Monday, 7 December 2015

The Amoy Brau Tour: a Chinese microbrewery on the move in Xiamen

The Amoy Brau Tour was a one-off hybrid: a bike tour, brewery tour, neighbourhood tour and personal story all rolled into one. The basic premise was that a small group of us would be told the story of Amoy Brau, a young independent brewery, by its co-founder Felix. What gave it a twist is that, rather than telling the tale sitting around a bar, we'd be shown the different sites in the Shapowei neighbourhood of Xiamen where they had made and sold their beer. I was hoping for one of the ever so slightly obnoxious, European-style beer bikes, but I heard these were not so easy to ride around Xiamen so we were, instead, using the company's Chinese-style motorised trike. We squeezed on the back with our guide at up front.

We threaded through some of the narrower backstreets to our first stop: the rooftop kitchen where they started to experiment with making beer, the birthplace of Amoy Brau, so to speak. Fortunately for Felix the bike was powered by an electric motor, it would have been a bit of a push otherwise.

Up to the roof we heard how they got started. At the start of 2013 they made a batch of beer as a fun experiment for a friend's party by following instructions they found on Youtube, using a simple kit they bought on Taobao. Apparently, even this first homemade brew was quite drinkable and a step up from the locally available beer. Encouraged by this, they made some more and, unsurprisingly, found no shortage of friends wanting to drink it. Within six months they had a regular production line going in the kitchen and were thinking seriously about making a business out of it. They did their research on craft beer in China, and made the leap.

My two companions on the tour, Wendy and Taylor, were taking assiduous notes, preparing a report for Common Talk, the English language supplement to the Xiamen Daily newspaper. It struck me, as we were sitting up on the roof, that if Amoy Brau's beer becomes very popular in the future their humble beginning would be perfect source material for a TV advert. The mythologised scene 100 years from now would be recreated with two caucasian models sipping beer and nodding approvingly, a slightly better looking kitchen and a CGI view of Gulangyu in the background with a deep-voiced Chinese narrator saying, "The dream became a reality, and the reality became a tradition."

Next stop on the bike was a nearby cafe run by a Syrian friend of Felix. The place had a  relaxed feel but a steady hum of business about it as the boss was kept busy hovering around keeping everything in order. The kitchen behind him is where, we were told, the brewing equipment was moved to when they had to finally expand out of their rooftop nest. This place, then, was where Amoy Brau first became a more public entity, as this is where their first beer was sold, though friends remained their main customers in the early days. This set-up could not last for long, however, as the cafe was gaining in popularity too, and needed to expand into the back room. 

We next came to 73 Daxue Lu and stopped opposite the first Amoy Brau bar. It was too early in the day for the bar to open, and besides, its front had been colonised by tea drinkers. We crossed the street and talked about how it has been making the leap from brewers to bar owners. He said that through friends and recommendations they found the space they rent and that the obstacles to starting a small business were relatively easy to navigate as practically everyone they knew had some sort of business of their own.

Round the corner, beside the old, pre-Ming dynasty harbour, we talked about the alternative creative community from Zengcuoan who were the the first to encourage and support Amoy Brau. They were a mostly Chinese friends' network of artists, musicians and creative allsorts. In that neighbourhood, some three kilometres to the east of here, Amoy Brau opened a bar, but the area was being thoroughly remade for tourists who liked to take pictures but didn't drink much beer. That bar closed and indeed a significant portion of the artistic community from Zengcuoan slowly reassembling here in Shapowei and opened businesses of their own. The Chinese property market being what it is, this neighbourhood, too, is now being rapidly gentrified. The first time I saw this area, back in 2011, it was a poor, shabby and immensely interesting neighbourhood. It was one of the few places in the city I could still see Chairman Mao posters displayed in shops in a non-ironic way. In the space of four years the great helmsman has disappeared and returned as a pastiche interior design feature in numerous trendy eateries, and this is just the start of a much more comprehensive redevelopment that is to come.  

We rode back to the bar's newest and main location, a former ice factory in the fashionable Shapowei Art Zone area.

We then got a tour of the brewing facilities where we saw David, the other half of Amoy Brau, busy working on a new batch. David, we were told, was the first to arrive in Xiamen through a university exchange programme. When he returned to Europe he told his friend and fellow German, Felix, they could take a three-month trip to Xiamen to give some lectures on design. When they returned, three months turned into six because the university's schedule got mixed up and it was in this period they got started up on the rooftop. Since then, they have reinvested their profits, lifting the quality and expanding their capacity so that in just three years they have gone from being a hobby to the much more professional looking operation they are today with David focussed on the brewing and Felix on the bars. 

Felix told us the two of them had absolutely no experience of brewing prior to coming to China: he is a designer by training. The brewery and the bar have, however, become a full-time concern. He said he was planning on staying in China a while longer, at least for the next five years and to then see how things were. This left me wondering what he would be if or when he returns to Europe: would he return to being a designer, has brewing and hospitality become his new vocation or, indeed, has this process of reinventing himself in China made him something different again, namely, an entrepreneur? Only time can tell.  

I remember a Slovenian backpacker once telling me about his experience of drinking beer in China. He said, "you won't drink much of it: the local beer is too weak and the imported beer is too expensive." He had a point. The beer at Amoy Brau is not cheap, it is on the expensive side by Chinese standards, but it is a hell of a lot better than Qingdao, which is so weak you can drink it to sober up. Black Moon, Amoy Brau's strongest beer, is a formidable 11%. Maybe it is not the choice of budget backpackers, but there is a definite market for it, the bar attracting both a Western and Chinese clientele.

The brewery tour took us into a storage room where imported bags of raw ingredients sat piled up. We were told that at first everything was bought locally on Taobao (Chinese eBay) but slowly they have been becoming more exacting in their requirements and demanding in their quantities. These days they get one ton international shipments delivered. 

Like all good brewery tours should, we finished in the bar with a little sampling and we tried their Yang Mei beer, a light fragrant beer flavoured with local fruit. The tour went on quite a bit longer than expected as there were plenty of interesting diversions and, in any case, this was not a regular tour with a fixed script and itinerary, it was an improvisation. Some of the stories were rehearsed in the sense that they were stories that had been told before, but they had never been given as part of a street tour. This made the experience more like a rolling interview than a formal tour, and while this meant it lacked concision, it more than made up for this in presence and depth. We finished with a toast and some slightly over-enthusiastic smiles. Cheers!

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