Eat and drink

How to eat in a real Chinese Restaurant (in 15 steps) by Thomas O'Malley

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An unabridged version of this piece I recently wrote for Rough Guides. 

You’ve heard the one about not sticking your chopsticks straight up in rice, right? (It resembles funerary incense sticks).

Honestly? Don’t fret. Because let’s face it; you’ve got bigger problems than antiquated cultural faux-pas. Like how to actually order and eat a table-full of awesome Chinese food in a regular, everyday, non-touristy Chinese restaurant. In China.

“Are you ready to order?”

…Is a question you pretty much never hear. After being shown a table, the server will usually give out just one menu and then wait. You pick it up. It’s beefier than a telephone directory. You start turning the pages. Still, the server waits. And waits. Your companions eye you, hungrily. GAH, THE PRESSURE!

DON’T PANIC.

Take your time. Restaurant staff expect to dawdle while you flick through the menu, choosing dishes as you go. Typically in China, one person – the host - orders (and pays) for everyone. Of course, it’s up to you how you split the bill, but giving just one person ordering duties (open to suggestions from the floor, naturally) is more efficient than everyone taking a turn, and makes foodie sense too, as you’ll see later.

Size is everything…

Even at a mom ‘n pop hole-in-the-wall, the menu might be doing a decent impression of an encyclopaedia. Restaurants in China pride themselves on the ability to make dozens, sometimes hundreds of dishes. The good news is chunky menus usually means nice big dish photos.

So know your place (in the menu).

In a typical jia chang cai (everyday family-style) restaurant, menus start with the house specials (often the fancy banquet dishes like whole seafood or Peking duck), followed by cold salad dishes, meaty mains, stir-fried vegetables, soups, and at the back, staples like noodles, rice, steamed bread, dumplings and desserts.

What if there are no photos or English?

A trick this writer used to roll out before he learned the necessary Chinese was to whisk the server on a whirlwind tour of the dining room, pointing at tasty-looking dishes on other tables, and smiling manically. It usually turned out OK. (Or just see below).

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Get to know some everyday dishes.

Chinese eaters often disregard the menu and simply shout out common dishes that all restaurants know how to cook. Try these tasty (and foreigner-friendly) standards: tudou si (shredded potatoes with vinegar), xihongshi chao jidan (stir-fried tomatoes and eggs), gongbao jiding (diced chicken with peanuts and dried chilis), and pai huanggua (a cold salad of cucumber and garlic).

How much (and what) to order.

A good rule of thumb is to order one dish per number of diners, plus soup and rice. (This is why dining in big groups is more fun – you can munch more and the cost per person is lower). The concept of starters, mains and desserts doesn’t apply, so order everything at once. For a table of six, plump for a couple of cold salad dishes, three to five hot ‘mains’, a vegetable, soup, and rice or noodles.

Master the art of balance.

Part of the reason one person assumes ordering responsibilities is because a successful Chinese meal is the art of balance and harmony on the table: hot and cold, yin and yang, colour, nutrition, complimentary tastes and textures. That’s the theory, anyway. Or just get a fist-full of grilled lamb skewers and ice-cold beer and to hell with it.

Wait… Yin and yang?

According to traditional Chinese medicine, yin and yang refers to how different foods generate hot or cold energy in the body. Cucumber is yin, or cold, for example, while chili peppers are yang, or hot. Make sense? Well this won’t: lobster is yang and crab is yin. Let’s call the whole thing off.

How to eat (the basics).

Dishes are served in the middle of the table for diners to attack ‘family-style’; only rice is served individually. It’s not Thanksgiving so no need for mom to dish it up. Besides, that would look ridiculous on the tiny plates they give you.

Just keep grazing away at those central dishes until you can graze no more.

Chopsticks.

In high-end joints and at formal banquets, you’ll have two sets – one to transfer food from the communal dishes to your bowl or plate, and one to eat with. But mostly you’ll just get one set. They are your friends. Treat them well. (And avoid those wasteful disposable ones).

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Seasonings.

If a dish is too salty, eat a little of it over your plain rice to balance the seasoning. (This is generally how to eat, anyway). You’ll usually get dark vinegar and chilli oil on the table to add a sour or spicy note (often to noodle soups). Pro tip: the two link up to make a zingy dipping sauce for steamed or fried dumplings.

The bill, please.

When you’re ready to settle up, don’t be shy; it’s a fairly common practice to raise your voice to get the server’s attention. “Fuwu yuan” (waiter / waitress) is heard every few minutes in local eateries in and around Beijing. And you might be pleased to know that, outside of hotels, tipping isn’t part of the culture.

Lastly… eat early (ish).

Aim to eat a little earlier than you might be used to. Many Chinese diners sit down to eat at around 6pm, and its not uncommon for restaurants to be winding down by 9pm. But if you you do miss last orders, it’s not the end of the world - there’s probably a 24-hour McDonald’s around the corner.

Writer’s note: This listicle has an admittedly northern China bias (me being based in Beijing), and with a food culture as deliciously epic and diverse as China, it’s barely the tip of the iceberg. But you’ve got to start somewhere, right?

Culinary Capitals - Beijing Food and Drink Guide by Thomas O'Malley

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My Beijing food and drink guide for Le Pan: The Art of Fine Wine Living.

The capital city of the most food-obsessed nation on earth, Beijing is an aromatic melting pot of Chinese and international cuisine, where “have you eaten?” is the standard way of saying hello. Here you can dine like an emperor on banquet favourites like Peking duck, or discover authentic regional fare from migrant mom and pop holes-in-the-wall. As China marches into the 21st century, Beijing is catching up with Shanghai as a destination city for global gastronomy, where east-west chefs are reimagining the restaurant experience for an increasingly urbane dining set.

A northern city state where wheat and corn thrives instead of rice, Beijing food is hearty, salty and fortifying for those winters when the icy winds whip south from the Great Wall. A blend of local influences, Beijing cuisine draws on lu cooking from nearby Shandong province (soups, seafood, eggplant, garlic, tomatoes, steamed breads), the snacks and traditional dishes of the resident Islamic hui community like grilled lamb and hand-pulled noodles, Manchu and Mongol specialities, and grand dishes dreamed up in the old imperial kitchens to satiate the “sons of heaven”.

The local dish on every visitor’s must-eat list is beijing kaoya, otherwise known as Peking duck. Roasted over fruit wood, carved tableside, then wrapped in wafer-thin pancakes with scallions and soybean sauce, it’s a Beijing institution gone global. The dish dates back to the Ming Dynasty, but was popularised in the 19th century by the Quanjude restaurant chain, whoose flagship branch close to Tiananmen Square has fed many a visiting dignitary, including Richard Nixon and Fidel Castro. Yes, “duck diplomacy” is a thing.

Beijing yoghurt is a tradition going back to the Manchu occupation.
Beijing yoghurt is a tradition going back to the Manchu occupation.

But it’s not just duck that sends the locals quackers; mutton is a must-try in Beijing. A large Muslim Chinese community has called the city home for 500 years, their halal habits fueling the popularity of mutton, best enjoyed sliced wafer-thin and dunked into bubbling soup at one of the city’s thousands of DIY hot pot restaurants. Or threaded onto skewers, doused in chili and cumin, and grilled al fresco on every street corner. Streetside is also where you can slurp paper-topped clay jars of youghurt, a nod to the pastoral Mongols and Manchu to the north, or eat xianbing, grilled pucks of minced pork and cabbage (or other fillings) encased in crispy dough.

Home to millions of migrants from every corner of China, Beijingers have taken other cooking styles to heart; none more so than the spicy, fragrant fare of Sichuan province. Gui Jie, or Ghost Street, is the city’s preeminent destination for spice and oil, where folks queue up to gorge on shuizhuyu (fish cooked in bubbling spicy oil) and mala xiaolongxia (spicy crayfish stew).

The Restaurant Scene

In the early days of the PRC, the restaurant scene in Beijing comprised a few gloopy state-owned eateries; it wasn’t until 1979 that the first private restaurant opened - a tiny eatery called Yue Bin in an alley close to the National Art Musuem that sold soy-braised pork hock and stuffed tofu parcels (it still does). Fast forward to 2015 and beijing is a truly global food city, with trends taking hold at a startling rate.

Americana has held sway in the last couple of years, with craft beer bars, gourmet burgers, hipster tacos and authentic barbecue joints popping up all over town. Moving up the value chain, fine-dining Italian has proved a recipe for success, attracting luminaries like Umberto Bombana from three michelin starred 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana in Hong Kong, who put his name to Opera Bombana in 2013, a restaurant that spars with Mio in the Four Seasons for the accolade of Beijing’s best Italian restaurant.

Short rib and beef tenderloin at Opera Bombana.
Short rib and beef tenderloin at Opera Bombana.

The response to various food scandals in China has seen a rise in eateries with a focus on wellness, organic produce and and sourcing, along with a smidgen of the vegan, vegetarian and raw. New brunch spot Green Cow Café sources all its fare from its own organic farm on Beijing’s northern outskirts, while recently opened organic joint Tribe is all about immunity-boosting juices and crowd-pleasing quinoa salads.

When it comes to Chinese fine-dining, top chefs are eschewing the safe but staid dim-sum and Cantonese roast meat formula and beginning to tinker and toy with the local cuisine. The city’s snack culture was probably long overdue a spruce-up, but new spots like Country Kitchen in the Rosewood Hotel are building on the efforts of Beijing stalwart Made in China by making local fare sexy – think clay-pot roasted pork belly, posh pot-stickers and knife-cut noodles in a rustic-chic dining space.

Drinking in Beijing

It used to be that the Hard Rock Café (now closed) was the only place in town where a mixed drink didn’t mean tea leaves and water, but today’s Beijing is the equal to anywhere in Asia for a night on the tiles.

The commercial district of Sanlitun has always been ground zero for nightlife, but these days the savvy drinkers are heading to the hutongs to bar-hop between an ever-growing roster of personality-rich establishments popping up in old courtyard homes among the city’s warren of traditional alleyways. You can choose from a fine selection of imported single malts at cosy date-space Amilal, savor an impeccable Old Fashioned at Mai Bar before catching a puk show at Mao Livehouse, all in the space of a couple of a city block.

Local revellers crowd out the impressively ritzy clubs and luxe karaoke joints that skirt the Worker’s Stadium, where dancefloor space is given over to see-and-be-seen private tables, and champagne is the libation of choice. But Beijingers are also getting in on the craft beer craze that exploded in the capital since 2010, thanks largely to the work of US-China collaboration Great Leap Brewing, an enterprise that started in a dusty, hard-to-find courtyard annex and now has three fantastic brewpub venues across town, not to mention a host of worthy disciples like Jing A, Slow Boat Brewery and NBeer.

Beijing's Best New Chinese Restaurants by Thomas O'Malley

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Eaters! The 5th edition of the Fodor’s Guide To Beijing has now hit the shelves. I donned bib and chopsticks to update the Restaurants and Hotels sections, culling the old or unworthy and adding a slew of the new and overlooked. Here's a selection of Beijing's best new (or newly included) Chinese restaurants lifted directly from the book, for your perusing pleasure.

DEYUAN ROAST DUCK, 57 DASHILAN XIJIE

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This unsung Peking duck restaurant deserves a wider following. A typically lively dining room packs in locals for its traditional take on the capital’s signature quacker, which is roasted over fruit wood, carved tableside, and sold at a price that ought to make the bigger restaurants like Quanjude and Bianyifang blush. Beijing’s ruling triumvirate of traditional meat (mutton, duck, donkey) comes in many tasty forms here, and there are a wealth of appealing stir-fries and dry pot dishes that use beef, bacon, shrimp, tofu, and country vegetables. Only about a decade old and with no “time-honored” status to fall back on, Deyuan simply cooks great food at great prices.

HANI GEJU, 48 ZHONGLOUWAN HUTONG

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A stone’s throw from the Bell Tower, this cozy Yunnan restaurant boasts a trimmed down menu of southwest Chinese fare, such as authentic Bai-minority goat cheese with bacon (smoked in-house), fluffy-centered potato balls with an addictively crisp coating, zingy mint salads, and delicate rice noodle dishes. The emphasis here is on organic sourcing, moderate seasoning, and no MSG. Innovative taster platters at lunchtime means you can sample their best dishes in mini, single-serving portions. After your meal, take a stroll through the surrounding warren of hutong alleyways, some of the most atmospheric in the city.

KING'S JOY, 2 WUDAOYING HUTONG

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The chefs at this elegantly upscale vegetarian restaurant enact miracles with tofu, mushroom, and wheat gluten. Try the sweet and sour “ribs” made from lotus root, then the rich and earthy basil-braised eggplant, and finish with glutinous rice tarts (ai wo wo) filled with sweet red bean paste and crunchy walnuts. The building, designed to resemble Beijing's traditional quadrangle courtyards (siheyuan), is enhanced by views of the Lama Temple across the street, as well as the crisp white tablecloths, fresh orchids, and harp performances inside.

KYLIN PRIVATE KITCHEN, 6 QILIN BEI HUTONG

The sky-lit, plant-strewn interior of this small hidden gem is a pleasant spot to linger over the excellent contemporary Chinese food, which often blends various styles and techniques. A highlight of the compact menu is the zhiguo (“paper pot”) dishes, featuring fragrant shrimp or green beans served in a Japanese-style paper pot over a flame. Most diners order the zijiangyu, an aromatic fish stew cooked with chillis, purple ginger and fresh Sichuan peppercorns: choose from three types of fish and three levels of spiciness. The restaurant is in a narrow alley that once housed Imperial midwives during the Ming Dynasty.

SIJI MINFU, 32 DENGSHIKOU XIJIE

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Here’s a rare thing: a local restaurant chain that insists on seasonality and says no to MSG. Folks line up out the door for the Peking duck, expertly roasted so that the skin shatters while the flesh remains unctuously tender. Also popular is the zhajiang main, Beijing’s austere signature dish of chewy wheat noodles topped with a rich meat sauce and crunchy vegetable accompaniments. A traditional dessert platter includes wandouhuang, a dense, sweet cake made from white peas, and ludagun (literally "rolling donkey"), a sticky rice cake so named because its dusting of soybean flour resembles a donkey that has rolled on the ground.

PRIVATE KITCHEN NO. 44, 70 DENSHENGMEN NEI DAJIE

"Farm to table" is the creed at this peaceful Guizhou-style restaurant west of Houhai Lake. Dishes like braised pork ribs and sticky rice wrapped in bamboo, stir-fried "country-style" vegetables rich with the sour-sharp tang of fermented bamboo, and even the house-made ice cream all use ingredients from the owner's own farms and small holdings on the outskirts of the city. Beyond an admirable commitment to sourcing, it's the little touches that make this eatery shine, such as complimentary tastings of homemade rice-wine tasters infused with rose petals and organic honey.

JING YAA TANG, 11 SANLITUN LU

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In the belly of the Opposite House hotel, this high-end Peking duck restaurant gently guides laowai (foreigners) through the crowd-pleasing hits of Chinese cuisine. A glassed-in kitchen, raised above the main dining room like a stage, reveals chefs slinging bronzed birds out of a blazing brick oven. The molasses-skinned duck is some of the best in town, and the accompaniments, like molecule-thin pancakes and a rich sauce infused with dates, completes a classy package. Accompanying dishes read like a roll call of Chinese family favorites, from mildly spiced kung pao chicken to Cantonese clay-pot fish, though the Taiwanese-style “three-cup” cod with basil ought to wow even the more seasoned palates. Save room for the delectable dan ta—Macau-style mini custard tarts.

Beijing City Guide, Singapore Airlines by Thomas O'Malley

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For Singapore Airlines, a concise Beijing City Guide with with hotel, restaurant and itinerary recommendations.

Despite its breathless march to superpower status, Beijing, bordered by Great Wall and with the Forbidden City at its heart, is a capital bound to its past. Like all great cities it’s a place of contradictions; where three million taxi drivers tune in to swashbuckling period dramas on Beijing Traffic Radio, where communist party power is absolute yet the works of contemporary artists like Ai Weiwei provoke the status quo. And despite the new highways and high rises, Beijing remains home to hundreds of miles of hutong alleyways, grid-like residential architecture with its origins in Kublai Khan’s Yuan Dynasty. In recent years, these lanes have given rise to the city’s most exciting new restaurants, bars and boutique hotels, a process of gentrification that just might help ensure their survival. Like belle époque Paris or New York in the 1920s, Beijing is a city having its ‘moment’. Teetering on the brink of a global power shift (but still remarkably affordable), make sure you can look back and say, “I was there”.

When in Beijing, don’t forget to…

  • Rise early to see the locals exercising, performing tai chi and singing revolutionary songs in Jingshan Park. Then clamber up the slope to Wangchun Pavilion and gaze out over the Forbidden City, an amber sea of arching rooftops and pavilions stretching into the haze toward Tiananmen Square.
  • Get lost in the alleyways of Dongcheng District, and discover some of Beijing’s best-preserved hutongs. Along tree-shaded lanes, fruit sellers, knife-sharpeners and coal merchants still hawk their wares from roving bicycle carts. And these days you’re just as likely to chance upon hip boutiques and hidden cocktail bars.
  • Walk the wild watchtowers at Jiankou, a crumbling stretch of Great Wall in remote mountainous countryside. Climb through woodland to Zhengbeilou, a tower popular with amateur photographers for its epic views. From there it’s a two hour hike downhill to the tourist-friendly restored stretch at Mutianyu.
  • Discover the best of Chinese contemporary art at the 798 Art District. A former munitions factory complex, China’s up-and-coming art superstars colonized its disused Bauhaus-style warehouses in the 1990s. Today it’s a bustling enclave of world-class galleries, installations, shops and cafes.
  • Discover your inner sage with a visit to the serene Confucius Temple. Wander between banks of four meter-tall stone stele inscribed with the names of scholars from centuries past, or park up on a bench to contemplate the Analects, the collected wisdom of Confucius which has influenced Chinese thought for millennia.
The Opposite House
The Opposite House

Hotels

The Opposite House This five-storey box of emerald-tinted glass, the work of Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, is hands-down the hippest address in the city. Hotel staff are ‘Guest Experience Officers’ and the 99 minimalist rooms eschew marble and carpets for stark white walls and wooden bathtubs. Guest rooms encircle an impressive atrium hung with ‘drapes’ of woven steel, with contemporary art installations on rotation. Jing Yaa Tang, designed by London-based restaurant impresario Alan Yau, is the new ‘in’ place to eat Peking duck.

Insider Tip: Mesh Bar on the ground floor is one of the most gay-friendly hangouts in the city.

The Temple Hotel The Temple Hotel occupies the grounds of Zhizusi, a beautifully restored Buddhist temple complex all but forgotten about until a few years ago. Eight rooms are shared between former monks quarters and a prayer hall (all with cosy under floor heating), and newer annexes built in the 70s when Zhizusi served as a television factory. A haven for art lovers, the hotel is strewn with contemporary painting, sculpture and custom-designed furniture. Best of all, it’s a five-minute walk through the hutongs to the northern moat of the Forbidden City.

Insider Tip: For extra privacy, one of the duplex rooms has its own entrance to the alleyway behind the temple complex – request when booking.

The Orchid A boutique sanctuary in the hutongs, The Orchid is billed as a ‘hostel for grown-ups’. This means communal breakfasts, dumpling classes and occasional wine tastings on the terrace, but you can always retire to the comfy surrounds of one of ten simple guest rooms, furnished with goose-down beds, rainforest showers and Apple TVs, some with cute private gardens and terrace space. The owners are fully clued-up on their thriving hutong neighbourhood, providing killer tips on local restaurants to aid your culinary explorations.

Insider Tip: Canadian co-owner Joel is a former tea exporter and occasionally takes guests on excellent tours of Beijing’s tea district.

Raffles Beijing Beijing’s only true ‘Grand Dame’, the 100-year old ‘Grand Hotel de Pekin’ has emerged relative unscathed after China’s turbulent 20th century. Taken over by Raffles in 2005, the chandelier-strewn lobby still oozes old-world charm, and some guest rooms boast impressive four-poster beds and retro patterned wallpaper. Beside the lobby, the centrepiece of the elegant Writer’s Bar is a wooden dance floor dating back to the 1920s, upon which Mao Zedong was known to take a turn at PLA banquets.

Insider Tip: The original rooms are in Block B, the best with views over famous Chang An Avenue. Block E is a newer edition at the back for business travellers.

China World Summit Wing Occupying the top 14 floors of Beijing’s tallest building, the Summit Wing, part of Singapore’s Shangri-La group, chooses understated style over showy luxury. From the leather-armchair strewn Residents Lobby to the expansive guest rooms mixing hard woods, feather pillows and stunning views (smog permitting), it is, as billed, a sanctuary in the clouds. Atmosphere Bar and Grill 79 are both excellent options for drinking and dining respectively, and the 25-metre infinity pool on the 78th floor might just be the highlight of your trip.

Insider Tip: Request a west-facing room for views of the Forbidden City’s rooftops on a clear day.

Temple Restaurant Beijing
Temple Restaurant Beijing

Restaurants

Temple Restaurant Beijing Sharing the same historic setting as the Temple Hotel, ‘TRB’ is the brainchild of former Maison Boulud GM Ignace Lecleir. Modern European tasting menus pay close heed to seasonality, and the wine list is one of the best in town. Complimentary plates of addictive ‘cheese puffs’ and homemade marshmallows make eating here informal and fun, and you can walk off your indulgence afterwards with a stroll around the beautiful temple grounds, dotted with sculptures by Chinese artist Wang Shugang.

Insider Tip: Visit on Sunday at sunset to catch the public viewing of Gathered Sky, a permanent light installation by acclaimed American artist James Turrell (tickets 150 RMB).

Duck de Chine Roasted for 65 minutes over 30-year old date tree wood, the Peking duck here boasts a crisp, lacquered skin more sweet and aromatic than any other. An on-site Bollinger Champagne bar (the perfect pairing, apparently) occupies part of the loft-like, industrial space, and chefs in sleek black robes carve birds tableside to the chime of a gong. The house-made hoisin, topped with sesame, peanut paste and fried garlic, puts this duck out of sight.

Insider Tip: The ‘duck liver on toast’ is a must-order appetizer - silkier and lighter than foie gras but no less delicious.

Capital M The sister restaurant to Shanghai’s game-changing M on the Bund, Capital M combines casually elegant fine-dining with unrivalled views of Tiananmen Square. The food is straightforward and likable, from the signature suckling pig to ‘M’s famous pavlova’ (a nod to owner Michelle Garnaut’s Australian roots). Embossed tableware, Nepalese rugs and open fireplaces add to the sense of occasion, and the shaded terrace is perfect for sunny brunches or evening cocktails in the warmer months.

Insider Tip: The afternoon tea from 3pm on Saturday and Sunday is the most beautifully presented in town, with a triple-tiered dessert platter and a wide choice of brews and infusions.

Brian McKenna @ The Courtyard Revived under the stewardship of British chef Brian McKenna, The Courtyard is one of the most romantic restaurants in town thanks to its perch overhanging the Forbidden City’s moat. A designer makeover from the team behind W New York provides a suitably stylish setting to sample the 888 RMB tasting menu, a molecular style march of kitchen trickery and an unhealthy amount of foie-gras, that finishes with a delightful chocolate riff on China’s Terracotta Warriors.

Insider Tip: A hat tip to Heston Blumenthal, the ‘garden salad’ here consists of edible soil, rocks and plants and comes with a miniature rake and spade for cutlery.

Haidilao This raucously stylish Sichuan chain serves some of the best hot pot in Beijing. The perfect winter warmer, diners cook strips of thinly sliced lamb and beef, plus fresh veggies, ‘shrooms, tofu, noodles and more, by dunking them in a cauldron of spicy (or non-spicy) soup. The service at Haidilao goes the extra mile with free drinks refills and snacks, and even a complimentary manicure and fruit plate for diners waiting to be seated.

Insider Tip: Order the gongfu mian and the restaurant will summon dancing noodle-twirlers to perform theatrically at your table.

Click here to read the full Beijing City Guide.

Craft beer in China - where's it headed? by Thomas O'Malley

This article about the state and fate of craft beer in China was first published in Higher View Magazine. 

China has two extremes of alcohol consumption: baijiu and beer. The first: a clear, grain-distilled spirit older than Buddhism with a kick like a Bactrian camel. The second: industrially produced lager.

Beer in China traces its youthful origins to breweries set up by Russian and German settlers at the turn of the 20th century. Today it’s homogonous, abundant and affordable. Three words anathema to the connoisseur of craft beer. But fear not, for China is toasting the arrival of the microbrew. U.S. and European craft beer imports are at a record high. Western-run brewpubs like Shanghai’s Boxing Cat, The Brew and Doctor Beer, and Beijing’s Great Leap Brewing and Slow Boat are expanding operations. Pretty soon pairing your braised sea cucumber with a chilled glass of pumpkin stout will be par for the course, right?

Steady on. Like drinkers of any creed, the Chinese are loyal to their own brands. Take one example you might not have heard of. Snow is the world’s biggest selling beer. It’s about 2.8% ABV, making it an oft-enjoyed water substitute at meal times. It costs peanuts. (And washes them down pretty well, too). The toughest obstacle craft beer faces is convincing the Chinese consumer that there exists a luxury product that is still called beer.

Luxury is hardly a new concept in China, of course. From the Tang to the Qing, people demanded the finest craftsmanship in their silk and ceramics. But in today’s era of the brand, success means making a product with a story that Chinese consumers can rally behind. Up to now, too much of the craft beer being produced in China has relied on imported ingredients, concepts and marketing angles.

The good news is that companies are bucking this trend. Great Leap Brewing’s beers are local from the bottom up, using Chinese hops and malts, and flavourings like Sichuan peppercorn, Fujian tea and Shandong honey. “Our beers reference Chinese literature or history,” says American-born founder Carl Setzer, “and the Chinese name always comes before the English on our labels.” In Shanghai, after three years mostly targeting the expat market, Boxing Cat brewer Mike Jordan is starting to experiment with local flavours like his Bruce ChiLee IPA, made with Chinese green chillies. Le Ble D'or, a recent Taiwanese brewpub brand, have opened a cavernous flagship in Suzhou. Change is afoot, but it’s a long road to revolution.

So what of the future? Japan offers an interesting case study, also dominated by monolithic German-inspired lager brands introduced in the 19th century. In 1994, the market was deregulated, permitting small-scale commercial brewing. At the time there was a single microbrewery in operation; now there are more than 200. Venerable sake makers are today creating award-winning, Japan-centric beers by combining their mastery of fermentation with local ingredients like yuzu and sweet potatoes. In some circles, 2012 in Japan is being dubbed the ‘Year of Craft Beer’.

So if it took the neighbours a couple of decades to succumb to the microbrew, China’s plucky band of craft beer pioneers can take solace from that, and know that growth will only come carefully, cautiously, one glass at a time.