Fancy a Pint? Beijing's Hand Pumped Cask Beer Brewery

By Mike Fox, June 21, 2024

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If there is one social glue that binds British people together, it’s beer. The phrase “fancy a pint?” is notorious to those familiar with UK drinking culture, and although the Irish, Americans, Chinese and Australians, to name a few, can boast unique alcohol traditions, there’s a timeless sensibility that comes with the kingdom’s classic pub setting. While the customs — and, unfortunately, the carnage — of Brits boozing have been successfully exported around the world, the beer hasn’t been.  

Akira Sakura is hoping to change that. The 42-year-old Middlesbrough native has a passion for brewing, which has turned a once beloved hobby into his main occupational purpose. Amateur bathtub brewers are a dedicated bunch whose fandom towards their favorite drink is undimmed by lack of facility, and Sakura is no different.

“I have zero training,” he tells That’s.

“I started brewing in 2014 just by myself. Most people buy a simple brewing technique kit and all you do is basically add hot water and try to ferment it. Hopefully you get some drinkable beer at the end! I was doing this and putting it in my bathtub to keep it cool.”

202406/1lq.jpgSakura in the brewing process at Oak and Iron. Image via Akira

“I’ve been brewing more productively and more focused on the consumer recently rather than just my friends. I just talk to people. I meet lots of different people, like home brewers, professional brewers. Sometimes we have a day where everyone comes round, and we all brew a beer together. It’s about getting everyone together and throwing ideas out and just seeing what pops.”

Sakura’s bar, Oak and Iron, opened in Beijing in 2018. A tattoo artist by trade, he had moved to China’s capital three years previously with his now-wife and wanted to platform his creations. But when the pandemic came knocking a couple of years later, so did the problems with running an establishment without customers. However, he fully admits the business side was never his forte and without the hassle of a space to run, the product can now take center stage.

202406/2lq.jpgOne of the more complex stages of the beer-making process. Image via Akira 

“At the time we opened our bar, I don’t think I understood the gravity of what I was doing,” the Englishman candidly admits.

“I thought I could brew a little bit of beer and we could just sail through. But actually the bar got kind of popular, and I couldn’t brew enough beer to keep up with the demand. It was stressful because I had to wake up at 6am, start brewing and then work at the bar at night. I have felt tempted to go back into the bar game but not with me at the helm. That’s not what I’m good at. I’m not very good with the logistics side of it.”

Luckily, the logistics and distribution sides are being dealt with by long-term Beijing bar proprietor Zak Elmasri, who discovered Sakura’s beers on a visit to Oak and Iron a few years ago. The British pair are now in partnership at Gulou District bar The Factory, where those beers have found a new home with the addition of a traditional and historically complex ale.

202406/3lq.jpg

The barrels where Oak and Iron beer is stored, important part for bar owners. Image via Akira 

The history of British beer isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. Its consumption in medieval times, for example, was borne out of sanitary necessity, with drinking water of that period being about as safe as one of Richard III’s nephews. In its most traditional forms, it doesn’t travel well either and cask-conditioned bitter typically goes off in three days after being opened. That’s where these two come in.

“To produce any beer is basically the same. You brew it, you ferment it, then you package it and sell it,” Sakura states, firmly.

“The thing with cask is that you need a relationship between the brewer and the vendor. They need to know everything about the procedure. We work really well together because we nail down every aspect of it. The biggest difficulty is when the beer leaves the brewery for the bar. At that point it is still fermenting and then when it arrives it needs to be looked after by the staff. If the staff don’t look after it, the beer is not going to be what I’m trying to produce. It’s all about communication; where and how it’s stored, how it’s poured, how the beer is explained to customers.”

202406/4lq.jpgTattoo Artist turned brewer with both passions on full display. Image via Akira 

Elmasri expands on their business relationship and how he gets the most of the beer’s limited shelf life.

“If I crack open a keg, I’ve got to sell all of it in three days. That’s easy in the UK, because pubs are packed all the time. But because I have three days, I can’t have it on all the time. I let people know in advance and then they book the cask for the night, and I won’t lose all the money. If I just open one on a random Tuesday, and it rains for three days, no one comes in the bar, and I’ll lose the whole keg of beer.”

The cask ale hand pump in The Factory is the first of its kind in Chinese mainland and represents a snippet of British culture that has echoed through generations. The contraption is a staple of any pub or bar in the UK, but in the PRC, it will be viewed as a novelty in a market dominated by American craft ale.

202406/5lq.jpgToe Tiger IPA, a popular seller from Oak and Iron. Image via Akira 

Perhaps the fact that this drink is so unfeasible to franchise works in their favor. Quality control is in the hands of a single brewer and its distribution is being handled by someone who understands the process but at the same time knows Beijing’s bar scene enough to make it commercially viable.

The venture is far from a passion project. British beer has been under-represented on the mainland and there are murmurings that it is about to take off. If this is the case, we can expect to see huge jumps on the bandwagon from some big bars with big financial backing. No matter who undertakes the task of the cask, this collaboration will take some beating.

“I’ll tell him what I think. Not just necessarily what I’ll think of the beer. I’ll tell him how customers will receive it,” Elmasri confidently proclaims.

“I can predict how customers are going to react and then I’ll tell him the process I will go through with customers. I’ve never wanted to influence him on what beers he does but I do tell him what people will like. Last year we had a pilsner called Mr Mandarin because it had little hints of mandarin. That beer went down really well so I explained to him if I could choose, I would go for Mr Mandarin over an international lager because I know how the Chinese consumption is. I know which one will go better and I know which one is easier to market. Throughout history, wheat has been seen as an inferior product in China, so it doesn’t matter if you make the best lager or pilsner (both wheat-based beers), it’s going to be tough to get a great reaction. Because that pilsner had a mandarin twist and the poster looked cool, it was easier to brand.”

The volatile nature of the Beijing bar scene sees venues open and close at the drop of a hat. Getting punters through the doors to keep up with costs means risks aren’t taken too often. Having once served as the name of the bar, the Oak and Iron brewery has a long way to go before it reaches the popularity of other established brands. What gives it the best chance of succeeding is the passion and enthusiasm that comes from its founder, because Sakura is creating something he loves and views other people loving it as a bonus, as he proudly proclaims.

202406/7lq.jpgFrom producing to pouring, Sakura knows all the aspects in making the best beer possible. Image via Akira 

“If it's not a success it really doesn't matter to me. It really doesn't. I built this thing not because we wanted to sell beer. I'm an engineer. I can't stop touching stuff, so when [Elmasri] asked me how we can do this, I built this cask stand and super enjoyed it. I spent two days welding and cutting metal. If it's not a success, I really don't mind. Whether it continues or not, it won't change the way I brew at all. I will still do exactly what I do.”

There are plans to take all the Oak and Iron beers to festivals with an eye on further expansion. Both Elmasri and Sakura know the effort and history that goes into every pint the brewery produces, and anyone else who wants to start pouring these upcoming ales had also better heed the pages of history – British beer is a by-product of the nation’s sense of community, not the other way round.

202406/8lq.jpgChinness comes out of the first bitter hand pump on Mainland China. Image via Akira

Scan the QR code below to find out more about Oak & Iron.


[Cover image via Akira]

 


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