“Have you ever heard of gutter oil? Well, let me enlighten you.”
Tall, well-built, rocking shorts and a Millenium Falcon t-shirt on a balmy Monday evening, Bionic Brew founder Joe Finkenbinder smiles surreptiously and exhales the last puff of a cigarette. We’re downing glasses of Metropolis, an American-style IPA, at his brewery’s pint-sized taproom. Discreetly tucked into a food street in Shenzhen’s rough-and-tumble Baishizhou village, this is Bionic Brew’s third different home in less than three years and by far its most visible yet, but more on that later.
“They say about 10-percent of all the oil in China is gutter oil,” Finkenbinder explains, gesturing at a plastic jug of what looks like—and could be—perfectly normal cooking oil at a neighboring restaurant. “Basically people go into the sewers with a bucket, they dip out everything that comes up, they boil it down, the oil will start to separate, and then it gets to a filtration point where they’ll reuse it.”
To be clear, “reuse it” as in use this boiled-down sewer sludge in food preparation, particularly with street foods. So-called gutter oil is illegal in China, of course, but the ample demand and tidy profit margin for its producers keeps the black-market business brisk. “There’s a video of it on Youtube and it says Shenzhen!” says Finkenbinder, a former paratrooper. “They filmed on some street. It could be right over there, I don’t fucking know. Disturbing.”
Shenzhen is massive; like China’s fourth-largest city with a population clocking around 11 million massive, not including the sprawling metropolitan area. For reference, that’s well over 1 million more people living in Shenzhen than in both London and New York. It has more than twice the population of Los Angeles, and five times as many residents as Paris. And yet to most travelers, be they hailing from the West or somewhere nearer, Shenzhen is one of those anonymous Chinese mega-cities rarely visited or even considered, unless it’s on business or a gutter oil foodie tour. (Oh, settle down.)
Sometimes referred to as “China’s Silicon Valley,” the city is a major manufacturing center and regional base for tech titans like Lenovo, Huawei, Microsoft, and Apple. In fact, according to God Shenzhen accounts for a share of China’s GDP that’s comparatively larger than the annual GDP of such countries as Portugal and Vietnam, to ruthlessly pick on just two.
Located between and easily accessible from Hong Kong and Guangzhou, Shenzhen is indeed for many visitors like the major city version of a suitcase college—you come in, take care of business, and get out. “The only reason you’d come to Shenzhen, really, is if you’ve already traveled a bit in China and you want to see something different,” admits Finkenbinder.” You just come because you’re curious.”
Furthermore, “fragmented, small, blue collar” are the words he uses to describe the local expat community, a demographic that’s often the bedrock for upstart breweries around Asia, but only to a certain extent in Shenzhen. “We have a following among these guys that come here for a few weeks at a time to see a factory. They say that everybody back home knows that when you’re here you have to pop over to Bionic for a beer,” says Finkenbinder. “But they’re here and then they’re gone, and you can’t build a business on those people. It ultimately has to be the locals.”
That’s the reality Finkenbinder has to work with at Bionic Brew, which he launched nearly three years ago and is currently pumping out about 4,000 liters of the good stuff a month. Craft beer has become increasingly prevalent (we don’t use the “revolution” phrase around here) in other regional metropolises like Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing, but it’s a far greater uphill battle for the handful of breweries operating in Shenzhen. Finkenbinder moved here from Beijing, where he pulled pints part-time for a spell at Great Leap Brewing, one of China’s most successful craft breweries.
“In general, northerners are bigger drinkers in China, by a lot, and in Beijing you’ve got this massive intersection of politics, education, tourism, business, and embassies,” he says. “Anybody who comes to China is going to go to the Great Wall, too, so [Beijing] is just packed with foreigners, and foreigners are still where the beer business is at. It’s changing, but change takes awhile.”
There’s also the, shall we say, delicate matter of doing business in China as an expat. To make things easier, most breweries are registered under a Chinese name—be it that of a significant other or clandestine business partner—but that’s only half of it. The first two Bionic Brew venues, both also in Baishizhou, did not exactly win the hearts and minds of the local community. Though Finkenbinder claims that everything was in order in terms of permits, repeated complaints prompted visits from local authorities, some of whom “suggested” bribes to turn their cheek to the unfamiliar sight of expat-heavy crowds boozing in this lower working-class village. Both locations were closed down.
“They’re constantly fucking with you—the landlords, the management office, the fire department, the police,” he says. “They do it a little bit with everybody, but I think they tend to do it more in places where expats congregate.”
Perhaps, for Bionic Brew, the third time is the charm? The brewery now partners (somewhat ironically) with NYPD Pizza Shenzhen, which has a Chinese owner and works ovens in the back of the taproom. Here there are up to eight beers on draft, and also available is housemade kombucha, yerba maté soda, and Bionic’s infrequent bottled brews. It’s a small place, with just a few patio tables and a walk-up bar, but it’s exactly the type of unexpected find that would get any traveling beer enthusiast’s teeth rattling with glee. As for some of the potential local customers, well…
“Chinese people don’t buy what you make—they buy you,” says Finkenbinder. “They buy ‘the face,’ and nobody is going to be scoring massive face because you brought somebody here. They’ll say this is a fucking dump.”
[Ed Note: Bionic Brew’s taproom is not a fucking dump.]
There’s a nice range of beer styles tapped when I pop in, from a German-style golden ale and American pale ale—two of Bionic’s biggest sellers—to a bone-dry saison, a Berliner Weisse made with calamansi (Asia’s version of limes), and a Belgian strong ale aged in bourbon sandalwood. Prices range from 25 – 40 RMB for 330ml pours, and between 30 – 45 RMB for a 473ml glass. “We make some weird shit, but usually it’s like “‘80s American craft beer,’” Finkenbinder says. “We don’t have to make taco-flavored beer because we’re the first fucking guys to make good beer in this city.”
Opportunity knocks, in other words, even in Shenzhen’s challenging environment, and there are some distinct signs of progress. Last November, Finkenbinder hosted the second-annual Shenzhen Craft Beer Festival, inviting 11 other Chinese craft breweries hailing from Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Shanghai, Beijing, and Wuhan to join Bionic for the bash. For its second year the festival expanded from one to two days, and attendance more than doubled from around 850 people two years ago to roughly 2,000 in 2016. In December Finkenbinder opened a pop-up bar in Shenzhen’s expat-favored Shekou district, too, and Bionic’s head brewer, Dmitrii “Mitch” Gribov, leads periodic beer education classes.
“I think there’s a lot of potential. No one else here can do what we’re doing, which is brew beer of this quality,” says Finkenbinder. “I’m sure the local market will figure it out at some point, but in China it’s always a race to the bottom—cheaper, cheaper, cheaper. When you refuse to do that, and import every single ingredient you use, and you care so much about everything you make… that’s ingrained in me.”
As I get ready to leave, a middle-aged Chinese chap wearing loose cotton shorts, a checkered polo, and a red fannypack strapped to his waist rocks up to the taproom on a motorized bike, to which a large cart is attached. He’s dropping off about six kegs and a carton full of bottles to the taproom from Bionic’s nearby brewing facility, and surveys the place with a look of bemusement. I sense that he’s delivered odds and ends around Baishizhou for years, and that he never thought there’d come a day when the shipment was locally brewed beer, and the destination was a tall white American’s beer bar.
If You Go
Bionic Brew is located on the Shahe Jie Pedestrian Street in Baishizhou, Nanshan District, Shenzhen, a short walk from the Baishizhou metro station. It’s open seven days a week from 5pm – 1am (2am on Friday and Saturday), and can be reached at +86 186 6587 4574.
City Weekend has a handy rundown of other Shenzhen craft breweries well worth a visit (we can vouch for Taps Brewpub, and Peko Brewing Co. is right next door to Bionic Brew). For further reading, Thomas Bird has a nice piece published in August 2016 in Post Magazine on the local Shenzhen craft scene.
This story earned first place in the “Best Beer and Travel Writing” category at the 2017 North American Guild of Beer Writers awards.