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Homebrewing in China

Brewing my own beer is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. Particularly for a beer aficionado living in China, it’s a real temptation. On this side of the world there just isn’t much of a beer culture. People drink to get drunk, but they don’t care about the taste, so finding a nice beer can be a challenge.

In recent years the situation has improved somewhat, and there is now a small craft brewing scene, but that largely extends to the big cities. Out in the sticks, where I live, good beers are few and far between. You can buy some imported European beers at many supermarkets, but they’re not particularly good. In order to find a nice beer you need to visit a big city, where there are expat populations and Chinese people with more international tastes.

Fortunately, China is home to an amazing shopping platform called Taobao, which pretty much sells everything you could want. Enterprising merchants capitalize on any upcoming trend, and so even home brewing equipment can be bought. I spent a while researching and translating and then rounded up the materials on Taobao for a mere 800rmb ($118).

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My primitive but incredibly cheap Chinese homebrew kit.

A few days later, the equipment arrived at my house. I have a friend in Hefei who has his own beer factory and he took the train to Huainan with some grains, hops, and yeast, to show me how it’s done. We spent an evening brewing an unusual amber ale-IPA hybrid beer that was to be Huainan’s inaugural homebrew.

Ingredients

Grain:

3.5kg German Vienna

1.5kg German CaraRed

1kg Belgian Aromatic

Hops:

25g Herkules

60g Citra

Yeast:

Safbrew Wheat Beer Yeast

Making beer with a self-assembled kit is always going to be an adventure, especially when none of the component parts were ever intended for brewing beer. However, after six hours it appeared to be a success. Finally, we had about five gallons of beer sitting in the fermentation bucket, and I was tasked with the unenviable job of sitting and watching it bubble away for the next month, knowing that I couldn’t open it no matter how good it smelled.

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The sparging process.

Bottling

After waiting for a month, I had to bottle the beer myself. My friend from Hefei wasn’t here to help me and I was paranoid about the beer getting infected. Thankfully, though, I read online that because the beer is now alcoholic, the chance of infection has been significantly reduced. Still, I dutifully set about disinfecting everything – a process that somehow took me several hours.

For this step, I had bought 50 bottles. These 300ml brown beer bottles cost 1.6rmb ($0.24) each, including shipping, and arrived within a day and a half of ordering. Taobao has become my favourite app.

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50 brown beer bottles – another Taobao bargain.

The bottling process went pretty well, as I syphoned the beer from the fermentation bucket back into the big metal brew pot, which had a tap on the side. However, below the tap line I had to syphon into the bottles, and lost about a bottle’s worth of beer due to spillage. It turns out that syphoning manually is not as easy as it looks.

While bottling, I took a half pint for sampling purposes and was surprised to find that my beer tasted like a chocolate stout – that was very unexpected because its ingredients suggested an amber/IPA. Anyway, it had only just emerged from the fermentation pot and still had a month to go in the bottles. I knew its taste at this point wouldn’t be particularly close to the finished version.

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A beautiful sight – 46 bottles of homebrew.

Tasting

I got 46 bottles of beer in the end, and stored them in a big cardboard box. However, the temptation to drink them was hard to resist… I knew I should leave them in the bottle at least a few weeks before drinking, but it’s hard to sit and look at so many bottles of beer and not have the occasional sample.

After exactly one week, I had a friend over and we opened one bottle to sample it – for scientific purposes, of course. After all, a brewer needs to know what’s going on in the bottles.

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A surprisingly dark colour for an IPA.

Week 1

The beer tasted very sweet at first, with a rather sour aftertaste. It bore little resemblance to the pre-bottled “chocolate stout” flavor – although perhaps that might relate to this beer having been refrigerated, while the first sampling had been at room temperature.

It was not particularly hoppy to the tongue, although it certainly smelled like an IPA. The colour was still incredibly dark, although it had lightened ever so slightly.

Week 2

The taste changed yet again. The slight chocolatey taste returned, but the sweetness, perhaps paradoxically, had abated. The hops were now coming into play and the sour aftertaste had vanished. It was rounding out as a decent IPA, albeit it had some quirks that gave away its hybrid nature. The colour was still very dark, making it look almost like a porter.

Verdict

I declare this first experiment with homebrewing to have been a success… although I admit that I did have a professional guiding me through the actual brewing part of the process. Given that the beer is technically part amber ale, and that it will be ready for drinking come early November (that will be the three week mark), I’ve decided to call it Novamber Ale.  I mocked up a label on Photoshop, although I don’t think the beer will even sit in the bottles long enough to print them off.

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A good beer needs a good name.

In any case, I’m happy with how this beer turned out and very eager to get started on a new beer that will be brewed 100% by me. I’m going to Hefei to pick up some ingredients next weekend, and hopefully will have a new beer to sample near Christmas.

 

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Using the Internet in China

Today I woke up and saw that the internet had gone done across much of the Western world… or at least that’s how it was presented. Twitter and Reddit were down, and a ton of other sites. It had all happened while I was asleep because I live on the other side of the world, in China.

Where did I see this news? The same place people get most of their news these days – Facebook, Twitter, Reddit. In this hyper-connected world of ours, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of the internet, and in particular social media. I wonder what would happen if the attack had been bigger… much bigger. How would people survive? How would they even know what’s going on? Of course, those of us who lived pre-Facebook would adapt pretty quickly, but the others? For them, it would probably feel like the apocalypse.

I don’t need to use much imagination to get inside the minds of those who tried and failed to get online last night. Living in China, not being able to get on the above mentioned websites is pretty common. For me to visit Facebook this morning, or, for that matter, almost any website I regularly use, required me to use a VPN. I pay about $100 per year for this service, which I think is very reasonable. Overall, it’s pretty good. I’m able to check my e-mail and do most basic things I need to. Sometimes, I’m able to watch videos on YouTube – although it can be slow and frustrating.

Without a VPN, the websites that you can visit from China are pretty limited in number, and those which are technically open are usually excruciatingly slow. Sometimes, it can actually be impossible to get any functionality from them whatsoever. To be honest, I don’t even try any more. If my VPN is down, I take a deep breath and then spend my time doing something offline – like going for a run or reading a book. It’s particularly aggravating, however, when I need to do something – like answer an important e-mail, prepare for class, or do some research. It is terribly frustrating to know that I need to do something, yet the rules made by a group of corrupt sociopaths in the government to keep their populace in the dark about their shady practices ensures that my work sometimes needs to be hindered.

But it’s best not to think about it when possible.

The internet in China is not all bad. I live in a small town in the middle of nowhere and yet I get a relatively fast connection at home or via 4G. This place is almost third world, yet even here amidst the poverty and ancient superstitions, we can stream music or movies. Assuming I want to use a Chinese website, it works great. Of course, that severely limits my internet use. If I want to use WeChat to talk to friends, great! If I want to download music from QQ or KuGou, fantastic! Taobao and Alipay are brilliant apps, too. Beyond that, the Chinese internet is sort of like the more vapid parts of the real internet – aka what you can access beyond the Great Firewall. Imagine the idiots you went to school with, for whom the most important thing in the world is who won last night’s celebrity-reality-variety-chat show, or whatever gossip has inexplicably gotten its way onto the front page of the tabloid “news” papers. Imagine the sort of vapid crap that they post on social media, and then tone its intellectual level down even further, translate into Chinese, and add more noise and bright colours. Thanks to censorship, there simply is modern culture in China.

Of course, it goes without saying that being offline is no bad thing. I loved traipsing through Southern Africa or sailing along the Indonesian archipelago, completely disconnected from the internet, with absolutely no way of getting online – no notifications, no pings, no bleeps. It felt great. But that’s not really possible or desirable in day-to-day life, even out in the boondocks of China. Surrounded by the majesty of nature, technology can seem an unpleasant distraction, but in the polluted, grey, backwards wastelands of Anhui Province, it is more like a lifeline. Moreover, I’m a teacher and if I need ideas or resources for class, I need the internet. I’m a writer and editor, so I need the internet to research or publish. I live on the opposite side of the globe from my friends and family, so I need the internet to communicate.

There are innumerable reasons why living in China can be difficult, and the internet may seem like a trivial one, but it really isn’t. I can’t abide censorship, and when that censorship – perpetrated, like all censorships, for spurious reasons – negatively effects my life, my business, my ability to teach using the best available resources… well, that is what I consider intolerable living conditions. If the government announced tomorrow that they were cracking down on VPNs, I’d be on a flight out of here the next day – or at least I’d try, but without access to SkyScanner or eBookers it might be difficult.

So, looking across the world at the turmoil of a temporary disconnection from the internet, I do feel a certain empathy. It’s easy to mock, but being forced offline when you genuinely need to be online can be more than an inconvenience.