the bitterness. Different levels of roast in the barley will result in different flavors and coloration. Lighter roasts tend towards caramel notes and can be boiled for longer, while darker roasts need less time to contribute hints of chocolate and coffee. Stirring frequently is important during this step to prevent scorching and boilovers.
- Fermenting – After the hot mixture (called wort) has been cooled quickly to room temperature (say, by dunking the whole pot into an ice bath), yeast is added to start the fermentation process. The mixture is transferred to a carboy (a container) where it’ll ferment for the next one to two weeks in a cool, dark place. An airlock, or a one-way air valve, keeps the fermenter sealed from bacteria that would infect the beer during the fermentation process, while releasing the CO2 produced.
- Bottling – Bottling can be a one-step or two-step process. After two weeks the beer is siphoned to a bottling bucket (ideally one with a spigot) where sugar solution is mixed in; siphoning allows you to remove the beer without touching the dregs (coagulated proteins and dead yeast) that have settled at the bottom of the fermenter. From the bottling bucket, bottles that are capped and set aside while the yeast ferments the sugars just added.
- Aging (Priming) – During this stage yeast will continue to eat away at the sugars added, but the CO2 produced will now be locked in, naturally carbonating your beer.
Home-brewing is a process of trial and error, where attention to detail and careful observation of hygiene dominates every stage. Sometimes, though, human error is unavoidable. Hardy’s first batch tasted more like barley juice than alcohol, a sign that the fermentation process had never kicked off. What had gone wrong? As it turned out, Hardy had not cooled the wort sufficiently before adding the yeast, killing off any chance of fermentation.
Hardy’s current batch, his fifth, has a distinctively local flavor: dried dates from a date tree in his own courtyard, added to the ground barley mix during brewing. When we tasted the uncarbonated beer, a hint of sweetness rounded out the strong, pleasant bitterness of the porter. Hardy looks forward to tasting the matured beer in two weeks.
And what is the name of the porter? “I’m calling it ‘Portmanchu’.”
With the summer heat here, we encourage everyone to give home brewing a spin. The kitchen science is fun, and the steps are easier than you would think. Some of the equipment and ingredients can be difficult to obtain in China, but here at The World of Chinese, we’ve done the legwork and found Chinese approximates that should fit the bill.
Below, we list the equipment and ingredients in English and Chinese to help you get started on an all-grain brew. Knowing how to use Taobao, the Chinese version of eBay, will help you get more than half of the materials you need. I’m not saying that putting it all together from scratch won’t get a little ghetto, but I can definitely promise you a Chinese-flavored MacGyver-style adventure.
For a step-by-step brewing guide, recipes, and detailed explanations of the science behind brewing, try howtobrew.com. You can also follow the simple steps at BeerSmith’s Home Brewing Blog, or look up all-grain brewing instructions directly at morebeer.com.
3-4 gallon vat (11-15litres) (加热锅)– Any Chinese kitchen supplies shop will have large pots ranging in size in the RMB160-300 range.
Tubing & clamp (siphon, 虹吸管) – Your local hardware shop should have clear, plastic tubes measured out by meter. Prices may vary based on the quality of the plastic, but shouldn’t exceed US$1/meter.
Carboy/fermenter (发酵瓶) – Usually a glass container; however, a RMB50 deposit will get you a water jug as a makeshift container to do your fermenting. Just call up your local water delivery service and ask for yitongshui (一桶水), one jug of water.
Fermentation Lock/Airlock (发酵锁) – This may be the most difficult item to procure, but we’ve successfully Taobao’d a plastic approximate that in Chinese is called “单向排气阀” or just “单向阀” (literally, “one-way (air-dispensing) valve”). Plug it into your Taobao search engine and you’ve got yourself a working airlock at 6-7RMB to plug on top of the carboy.
Rubber Stopper (橡胶塞子／瓶塞) – A rubber stopper sized to fit the carboy or fermenter; many household supplies shop will sell small cork ones for hot water thermoses, and may not have one large enough for a water jug, but it can be Taobao’d for under RMB5.
Bottles (flip-top bottles 翻转顶部瓶, or growlers) – While these can be found on Alibaba as well, the minimum order alone is prohibitively expensive. Instead, you can pick up a bottle of beer or lemonade and just keep the bottles. Alternatively, Ikea sells growlers (half gallon bottles for holding your beverage) for about RMB20. Without these fancier options, you can still bottle your beer in large plastic water bottles. It ain’t professional, but it’ll hold your beer through the aging process as long as it’s kept in a cool, dark place.
Bottle brushes (长柄洗杯刷, literally, “long-handled cup-washing brush”) – Any Chinese neighborhood household supplies, kitchen supplies shop will have these for a couple of kuai.
(Coffee) grinder (磨豆机) – These will run between RMB68 and RMB168. For whole-grain brews, you’ll need these to mash up the roast barley grains needed to brew your beer.
Bleach (漂白剂) – Household bleach is probably the simplest of sanitizing solution options, but must be thoroughly washed off. Too little bleach won’t sterilize your equipment, and too much can kill your yeast.
Cheesecloth (煎药袋 or 煲汤调料袋) – Holds the grounds grains while they boil in water. Can be Taobao’d at RMB18/100 bags.
Bottling bucket (optional) – If you can find a plastic bucket with a spigot like the one Hardy has, the bottling process will be significantly easier. You can also pick up a 保温锅 at a kitchen supplies shop for about RMB200-300. They’ll also just drill a hole in the metal vat you buy and outfit it with a spigot. If this seems like too much trouble, the beer could theoretically be siphoned directly from the fermenter into your bottles, as long as you don’t forget to add the extra sugar it needs to carbonate.
Roasted barley (炒麦芽) – Buy on Alibaba.com for RMB6/1kg, or try “炒麦芽” on Taobao. The Jinan Shuangmai Beer Materials Company should be able to take care of your needs in one go.
Beer Hops (啤酒花) – Alibaba.com again; prices vary, but pellets can be bought at RMB90/1kg
Beer Yeast (啤酒酵母) – Not just any yeast from your local supermarket, brewer’s yeast (啤酒酵母) can be Taobao’d for about RMB30/0.5kg
Malt Syrup (黄啤浓缩麦汁) – About RMB18/1kg
Sugar & Water
If you want to try the Portmanchu recipe yourself, Hardy was kind enough to provide it:
For a chance to sample what you are missing, visit Beijing’s First Annual Craft Beer Festival on Saturday June 2, featuring beers from Great Leap Brewery, Boxing Cat Brewery, Slow Boat Brewery and others! And to make sure you know what you’re doing if you want to impress local Chinese with whatever brew you end up producing, make sure you brush up on your Chinese drinking etiquette.
Also, do you know what China’s favorite alcoholic beverage is?