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What to drink with a dog

Which of China's 500 brewers can deliver the goods?

Around the time of Chinese New Year, I am reminded of my quest to dine on dog. If I can track down a sweet-and-sour Pekinese this year, I shall accompany it with a Chinese lager. What else would you find on the beer list in the Bamboo Garden, the Jade Palace or the Great Wall?

My interest in chomping a canine arose during a my first trip to China. I suppose the appetite was inspired by a recent book called "The Man Who Ate Everything". While I am not the nosher in the title, it could equally have described my inclinations (though my greater ambition is to Drink Everything, and the purpose of my visit to China was to investigate its beers).

On my first night in Beijing, I found a restaurant that looked authentic to my round eyes: drab, steamy, and full of Chinese eating with relish (not to mention soy sauce). My travelling companion, a brewer from Strasbourg, was unhappy about my suggestion that we ask for dog. Such timidity surprised me. "You know that Strasbourg is in Alsace," he responded. "How can an Alsatian order dog?" Good point. As it turned out, they did not have any. We dined on camel's hamstring instead. It reminded me of a jellyfish I once ate.

The brewhouse interior reflects Chinese brewing in the

Space Age.

The restaurant had more beers than I had expected. Even though every city in China has at least one brewery, and some are very large indeed, supply is exceeded by demand as Western habits take hold. There are more than 500 large breweries in China, with an output greater than that of Germany and soon to exceed that of the United States, but none has even ten per cent of the local market, and most sell only in their home cities.

While a new generation of brewpubs produces a variety of beer-styles, all the giants make only lagers. The barley-malt is imported from Australia, Canada, France or Germany, with a small proportion grown in the south of China. The malt is augmented with a smaller proportion of rice (as it is in some beers from elsewhere in the world, notably American Budweiser). Most of the hops are cultivated in China, though some are imported from the Czech Republic, Gemany and the United States. The yeast is usually of German or Danish origin.

Most of the beer is golden lager of the international type, though several breweries also have a darker one in the Munich style. Ask about the choice of beers in a restaurant and you may be told: "Yellow and Dark". In this particular restaurant (I forget the name; let us call it the Limping Camel), I had the chance to sample three beers, all "Yellow" and all bottled.

The first, Harbin beer, from the city of that name, had a stale, musty, aroma; a bland, thin, taste; and a redeemingly crisp finish. The second, Yanjing Gold, from Beijing itself, was fresher, with a hint of hoppy perfuminess, but sweet and bland. The third, the famous Tsingtao ("Ching-dhow"), was notably hoppier, drier and more appetising.

Next day, the Alsatian and I visited the Yanjing brewery, on the edge of Beijing. It took about an hour to escape the sprawl of skyscraper offices and apartment blocks (most of them built in the last five years, though some are incongruously topped with curly pantiled roofs, like those on temples). For another half hour, we drove along roads lined with poplars, behind which were flat fields planted with green onions and leeks.

The only only punctuation was the odd candy-striped canopy by the roadside. These turned out to be truck stops, serving soup and rice. The trucks, drably uniform in their blue paintwork, and unmarked except for the odd white stencil, reminded us that we were in a communist country.

The glass-fronted exterior of a the brewhouse overlooks soothing fountains and a "willow pattern" bridge.
Then, suddenly, a gateway opened on to a drive between lawns, flower beds and topiary and an ornamental bridge worthy of Willow Pattern, to a handsome building of six or seven storeys. This was topped by a sign proclaiming "Museum of Science and Technology."

The entrance hall was decorated with giant replicas of Ming vases; a row of clockfaces announced the time in each continent; and curved staircases, in marble, swept up to the executive offices.

The latter touches suggested the corporate headquarters of a Texas oil company.

Seated at a boardroom table, and refreshed with jasmine tea, we listened as the chief executive, speaking through an interpreter, explained the nature of the enterprise, with pride and clarity, and in detail. This was the headquarters of Yanjing. Next door, its architecture post-modernist, was the maltings and brewery, spacious, airy and computerised to the last hop.

This year, the brewery will produce seven million hectolitres, and before long it will surely be a national giant. On the wall, a decoratively chalked sign reminded workers that it would soon be Independence Day. "Please make more and better beer for the birthday of our country."

We were given a tasting. The draught beer still tasted sweet but, brewery-fresh, had a biscuity maltiness. The bottled version seemed rounder and drier.

Then there was lunch. The brewery had arranged an appetising selection of dishes, centred around noodles and Beijing Duck. In a gesture of great, but unnecessary consideration to the Round-Eyes, the chief executive had also brought in a few orders of KFC.

This was the new China, I reflected. There was no dog.

This article was first published in the February edition of the magazine CLASS (Cocktails, Liqueurs and Speciality Spirits).

Published Online: FEB 5, 2000
Published in Print: FEB 1, 2000

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