Bitter-sweet: Brewing for Chinese palates
Wolfgang Sesser knows all about making beer for the Chinese, who have very different tastes from Westerners. Now brewmaster at Beijing’s Paulaner Bräuhaus, he has also done stints brewing for Paulaner in former Chinese capital Nanjing and for Hofbräuhaus in Shanghai.
While the vast majority of Chinese will avoid very bitter beer, there are also significant regional differences in the extent to which this applies. “In Nanjing, they like everything a little sweeter, from their food to their beer,” Sesser says. “So I didn’t ferment it very high, and I put less hops inside. The people loved it in Nanjing, but it wouldn’t work here in Beijing. Customers would complain it was too sweet.”
Sesser, who made just over 250 1,000-liter brews in Beijing in 2012, has to work within the boundaries that the Paulaner top brass in Munich set for their licensees. They dictate a standard recipe but allow their brewers around the world to adapt it within reason to suit local tastes. “I am briefed to make a Munich-style beer. I can’t make a lager and have it taste like honey water,” Sesser explains.
The Austrian adds that the established protocol is for new Paulaner brauhauses abroad to follow the recipe exactly at first, then get feedback from customers.
Practical considerations play a major role in determining the raw materials to be used. His barley comes from Australia, malted in Beijing, and the hops are all imported from Bavaria. While Sesser’s hops are the only ingredient that matches what his counterparts use in Munich, he uses them much more sparingly, more for aroma than bittering.
The local water needs to be heavily treated. Chinese authorities inject a lot of chlorine, a practice that blitzes any contaminants compromising safety but would interfere with brewing if not countered. The natural hardness of Beijing’s H2O is also more conducive to bitter beers, which Sesser wants to avoid.
Above all, the Paulaner brewmaster is conscious to work within his means and not be overambitious. He uses dry yeast from France because his brauhaus lacks space for yeast management.
And while customers can get a stein of fresh-brewed lager or “dark beer” at Paulaner Beijing, its weissbier, the third permanently available variety, is imported. This is because the brewery was never designed for fermentation at the high pressures required for wheat beer. Management estimated that this would be an unpopular style when it was installing the kit in the early 1990s. Sesser says he could make a wheat beer onsite, but it wouldn’t be up to his exacting standards.
Instead, he rolls out a number of regular seasonal brews, mostly much more alcoholic than mainstream domestic brands. While the lager and dark beer are both 5 percent ABV, Sesser’s May bock beer is 6.5 percent. His only concession to the stereotypical Chinese aversion to strong beers came with a “light beer” of 4 percent ABV, first brewed for summer 2012. People liked it (“even foreigners!”), so production was ramped up in 2013.
Sesser also brews an Oktoberfest beer and another bock for Christmas. Is there any German style that he wouldn’t brew? Pils from northern Germany, he answers. Far too bitter.
But he wants to try a smoked beer on the conservative Chinese one day, despite some doubt that the flavor profile will appeal. “After all,” he adds, “if the local people don’t like it, I have Germans who will finish the tank!”