Lots of things are good and interesting about today's China, but beer is not among them. It's cheap and abundant, but also watery and bland. Many of the tales of heartbreak in Tim Clissold's Mr. China relate to the frustrations in trying to start beer factories in China. I have heard from a veteran of the industry one plausible-sounding hypothesis about the root of the problem: Companies hire a foreign brewmaster, who lays out steps 1 through 10 in producing a genuine, good beer. Then the brewmaster goes away, and his local successors figure that they can turn out more beer faster if they skip steps 2, 5, 8, and 9.
Or, the recipe calls for one pound of hops per brewing session -- but the hops are expensive, and once the brewmaster is gone the operators figure there is no point wasting them when you can do the job with 2 ounces.
Thus the local buzz in Shanghai about a new establishment near the Bund, Henry's Brewery and Grill. At least this evening, it was operating in conditions of some adversity. Without warning, workers had arrived in the morning to demolish the sidewalk on that whole block of the street, so simply getting into the place involved scaling of masonry mounds. But it was worth it. A five-beer sampler set shows off the range from a good, strong Pale Ale to a nice-for-a-summer-day Raspberry Helles. (Too bad it was freezing outside.) That will be enough to draw me back frequently.
The real payoff this evening was a very long discussion with the owner and founder, a Shanghainese who left for the U.S. more than twenty five years ago and now is back because, among other reasons, he wants to "bring beer culture" to his native country. By which he means something more sweeping than the beer itself, much as Starbucks has created a different kind of culture here that transcends coffee. He says he has in mind an openness to new experiences, an insistence on a certain level of quality and customer service, a different kind of social interaction, etc.
For the moment: anyone who likes beer and is in or near Shanghai should support this institution.
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