Since opening in 2003 the Bad Monkey has been nothing short of a drinking institution in Dali's old town. Initially a backpacker dive bar, the Monkey has steadily moved upmarket and is now a legitimate registered business. Not only does the Bad Monkey have one of the old town's most extensive drink selections, it also hosts loads of live music and has a kitchen that pumps out decent pub grub – we were very impressed by the Sunday roast we recently enjoyed there.
But there is little doubt – for us at least – that the most interesting development at the Bad Monkey in the last year has been their microbrewed beer (not to be confused with homebrew), which is produced at their brewery, conveniently located next to a 1,000-year-old mountain spring in the foothills of the Cang Mountains.
The Bad Monkey Brew House currently uses five fermenters to crank out 2,100 liters of beer each month – a stat which could skyrocket if plans to apply for a bottling license are successful.
We joined Londoners and Bad Monkey owners Scott Williams and Carl Oakley at their brewing facility a couple of weeks ago and were quite impressed with their setup. Sitting next to the Yinbo Spring (银箔泉) that produces the water for all of Bad Monkey's beers, we sipped on English tea while chatting about where the Monkey's been, and where it's headed:
GoKunming: How did you end up with the name 'Bad Monkey'?
Scott Williams: Sitting around drinking with friends and trying to think of a name that we liked. I said "Bad Monkey" and everyone liked it.
Carl Oakley: We always hoped that by the time we had made a name for ourselves and were getting interviewed we'd have a good story, but that's how we got it.
GK: What factors led to you deciding to brew your own beers?
Oakley: I had done some home brewing when I was younger... I've always been interested in beer and we've always wanted to do something to make our bar different. In the end we decided to make a brewpub with live music.
The Americans have the most amazing brewpub culture. We went to California for three months four years ago and that's when we decided that we were going to do this. It pisses a lot of Germans off when I say that America makes the best beer.
GK: What's the most difficult thing about brewing beer?
Williams: The ingredients can be a bitch from time to time.
Oakley: The hardest thing about brewing is consistency. Temperature, time and pH are the things you can influence most, so you must have your standard operating procedure down.
We've studied under four different brewers. For something that's only got four ingredients, there's a lot more going on scientifically in beer than people would believe. Had I known how complex it was before we started, I probably wouldn't have done it. [Laughs]
We've done 32 different brews and sold them all. The only thing we've always kept is the dark beer, because Chinese love black beer.
Williams: When Chinese come in they don't ask for Guinness or another brand they just ask for heipi [black beer].
Oakley: We didn't want to reinvent the wheel. We asked Chinese customers for input and they helped us adjust the flavor and it sold well. We toyed around with tea beer and chilli beer but the dark beer is the best seller. The wheat beer we did was very popular with Westerners.
GK: It seems you have plenty of spare room up here around the brewery, do you have any plans for some of this extra space?
Oakley: We hope to have a brewpub and restaurant open here in four months. This is not going to be the Bad Monkey people have seen, it's going to be a place to have good beer and a venison steak.
GK: How are Western and Chinese beer drinkers different?
Williams: Many Chinese like to ganbei [bottoms up] so they don't necessarily want a complex beer.
Oakley: China's only just getting a real beer culture now. Chinese people drink mostly strong alcohol if they want to get drunk, they're not used to drinking a beer for its complex flavors. The 10 biggest breweries in the world are now in China imitating Chinese beers. But just as you have Chinese getting interested in good bottles of wine, people in China are also becoming interested in microbrews. They're drinking it, which means there's a market for it.
Making a microbrew requires making it with love. If you want to put time and love into making something, it's going to cost more. One example is a bitter ale, which costs two-and-a-half times more to make than a lager because you need to add lots more bittering hops.
All of our malts are German, our hops are from Czech Republic, England or America and our yeasts are from Belgium and England. Our water is from China – it's incredibly good, we've had it tested. In this business, you have to do something where it's more than money that sets you apart... otherwise there's always someone willing to eat pot noodles until you go out of business.
GK: What do you think sets your beers apart from mass-produced local or imported beers?
Oakley: I think our beer's freshness is appealing to our customers. You have to sell the beer we make while it's fresh. If you were to filter and pasteurize it, it would be good for a year. Our beer is only good for three months because we don't filter it, so there's a flavor profile there that a lot of people aren't used to. I think they're impressed, the proof is they come back and drink more of it despite it being more expensive.
GK: How would you characterize the changes in Dali that you've witnessed since moving here?
Oakley: It's grown from an authentic town into a major tourist destination. There weren't many tour groups before, but now its grown into a much busier place. Five years ago I was saying that in five years I wouldn't like Dali anymore. The government here lets people do their thing and it still has an old town feel... It hasn't become Yangshuo and you don't have people being forced to dress in local minority costumes like in Lijiang. I think they've developed it better than I thought they would, but I'm not sure if I'll like it here in five years, because once development starts, it doesn't stop.
Dali got famous for a lot of the wrong reasons several years back... now all the hippie bars are gone and the government is working to change its image. We want to be Westerners doing positive things here.
GK: What were the initial steps of getting the brewpub idea off the ground?
Oakley: Our American friend Max was studying in Kunming a few years ago... we'd mentioned to him that we were interested in doing a brewpub and he said, 'Come to Cali, dude!' I couldn't believe how friendly Americans were there. They gave us lots of help and inspiration.
GK: Are there other cities in China that might have their own Bad Monkey brewpubs in the future?
Oakley: We've looked into it. Places we've looked at that we think we'd do well in tend to have established populations of Westerners. Places like Kunming, Wuhan, Nanjing and Suzhou.
Williams: We looked at Shanghai and we think that we would need to grow a bit more before moving into a market like that.
Oakley: We wanna be the Hard Rock Cafe of China, mate... a brewpub with live music, possibly franchises. We don't want to run bars forever. I'd be very comfortable running a brewery. We both see ourselves in China for a while, for sure.
GK: What's the best thing about running the Bad Monkey?
Williams: Meeting lots of people is one of the best things about our job.
Oakley: The money! [Laughs] We're both people people. You get to meet people at their best when they're on holiday.
GK: Of all your experiences during your time in Dali, what has been the biggest surprise for you?
Williams: To have come this far. We started the bar for fun, but increasing regulations have made running the bar harder, which has made us work harder.
Oakley: The fact that we've still enjoyed it as the business has actually become a business. As rents have gone up we've had to raise our prices, which pissed off the hippies. Many have said we've sold out. But we've turned something that was originally just for fun into a business and we still enjoy it – that's what's most surprising.© Copyright 2005-2020 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.