Long the home of weak lager, Beijing is in the midst of a craft-beer revolution that may finally see Tsingtao deposed from its position as the go-to brew for Peking punters. The epicenter of this uprising is the hipster neighborhood of Gulou, or Drum Tower, where tree-lined alleys connect several rapidly expanding brewing operations.
Worshiped as they may be by parched or picky expats, these microbreweries aren't easy to find among the winding hutongs, or narrow lanes, of the old city. Great Leap Brewing, the brainchild of American brewmaster Carl Setzer, sits behind a steel door attached to an otherwise innocuous-looking old gateway into what was once a private library. The 110-year-old building encircles a pleasantly ramshackle courtyard where in-the-know Western businessmen quaff the best beer in Beijing. Great Leap incorporates locally sourced ingredients like Sichuan peppercorns to flavor its exotic brews, which are nicely complemented by free bowls of chilli-peanuts.
Though Setzer has opened up a new, bigger Great Leap in another part of town, the Gulou spot is only a short walk from Malty Dog, a newcomer to the local scene that is gathering its own following. The brews here are less sophisticated than Great Leap's, but the atmosphere is more charged, with louder music and a younger crowd. The ever-so-slightly spicy Countryside Ginger goes down exceptionally well.
An even better selection of local ales waits a little bit south – a bicycle ride is always in order – at Slowboat Brewery Taproom. Great Leap's main rival is a more cosmopolitan, slicker affair with its own bathroom, a rarity for a hutong bar. The building, in another centuries-old alley, has been renovated into an almost modern establishment. The bartenders here claim to have more ales on tap than any other bar in the city: Start with Flying Whale IPA and move on to one of the coffee porters.
More information: The neighborhood of Gulou (pronounced "goo-low") is in Beijing's north-central district of Dongcheng. Nearest subway station to Great Leap Brewing is Nanluoguxiang (Line 6). Nearest to Malty Dog: Gulou Dajie (Line 2). Nearest to Slowboat Brewery Taproom: Zhangzizhonglu (Line 5). Note that many bars in Beijing, including the three mentioned here, are closed on Mondays.