No one has watched Beijing’s bar scene with an unswerving gaze longer than Jim Boyce (above, second from right), founder of the Beijing Boyce and Grape Wall of China blogs. Having seen its development for more than the past decade, we asked Boyce for his views on baijiu, craft beer, and drinking in a slowing economy.
The Beijinger (TBJ): What’s new in Beijing's bar scene and what do you think of those trends?
Jim Boyce (JB): The number of choices we have continues to grow. It's hard to believe how far we've come from a decade ago when a dozen single malts justified calling a place a “whiskey bar” and people got excited if they spotted Samuel Adams on a menu. Now bar shelves are increasingly packed with all manner of arcane gin, rum, whiskey and other spirit brands, we have more craft beers and brew pubs than ever before, and there is a slew of new cocktail joints, including a quick favorite, the tiki drink-focused Bungalow.
We also see even more collaborations, especially between craft brew operations and everything from five-star hotels to standalone restaurants to snack food makers. That goes beyond Beijing to partnering with establishments from other cities and even other nations, with the vendors at Beijing's beer festivals the most vivid examples. Add the range of items being made in-house at bars, from ginger beer to infusions to bitters, and there is an impressive amount of energy and creativity these days.
We should note that Weixin/WeChat has played a positive role in terms of collaboration over the past few years. Many people in the trade are active on a daily basis in groups where they share ideas, advice, and contacts, not to mention lots of jokes, and this has allowed the bar scene to blossom even faster.
TBJ: We’ve seen some high-profile closures over the last 12 months. How does that affect the scene's development?
JB: The scene is so vast that closures are easily absorbed and usually only affect a small group of people. The Den closed after 18 years and is mourned by veteran bar-goers, but how many of today's drinkers had been there? The same goes for Ichikura [which has since reopened in Gongti]. I rank it among Beijing's all-time, top 10 cocktail bars but it wasn't on the radar for the many new drinkers. That's the thing: the scene was so small a decade or two ago that you could easily visit most venues in a few months. Now it's hard to even keep up with the openings. I mean, Jazz-Ya opened 20 years and continues to be busy but when was the last time you heard anyone talk about that place?
TBJ: You’ve started a craft beer page on Beijing Boyce due to the number of requests. What's getting more attention these days, craft beer or cocktails?
JB: That’s a tough one. Both scenes are steadily growing and improving and I especially like the new Arrow Factory. But to switch tipples, what isn't doing so well is wine. The range available in Beijing is impressive, with hundreds of good labels from more than 20 countries, but few wine venues blend good service, staff knowledge, and value, especially compared to beer and cocktail bars. It's partly because margins are tougher, since people can easily check markups whereas they're unlikely to price the ingredients in a cocktail, but it's also due to a lack of wine or market knowledge on the part of owners. The poster child of this was Bar Veloce, a wine bar that was supposed to take us up a notch but that quickly closed and was superseded by Jing-A Taproom. Even so, given the growth of the beer and cocktail scenes, my guess is the time is ripe for more quality wine options to pop up during the next year or two.
TBJ: The economy is slowing down. How is that affecting people's drinking habits?
JB: It’s slowed but it hasn't stopped and there are still plenty of people going out to eat and drink. I do think times are tougher for many bars and restaurants, but much of that has to do with increased competition and rising rent and labor costs. Finding staff and handling landlords are major headaches for most business owners. But we live in an increasingly cosmopolitan city of more than 20 million people, so unless the economy falls apart, there should be a growing base of customers interested in bars. The big questions are how many more bars open and what kinds of costs they face?
TBJ: You’re big on the baijiu. Does this trend have a future or is it still at a nascent stage?
JB: A lot of people really want baijiu to happen, both here and overseas, in terms of people appreciating this spirit like they would a single malt or quality tequila or enjoying it in cocktails and infusions. Baijiu has received a massive amount of buzz over the last year, including from most major US TV and newspaper outlets, but it's still a novelty. To be fair, it will take time for interest to grow, and even in Beijing I only know of two dedicated bars: En Vain, which opened in Sanlitun Soho in 2013 and just closed as the owners seek a new space, and Capital Spirits, which opened in 2014. But it's going to take a lot of work to shift perceptions of this spirit and I say that as someone who started World Baijiu Day [which falls on August 9 this year] and would like to see it happen.
More stories by this author here.
Photo courtesy of Jim Boyce
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