When the air becomes so polluted that breathing suggests damnation, you have what Beijing’s English-speakers like to call an airpocalypse. It’s unclear when the term was first used, but there’s no argument about when it came into wide circulation: January 2013, when a long, record-setting smog left Beijingers breathing air 25 times worse than what’s considered safe under U.S. government guidelines. The U.S. Embassy, which has a helpful scale to tell residents when air is “good,” “lightly polluted,” “unhealthy” and “hazardous,” could offer nothing more useful than “beyond index” to describe a scene that resembled an airport smoking lounge allowed to expand to an entire city.
Air so awful, so utterly 10-plagues-biblical, was bound to be commemorated in art at some point (and so it has been). But who might have suspected that it’d be commemorated in beer?
That’s the line of thought that was running through my head as Kristian Li, co-founder of Beijing’s Jing-A Brewing, served me a snifter of Airpocalypse Double IPA at the appropriately named Big Smoke Bistro in Beijing this week. The beer is, I soon learned, much more than a name that attracts journalists. In its own way, it's a tribute to Beijing and its most infamous modern feature. “It’s hazy like the smog and orange like a Beijing sandstorm,” Li explained.
I lifted the glass, swirling the richly colored unfiltered brew, and took my first sip. It was an intensely “hoppy” beer, more bitter than sweet. Sitting across from me was Richard Ammerman, marketing coordinator for the brewery. “It’s beyond index on the international bitterness units scale,” which measures bitter compounds in beer, he explained. “There’s a limit to what you can taste and this is beyond it,” he added.
With my second sip, I noted something else: Airpocalypse Double IPA is very, very strong. “That’s like drinking two shots of vodka,” explained Alex Acker, co-founder of the brewery, and Li’s partner. “Or two beers.” It certainly felt that way and as I took a third, longer sip, Akers added that the alcohol content was calibrated to 8.8 percent. This is no accident: In Chinese the word for eight sounds similar to the word for “prosperity,” and thus is considered lucky. The 2008 Beijing Olympics, for example, opened on 8-8-08 at 8:08 PM -- a recollection that I honored with another sip.
As I chatted with the Jing-A founders, it occurred to me that they and their beer might be charting a new path for Beijing’s suffering tourist industry. According to Chinese government reports, tourism was down 50 percent during the first three quarters of 2013, compared with 2012, with several agencies citing pollution as the cause. In my experience, I told them, it’s the smog -- not the Great Wall -- that my American friends want to discuss when I tell them I’ve been to Beijing. Indeed, smog has become such an inadvertent municipal calling card, I note with rising, Airpocalypse Double IPA-inspired enthusiasm, that celebrities tweet stupid selfies -- I’m talking about you, Samuel L. Jackson -- “with” it when they visit.
“Come for the smog, stay for the beer?” I think to myself. But the Jing-A team do their friendly, rational best to dissuade me. “Just to be clear,” Ammerman tells me. “The beer doesn’t celebrate the smog. It celebrates the people who stay in Beijing and persevere despite the smog.” Reportedly, those ranks are thinning as expats and privileged Chinese flee the city for less polluted climes. Meanwhile, those who remain adapt with a gallows sense of humor and a strong sense of shared struggle. It’s a phenomenon that perhaps accounts for why Airpocalypse has become a modest hit for Jing-A which, Li says, was brewed during “a bad air day.” To that, I drink up.
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