Taste of English beer to pull the Peking crowds

China's capital is to get its first taste of an authentic pub. Teresa Poole reports
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The Independent Online
Peking - Hong Kong may be returning to China in 54 days, but a small corner of the People's Republic will be forever English. No, I am not talking about Her Majesty's embassy, but the John Bull pub in Peking, due to open in 23 days time.

Complete with a real Victorian fireplace, lincrusta wallpaper, steak and kidney pie, and a bookshelf offering such gems as a History of Latin Christianity, this is billed as the first English pub in China. It may or may not also be part of the Chinese government's current "spiritual civilisation" campaign.

Here is an English pub built by English craftsmen. "They use a hell of a lot of tiles in China, but they had never seen anyone like Paul who can put tiles up so quickly and in such a professional way," said Simon Keep, overseas development manager of Allied Domecq, the drinks and pubs group which believes that China is finally ready for an English pub.

Yesterday, master-tiler Paul Routley, one of seven English craftsmen flown in from Birmingham, was putting the final touches to John Bull's washroom tiling, under the watchful eye of the Chinese labourers. "I've come from Birmingham, to a place like China, I mean it's a big shock, a culture shock," he said. "But after a few days, you could be working anywhere.

"The Chinese are really good, we get on really well. We're talking in broad Brummie accents and they are jabbering away [in Chinese], and we're all laughing and joking, and we don't know what we're laughing about - but that's builders for you." He has taught the locals a thing or two as well. "They were really surprised when I started to fix the tiles using adhesive," he said.

The signs outside the John Bull promise "Authentic Victorian comfort imported from England" and "Genuine pub atmosphere" when the Sino-British joint venture opens at the end of this month. The pub's interior was shipped in from the UK, and assembled on site. "As soon as you walk through that door, with the exception of a few faces behind the bar, everything else will be authentically British," said Mr Keep.

And that includes everything from the yellow ochre lincrusta to the Punch cartoons and cricketing memorabilia on the walls. "We've gone for an English sporting theme," said Mr Keep. A bit of true British pub etiquette will also be promoted. "We'll encourage people to go to the bar to buy a pint and come back and sit at the table."

Upstairs yesterday, two dozen Chinese trainee bar-staff were being put through some authentic phrases: "Glenfiddich, Johnny Walker, Bells, Grants ... " they repeated in unison. And then it was off for "beer knowledge" at the local Fosters office, "how beer is made, appreciation between different beers, bitters, ales, lagers. And then they are going to do a taste test", explained Andrew Clapham, the man who will be Peking's first publican.

Mr Clapham, a 32-year-old authentic New Zealander, is fresh from running the Pharaoh & Firkin in Fulham, London, for four years. "I'll be here behind the bar a lot," he said. He likes the local Peking beer, but customers will also be able to wash down their pub grub - fish and chips, bangers and mash and other "standard British fare" - with real imported English draught bitter.

At nearly pounds 3 a pint, it will not be within the grasp of the average Chinese drinker, but the pub is nevertheless targeting the local market. "We're looking for the aspirational local Chinese," said Mr Keep. Don't they tend to prefer karaoke? "They are moving on from karaoke now, they are getting more sophisticated," he insisted. Does this extend to warm beer? "We'll be serving our beer at the appropriate temperature," ensured Mr Keep.

Allied Domecq, which owns more than 4,000 pubs in the UK, has already branched out with pubs in eastern Europe. This is its first pub venture in Asia, apart from one inside Bangkok airport. But can one really build an authentic English pub abroad?

Mr Routley has explored one or two local Chinese bars and found them "OK, but nothing special". Coming back to the John Bull, he says, is "like coming back home".