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[New Brews]: The Beer Lady

Introducing Mrs. Zhang. Her shop is doing for quality craft beer in Shanghai what The Avocado Lady has done for white people food.
Last updated: 2015-11-09
Meet Mrs. Zhang. She has a convenience store off of Fahuazhen Lu, on a no-name alley where the most notable neighbors are a police station you may have registered at, and the funk of a seriously stinky fried tofu. She’s a very smiley middle-aged Shanghainese lady with a very large selection of craft beers. Many hard to find ones. Some painfully expensive ones. Enough that I think it’s appropriate to call her The Beer Lady. She’s drunk every single one she carries. Look at that smile!

Her approach is a bit different to the Other Lady, Ms. Avocado. Ms. Avocado’s business model is simple and easy to understand: stock food white people like, make it relatively cheap. Mrs. Beer Lady’s guiding principle is less clear but seems to be: give me five of everything. If it’s for sale, she probably has it. This results in nice finds, like Brooklyn Brewery’s tasty but uncommon wheat beer, all of the Mikkeller beers, or Scottish beers aged in whisky casks. It’s also extremely democratic. She has every color of the Bacardi Breezer rainbow, three types of Hello Kitty “drinks” (pink, polka dot, and Kitty plus boyfriend) and cans of the cheap, crap Chinese lagers that I normally drink.

There are beers that are supposed to be good for dim sum, beers flavored with banana or mango, and enough Belgian beers to keep 100 monks blitzed for a week. The crucial detail is that all of these beers are cold, sitting in an array of coolers on the street. I don’t want to describe all of the beers. Here are her coolers. You can browse yourself. Scroll back up to the top of the page for a larger image.

I went last week on that exceptionally warm afternoon, and sat outside with a few friends. This is another nice detail. She has tables she’ll put out on the sidewalk. It’s like Fei Dan, only not so white and with ten times the variety.

There are two tables inside, where you can sip your 138rmb BrewDog Tokyo while soaking up the ambiance of a display case stocked with Spam (all the flavors, of course), convenience store sausages, and, uh, shampoo. It’s a craft beer shop grafted onto the body of a neighborhood convenience store. Don’t want to make two stops on your way home for a Samuel Smith’s Chocolate Stout and a package of maxi pads? She’s thought of that – got you covered. Don’t want to go home at all? She’s open 24 hours in the summer (2am until then, unless someone is inside drinking).

So she has the variety down. By my sober estimate, she’s got about 200 different types of beer. Big ones, little ones, red ones, blue ones. Even in 2015 Shanghai, where a DVD shop has a better selection of Belgian beers than most bars did until a few years ago (Fuxing Lu and Shanxi Lu), where we’ve got people doing a combination record-shop-and-beer-bar/store, where we now have a super-trendy beer lounge that is experimenting with technical stuff like nitrogen, this is an achievement. Oh, and did I mention that Cheers In has closed its shops on Yongkang Lu and Beijing Xi Lu? (The website and a far-off store remain.) In some respects, it’s easier than ever to find the fringes of the craft beer world in this city. It’s just not so easy to find so many in the same place.

The Beer Lady’s prices are mysterious. Some things are cheaper than Fei Dan, like Chimay Blue. Some are the same or just marginally higher than competitors, like the Brooklyn Brewery beers, which she sells at 25rmb vs. the 20rmb at Dean’s Bottle Shop, which actually imports the stuff. And then there is some chaos theory happening: 75-99rmb for the range of Mikkeller beers (which aren’t cheap anywhere, but…) vs. 50rmb at Dean’s; 138rmb to sit on the street with a Harviestoun Ola Dubh, which is aged in whisky casks but doesn’t make much of an impression vs. 108rmb for the exact same bottle at Morton’s in IAPM, not known for bargains; and the beer de resistance, the one I came for, the silly one, the ridiculous one, the Harviestoun 30th Anniversary Ola Dubh, a 398rmb ale aged in Highland Park whisky casks.

I enjoy drinking beer more than writing about drinking beer, so this will be short: smoky, complex and very special. It’s like a wine, not a beer. It’s not easy to find, even in Europe or the US, and The Beer Lady does not have many of them left. The consensus at our table was, damn, that is delicious; damn, that is expensive; and, damn, I’m happy you paid for that, not me. It’s a fun splurge and The Beer Lady’s big smile helps it go down that much easier, even as she’s emptying your wallet.

Aged or wood-flavored beers are a thing in the beer world, I’ve been told. There is a range, with the "better" brewers legitimately aging beers in used wood casks, while others cut up the barrels into spirals and toss them into the mix as they brew, or use wood chips. While the effect and "betterness" might be open for debate, and other aged or wood-flavored are available in Shanghai, this much is true: Tennent’s version (30rmb also at Dean’s) is crap, and so is BrewDog’s Paradox Isle of Arran, an imperial stout which aims for a huge alcohol content – 15% – but doesn’t seem to have gotten there, and just ends up as an overly sweet waste of 170rmb (also at Dean’s – sorry guys, nothing personal.) If you want to dip into this style, I suggest doing it the once, the expensive way.

Also, if you’re making a session out of your visit, you’ll need food, and the place to go is right down the street to the Fa Hua Dumpling Shop. It’s an independent store with just a few tables, a neighborhood favorite for xiao long bao and Nanjing’s duck soup with coriander, fried tofu puffs, bouncy duck gizzards and rice noodles, laoya fensi tang.

For a listing of the The Beer Lady, aka Hai Fu Convenience Store, click here.