Xian is probably best known as the place you stay when visiting the breathtaking Terracota Army. It’s the oldest of the ancient capitals having accommodated thirteen dynasties since 221 BCE and is the eastern end of the Silk Roads
The old city is surrounded by a stunning 14th century fortified wall, 12m high and beautifully preserved, the perfectly rectangular Unesco World Heritage site, at 14km in length, takes a whole morning to walk round, although the previous Tang Dynasty (618 – 904 AD) wall encompassed eight times the area of the current wall. And yes, I walked the whole lot of it.
Despite the wonderful heritage and a population of around 12 million, Xian seems to lack the new wave brewing focus of Beijing and Shanghai. Will Yorke at Arrow Factory Brewing warned me about this and kindly passed me along the ex-pats brewing network into the hands of Jon Therrian, owner and brewer of the very impressive Xian Brewery.
Jon started brewing at the appropriately named Near Wall Bar, just inside the cities Southern gate. Near Wall Bar is still going strong and the brew kit is still used, but the lions share of production happens in an impressive bespoke brewhouse cum American style bar outside the old walls.
If you head off out of town towards the Tang Dynasty, Big Goose Pagoda and keep going the brewery is in a shopping mall development. You can either walk in from the pedestrian area outside or upstairs, from inside the shopping mall itself. The whole district and historic Pagoda is well worth a visit, particularly during the evening when it’s all lit up.
The brewery is on the ground floor with all the shiny kit behind a glass wall. There’s a small bar at the side of the brewery and it’s got a proper tap room feel to it, the various brewing smells confirming you’re in a proper working environment.
Originally from Cleveland Ohio, Jon came over to the UK and did a Brewlab course back in 2013. While he was back in the states working as a brewer he teamed up with a Chinese lad and came over to Xian about five years ago.
Although he learned his trade brewing English style beers in Sunderland, Jon likes to brew anything and everything. When he first started up in China the craft beer scene was only just emerging and he had to be careful to stick to conservative, mass appeal beers; session IPA’s and Wheat beers.
As time has progressed he’s been able to experiment and put out the sort of beers he likes to brew and drink. Jon was quite frank regarding the whole ethos and strategy behind what he was doing.
In a country where you can buy Tsingtao anywhere at something like 70p a pint Jon said it was important to price his beers so the customer would recognise them as a quality premium product. Something very important within the Chinese craft beer market.
People want a high quality product, which they are wiling to pay for, and to be seen doing so. Jon said he’d love to do something like a Chocolate Mild but the local market just wouldn’t get it and would think the relatively low ABV would mean it wasn’t a premium product.
In any case, there is no way Jon could get anywhere near the mass produced market prices with the high quality ingredients he was using and even if he could price his beer so cheap he wouldn’t be able to produce enough to cope with the demand. I mentioned in a previous post Maris Otter cost around £1.20 – £1.40 a kilo out here and there was an awful lot of it kicking around in the brewery.
I saw quite a lot of shades of the UK craft beer pricing strategies behind what Jon was saying. I know a lot of people won’t agree with me, but I get it, it makes sense and you can’t expect Mercedes quality for Dacia prices.
Each brew at Xian is 1000L and all the core beers go straight from the fermenter into what are effectively the modern equivalent of the old ‘Grundy Tanks’ that were found in many Working Mens Clubs and larger UK pubs during the 60’s and 70’s. The beer goes straight from the tank to the bar upstairs.
The basic plan is the thirsty hordes are contained in the large glitzy, swish bar and dining room upstairs and the little ground floor tap room is reserved for the more esoteric, interesting brews.
Although we jumped straight in at the deep end with the silly stuff it’s probably logical to start with the taster flight of core beers we drank in the upstairs bar with a tray of snacks and possibly the best fries I’ve had for a long while.
Quality wise, the main bar is on a par with Shanghai’s Goose Island tap house, only better because they don’t have a pool table, or a floor to ceiling TV along one wall. I chickened out at the offer of a game of pool from Jon, I’ve never quite got the hang of the full size American pool balls.
The core range included; Classic Wit, Milk Stout, Citra IPA, Pilsner, Strawberry Wit and their own Cider. I thought the 6.2% Milk Stout was delicious but Jon said the Classic Wit was by far his biggest selling beer. He’d only just changed the lager style from Kölsch to Pilsner and was keen to know what we thought? I thought everything was very, very good if I’m being honest.
The smaller batch beers were even better though. Coffee Stout (7.3%) was exactly what it said. The Tripel Stout Porter, a 13% collaboration brew with Swedish brewer Smedbo Slott was something else with it’s complex stone fruit, hint of raspberry, coffee taste. Jon explained they’d used Belgian yeast and had to wait for spring and warm weather as they couldn’t ferment it out in winter.
They’ve done a fair bit of collaboration brewing, including with my favourites Wylam. The latest one with Duges Bryggeri, was being brewed for an ‘8 x 8’ festival featuring eight of the best Chinese and eight Scandinavian brewers.
I could go on and on about the beers. The sours were excellent. The various IPA’s I could have drunk all day. Okay, it might look like the craft beer equivalent of a Gin Palace for the masses and an awful lot of investment has gone into the project, but at the heart of it is a very fine brewery producing some very accomplished and, even by UK/European standards, some cutting edge brewing.
After three and a half weeks, five Chinese cities, and lots of beer, I have to say that Xian Brewery was the standout drinking experience for me. If you transplanted this place into Leeds, Manchester or London (other UK cities are available) it would be an instant hit and people would be clambering for cans of their small batch releases – need I say more?