It was way back in 1999 that Xiao Biar opened Passby Bar on Nanluoguxiang, introducing fellow Chinese to the concept of a pub and soon attracting foreigners with a fridge full of imported bottles. Coming long before the Western faces that dominate microbrewing here, Xiao is one of the cornerstones of the craft beer boom in Beijing.
This bar pioneer has charted a course for discerning nightlife seekers in the capital for a decade and a half. While Passby remains a landmark as Gulou gets ever more gentrified, Xiao has more recently co-launched the NBeer brewpub in the western Ping’anli neighborhood and designed bottle labels and branding for the first wave of Chinese microbrewers. As this scene goes from strength to strength, it’s high time Xiao’s role was recognized.
He got into both nightlife and professional design as a way to turn his passions into business. After university, Xiao started a “Beijing drifter’s life,” as he puts it. With only RMB4,000 to invest, Passby was launched as a simple gathering place for like-minded friends. It was themed to reflect Xiao’s wanderlust and positioned as a refined alternative to brash Sanlitun.
“Who decided that bars have to be noisy and debauched?”
The bar moved to larger premises in 2002, and its success allows Xiao to indulge his love of travel. The 42-year-old tours the world, always returning with beers to stock the fridges of Passby and NBeer. Also picking up ideas abroad, he’s behind innovative concepts like a “brew-your-own” deal at NBeer, whereby its master brewer tutors customers through making a batch of beer on the pub’s microbrewing system.
One of the main reasons Baby IPA from Nanjing has become the most successful Chinese craft beer brand is because of its label, dreamed up by you-know-who. The cheeky Chinese infant is amusingly eye-catching. If brew-your-own customers have their beer bottled, they get customized labels by Xiao, whose work also includes Beijing-centric T-shirts à la Plastered 8 and marketing designs for filmmaker Wong Kar-wai.
“I’m addicted to designing,” Xiao explains. “I have to work on my computer once every few days to satisfy this hobby. Fortunately, my clients understand me. I can take cases I like and charge a fee in my own way.”
His travels are similarly part business, part pleasure, but skewed toward the latter. Beer geeks browsing the selection at Passby and NBeer will wonder how half the bottles got there. The answer is Xiao turning up at some of the world’s best breweries and picking up whatever he can fit in his suitcase. Although he barely speaks any English, he has blustered his way through gates that are usually locked to the public.
Reaching remote parts of unfamiliar lands has been a case of trains, planes and automobiles for this dedicated beer traveler, and there have been adventures and charming memories picked up along the way. Visiting self-styled “brewing punks” BrewDog in Scotland, he managed to check out both their original brewery and their new one. In the former, Xiao says, “while I was tasting the latest craft brew, an infamous 18-percent ABV beer, with its maker, I realized it was snowing. The beer factory was so shabby that snowflakes were falling in through the windows and melting in my glass.”
At the new site, “the reception girl was so surprised and told me they had never had any visitors like me.” The staff, impressed by photos of Xiao’s bottle collection in Passby, gifted him a case of beers that he had never tried. But these never made it to China. “I went back to my hotel room and drank them all,” Xiao sighs.
Another time, he trekked to a Belgian brewery that is notorious for releasing its beer on a super-limited-edition basis. Following Belgium’s Trappist tradition of brewing by monks, Westvleteren is made at a monastery in deepest West Flanders. Xiao bagged some, but only after getting stranded 17km away and offered a lift by a sympathetic gas station owner.
Whenever he comes home, Xiao sees Beijing becoming more and more open to foreign cultural trends like bars and beer, as the winds of change sweep up Nanluoguxiang. The historical area’s development continues to be controversial, however.
Xiao distances himself from a phenomenon most recently credited with evictions from around the nearby Drum and Bell Towers.
“Since 1999, Passby has gone from being doubted to being accepted in the area,” he says. “To a large extent, it’s because we haven’t changed our idea of bar management. We’re always focused on the residents, rather than transient tourists.”
Other people’s failure to consider locals is behind what he sees as “the fail of NLGX’s radical commercialization.” Whether he is in any way complicit in that as a Gulou entrepreneur is a troubling question, especially as NBeer’s Ping’anli home seems to be going through similar gentrification. Overall, however, Xiao is certainly one of the forces making Beijing a better, more vibrant and cultured city as it modernizes.
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