In the working week I fill most of my spare time at the gym, trying not to laugh at the three personal trainers who stand topless in front of the mirror watching their muscles grow, dishing out protein shakes to clients and no doubt espousing the virtues of some health regime or other before nipping outside to smoke half a pack of fags with an Iced Matcha Latte for lunch. Secretly, however I’m also feeling quite smug with how toned I appear to be getting. I realise, as I listen to Pet Shop Boys over green tea in my room on the eve of my final day off, that I need to get off my arse. I have unfinished business. It’s been two weeks of mini bottles of Tsingtao, and I refuse to believe that this is all Xiamen has to offer. This is 2016. They have everything we have. I don’t care how much it costs, how far I have to travel, I’m going to go to bar that has decent beer on tap in sensible measures and get pissed with strangers. I’m in China. If I want it, it’s mine.
I type ‘draught beer Xiamen’ into Trip Advisor and three options come up. Two brag about serving Bud on tap, and are thus instantly dismissed. The third calls itself Amoy Brau and claims to have ‘the best craft beer in China’. Music to the ears of a middle class food bore. It’s half an hour by car but hey, you only live once. I’ll be back by midnight, easy. I take the address in Mandarin, flag down a taxi and head into the night.
Thirty minutes later we’re still driving. We seem to have taken a highway out of the city only to come back in again near the ferry terminal, then we take a sharp left and swerve into some dark and funky smelling backstreets that look like the perfect spot to mug a hapless tourist. My driver seems anxious, which is always a good sign, then eventually pulls to a halt and gestures at the road ahead as if to say “I go no further”. I am Martin Sheen going downriver in pursuit of Colonel Kurtz. On edge but just a little bit electrified I open the door with my phone and wallet out of view and scan the dimly lit road for my destination. Nothing. No lights, no Brando, just a man selling chargrilled skewers of dog by the side of the road. The car pulls away leaving me stranded. Inviting the danger, I brace myself and step into the unknown.
Except, of course, my driver had done his job commendably and delivered me straight to Amoy Brau’s door; I just couldn’t see it from my side of the car when I stepped out. I don’t let that get in the way of the Apocalypse Now parallels as a lanky young Chinese man with frizzy hair brings beer to the outside tables with the cocksure swagger of a young Laurence Fishburne. I follow him inside and pull up a seat the bar. Amoy Brau is small, maybe 25 square metres, half of which is taken up by the brewing tank at the back of the room. Anywhere you sit encroaches on someone else’s space, but I try to keep my distance from the Russian lady having an intense conversation with a Canadian man. Neither of them smile. There are no soft furnishings, just wood and concrete, and even those are infused with the faintly vomit like odour of hops. I don’t mind one little bit.
Everything is home brewed so I decide to work my way down the short list. The first beer disappears in seconds. It is glorious. Genuinely exceptional. A second, darker beer is poured. MGMT starts playing over the speakers as a man in his thirties in shades of blue takes a seat at the bar next to me.
He orders a beer in English and settles in. To begin with I ignore him, preferring to avoid forced conversation if possible, but then we’re I think we’re both alone, we’re practically sat next to each other, it seems childish to just drink in silence.
“What brings you here?”, I say. Alarm.
Tom turns out to be a German passing through Xiamen on the way home from Taiwan. With time to kill on the eve of his flight home and in the mood for a beer of substance he decided to find out what the city had to offer. He’s a reserved character who doesn’t easily strike up conversations with strangers, and tonight he has the misfortune of being sat next to one of those tiresome windbags who hasn’t been able to talk to anyone properly for weeks and is making up for lost time.
I can see Tom’s perspective, but that doesn’t make it any easier for me. He’s not unpleasant, just takes forever to come up with anything to say. When he does it’s staggeringly unremarkable. One stimulating discussion revolves around which of his debit cards worked most frequently in Taiwanese cash machines. Others are too boring to type. I’m beginning to miss the excitement of my hotel room as I offer to buy Tom a beer and commit myself to another forty minutes’ discussion of minor Asian bureaucracies by the time he’s returned the favour.
Thankfully the mood is lifted by the arrival of two American ladies and their male companion, a roguish looking European in a flat cap and rave jacket who smokes roll ups and likes to stroke his wiry beard. The ladies introduce themselves then disappear, while Felix slips behind the bar and pours himself a beer. He owns the place, as it happens. He’s also German, but ever so slightly more accessible than Tom and clearly having the time of his life on a daily basis. He was travelling around South East Asia and wasn’t ready to come home so decided to set up Xiamen’s first independent brewery instead, despite never having brewed beer in his life. Happily, he turned out to be quite good at it. Four years later and the business is becoming a city franchise which means more premises and, naturally, more interest from the Chinese authorities who insist on foreigners having a Chinese “partner” (spy) on board if they want to get anything signed off. They also regularly descend on the bars without warning and bolt the doors shut while they drug test every single patron. Not that this appears to dampen his spirits. We talk in depth about beer and music and soon enough the various seven percent lagers are starting to kick in. Quiet Tom stays for two then makes his excuses, but it isn’t long before some Chinese friends show up to take his place. One is middle aged, the other in his thirties. The latter holds a miniature Bichon Frise on a pink leather lead. Both are totally inebriated.
From this point on my plans for a quiet few drinks and bed by midnight go south fast. I’m aware that I’m due to be collected at ten the next morning, but that’s an age away and I’m just getting started. Besides, Felix has just poured another round and I know with absolute certainty that whatever happens, I won’t have a hangover tomorrow. We put on Heroes by David Bowie, because no good night is complete without that song, and then we put on Let It Happen. The place (me) goes wild, and then Felix lets slip about a secret Absinthe bar around the corner where they serve the real thing, wormwood and all, apparently unrestricted by EU legislation. Once the bar shuts down he’ll be heading over, and I’m invited to join. How could I say no?
Before we do, there are other matters to attend to.
“Have you tried Chinese rice wine?”
I shake my head.
“You should try some.”
He shouts to the man in his thirties, currently securing his dog to the pressure gauge of the beer tanks, and motions for him to come to the bar. They mutter something in Mandarin and the man darts impishly back to the tanks, returning with a brown paper bag and what I can only assume must be moonshine. Visions of Joaquin Phoenix’s facial contortions in The Master. The bottle that comes out, however, looks surprisingly smart. Engraved and embossed with golden calligraphy, it puts me right at ease. Nothing with a fancy bottle could be bad for you.
Felix takes three small glasses from below the counter. He fills the first two right to the top, but leaves the third half empty.
“Take it easy to start.”
Before I can ask why, the man with the moonshine is flapping his arms in such vehement objection his cigarette falls out of his mouth and almost burns the brown paper bag.
“Too small”, he cries. “He need more.”
Felix surveys my weedy frame to see if I can handle it.
“Ok. But be careful.”
He tops up my glass and we toast. The measure is enormous, and I’m not sure whether to sip it or knock it back. There’s no time to decide, and the last thing I want to do is seem boring in front of my new friends, so I throw the clear liquid down the back of my throat and let it go down in one gulp. It tastes warm, smooth, a little bit salty but with a sweet kick as well, like a decent eau-de-vie but much less harsh. Surprisingly easy to drink.
“You like it?”
Felix grins. He’s still sipping his glass.
“Mmmm. That’s good. Smooth. How strong is it?”
From the taste I’m expecting maybe fifteen percent. Twenty tops.
“Fifty”, says Felix, filling my glass to the top once more.
The true sign that you’ve crossed the threshold into ruinous intoxication must surely be when it suddenly occurs to you just how sober you are. I should have learnt by now to mistrust the invincible warmth currently spreading to my extremities, but alas I am a fool. A hard clap to my left shoulder. Our Chinese drinking companion is giving me a hug. He sits down next to me, introduces himself in broken English, and tells me how overjoyed he is to see an Englishman in Xiamen. We must celebrate, he says, and categorically insists that we smoke a cigarette and share his bag of peanuts. I tell him I don’t smoke. Tonight you do, he says, and I realise I don’t have a say in the matter. The hot smoke punishes my lungs. He breathes it in like mountain air.
“Are you drunk?”, he says.
“Not at all.”
Bryce, as is his name2, has recently become a father. His wife is home looking after the baby, and he’s been let off the leash for the weekend so long as he takes the dog with him. He’ll get shitfaced with little Bichon and come home late on Sunday afternoon, by which time dinner will be ready and on the table. I tell him that wouldn’t work with my wife, and he assures me that it would. I just need to suggest it to her.
By the time we finish the peanuts Felix is making another toast, and this time I down the glass without thinking. He tells me we’ll head to the absinthe bar shortly. Bryce shrieks in approval. I manage to refuse a second cigarette and then spin my head around to see the white fluffy dog illuminated by pink neon under the beer tanks. Is this real? Have we already made it to the absinthe bar? The dog barks, and it’s clear he’s terrified. I feel compelled to comfort the poor thing, to let him know he’s not in hell, just a brewery, and I make my way towards him, dancing like a loon every step of the way. In the space of about thirty seconds I must lose all sense of where I am, because in no time I’m sitting at face level to the miniature dog, deep in conversation. I say conversation, but it’s more like counselling. Really poor counselling.
“You’re being so brave, you know. You really are. So, so brave. You’re such a brave, brave, brave dog.”
From then on, flashes. Bryce picks me up and carries me to the other side of the room. He’s taking his T-Shirt off. So is Laurence Fishburne. He takes mine off too. I put it back on. Felix pours me a drink. Bryce offers more rice wine. I need to leave.
“What, no absinthe bar?”.
It would undoubtedly kill me. How the hell do I get home at 2am?
“Do you know Uber?”
I wake up to my alarm at 9am, never more grateful to be alive, in my own bed, and feeling pretty perky all things considered. I attempt to stand and immediately wretch. No such luck. There’s no way I can let the family see me like this. I invent a little white lie about a stomach upset and make my excuses. It’s five in the evening before I surface, totally and utterly shellshocked, and decide to go to Walmart for something to do, like a complete moron. It’s hell on earth, a stampede of really quite violent shoppers. Even so, it’s the first time in almost three weeks I feel like I’ve got anywhere close to the real China. What a night. I won’t be taking any rice wine back home.
Three days later I take the hummer to the airport, pay £6 for a flat white and fly back to reality.
1 The internet tells me it’s now called Fat Fat Beer Horse. Naturally. If you happen to be in Xiamen I can highly recommend it.
2 It’s not, of course. I just couldn’t hear and in any case was too drunk to remember, and it seemed a lesser offence to give him a Western name that suited his character rather than inventing an offensive Chinese mockup.