Panda Brew: Leading the Chinese Craft Beer Revolution

One night in Edinburgh We are all gathered round, bunched together and sitting on desks, as we await the moment we’ve been anticipating all day at Flavourly HQ in Edinburgh. We sit quietly, attentively and yet still energetically, watching with expectation for the evening’s festivities to begin. With a pop and a gentle hiss, Pan Dinghao pulls the top off a bottle of PandaBrew beer, pours it into an awaiting tulip glass and begins to speak.

I should explain, PandaBrew cofounders Pan Dinghao and Kurt Xia are in town and, now, their beers are in your box. For the very first time, China’s leading craft beer brand has come to the UK and the Flavourly community are the first people to get their hands on these incredible, unique beers.

If you didn’t know, PandaBrew is one of the chief innovators in the fledgling Chinese scene. Their Beijing brewpub has become a haven for beer geeks in China’s capital, a two-floor mecca for good beer and good times, while their beers have introduced the people of the People’s Republic to great beer.

Pan takes us through the core six of PandaBrew’s range – Panda Eyes Red Honey Ale, Kuding Pale Ale, Safe Date Ginger Ale, Aviator Single Hop IPA, Outlaw Witbier and Mocking Imperial Stout – telling us their stories, their ingredients, their flavour profiles and the brewing philosophy behind each of them. It’s an eye-opening experience, one that opens us up to an entirely new (so similar, yet so different) area of the craft beer world.

The Kuding Pale Ale seamlessly blends the customary, bittersweet flavours of malts and hops with traditional Chinese tea herb Kuding. In their Safe Date Ginger Ale, specially imported European malts pair up (deliciously) with old ginger from Shan Dong to produce a beer unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before. Every sip brings something familiar alongside some new. PandaBrew’s beers are unmistakably different, unmistakably Chinese.

A different kind of craft
There’s more between UK and Chinese craft beers than the (roughly) 5000 miles they travelled to reach our shores; a completely different set of palates means a completely different approach to brewing if PandaBrew want to appeal to their local market.

I speak to Sam from PandaBrew who explains: “Chinese beer drinkers are more inclined to drink lighter beers with low IBUs – like wheat beers. Because Chinese people’s taste is relatively light and, at the same time, the development of craft beer in China is relatively late, people haven’t found it easy to accept beer with a high degree of bitterness.

“From the very beginning, we made our position that PandaBrew is for everyone in China. PandaBrew serves for Chinese people’s tastes, brewing for every Chinese person.”

Try some tasty Panda Brew for yourself!

With this in mind, the team at PandaBrew have had to put a focus on brewing incredibly balanced beers that put as much (if not more) emphasis on the malts as they do hops – a relatively rare sight in the western beer scene.

Their most popular beer – Panda Eyes Red Honey Ale – takes on only the slightest hint of bitterness from American hops, with Australian malts and the finest Baihua honey from China taking starring roles. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a traditional English ale – with the powerful malt character – were it not for the added intrigue of the Chinese honey. It’s all finished with just a flash of dry, spiced bitterness. ‘Balanced’ is absolutely the word.

Even their most challenging beer – the 10% ABV, 60 IBU Mocking Imperial Stout – is more balanced than you would ever believe when looking at it on paper, and it’s named for this fact. “The pursuit in craft beer is not high ABV, high IBU, high aroma,” Sam says. “Malt, hops and yeast are the variables of beer, and the brewer’s job is to find balance, that equilibrium point between these materials. This beer is to mock those fake masters who have the wrong understanding of craft beer. The real challenge in a brewer’s life is true balance.”

When drinking Mocking Imperial Stout, you’re never hit over the head with its mammoth 10% ABV. Nor are you ever blown away by its 60 International Bitterness Units.

Instead, what you have is a real depth of flavours; dark chocolate, rich espresso and a slightly biscuity malt sweetness, backed up by a rich malty aroma. It’s full-bodied yet soft and delicate. It’s both bitter and sweet in just the right amounts. The balance on show is a truly remarkable feat.

While the palate of the Chinese craft beer drinker may have painted PandaBrew into a corner, this has forced their hand to think differently, to innovate and to achieve a balance in their beers like few others have.

An international approach
Though firmly and proudly Chinese, there’s a global approach to things at PandaBrew too. While their water is sourced from the deep-layer underground Dongtinghu lake in Hunan Province, their malts mainly come from Australia and Germany (a fine choice), their hops from America (as you would) and their yeast from Belgium (where else?).

Their personnel, too, comes with a touch of international flair. Like so many of the UK’s top brewers, PandaBrew head brewer Chen Zhengying received his masters in Brewing and Distilling from the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh – where he would make experimental homebrews in the flat of (now Stewart Brewing head brewer) Craig Scotland.

In fact, if you were lucky enough to be in Edinburgh last September, you may even have tried one of these experimental collaborations yourself when Chen and Craig teamed up at Stewart Brewing to produce Flying Panda, a scotch ale with peated malt and rye – inspired by Chen’s love of Scotch whisky.

The craft beer revolution in China
The craft beer revolution is said to have really kicked off in China in 2012. Sam says: “From that time to now, five years, the development of Chinese craft beer brands has been amazing. In the Chinese first-tier cities, a large number of pioneering craft beer brands have emerged; in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Wuhan, Chongqing, Nanjing and other places, craft beer has been a booming trend.

“Even in the two or three-tier cities, the development of craft beer also has good prospects, and even Tibet and Ningxia have their own brewing brands.”

Though the movement may be relatively young, it’s clear that Chinese beer drinkers are going through the same metamorphosis as their counterparts in the UK before them. With palates and demand changing, it’s now up to the brewers to give the people what they want and to make sure the scene continues to thrive. With great breweries like PandaBrew and the innovative beers they’re producing at the helm, though, it’s safe to say that the Chinese craft beer revolution is in very good hands.

Originally published in Issue 10 of Flavourly magazine. Written by Kevin O’Donnell.

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