Friendly neighborhood bar with the city's largest selection of delicious imported Belgian beer.
Tucked in the back of the 528 Kangding Road courtyard that also is home to a wine bar and Basque tavern, Shanghai's first Belgian beer bar - Kaiba - sits humbly waiting to capture your heart. There are no frills here: just a straight focus on beer, delicious beer.
Belgian beer can be described as sweeter, a little more complex than its neighbors in Germany, with a higher alcohol-by-volume content. There are seemingly endless varieties and Kaiba has an impressive selection spread out in its big fridge, from which customers are encouraged to self-serve, hence "kai ba" ("open bar"). If for whatever reason you have something personal against Belgium or beer-brewing monks, they also offer imported American, German, Australian and England microbrews.
Owner and self-proclaimed beer lover, Rudy Wimmer, opened Kaiba with his wife Cathy as a labor of love. The husband and wife team exude an enthusiasm, sincerity, and passion that is hard to ignore. They love beer and want to share it with you, foreigner and local alike. If your idea of good beer is Heineken, Corona or Tsingtao, please put down the bottle (or plastic bag) and take a stroll to the neighborhood north of Jing'an for some of the good stuff.
In the corner of the dimly lit room, we sat on custom-made wooden antique chairs and circled our prey. Hip and familiar music wafted so languidly from the speakers that we could hear the fizzy bubbling of our first sample, a Mort Subite Original Gueuze (4.5% ABV, 60 RMB), being poured into our glasses. This gueuze, a blend of young and old lambics, is quite special, fermented in an open process called “spontaneous fermentation” that results in a sweet flavor that had hints of apple and cherry, some strawberry if you prefer, and an overall sparkling sensation reminiscent of champagne, a crisp white wine, or its close sibling, a kriekbier. Pair it with fruit, light and creamy cheese, or fresh shellfish. I was content to just enjoy it by itself.
Our next selection was considerably stronger and more nuanced. The Gouden Carolus Clasic (8.5% ABV, 55 RMB), ranked as the world’s best strong dark ale, was much richer and savory than the comparably fruitier gueuze. The deep mahogany hue of the ale, smooth and thick as it went down, reminded me a bit of dark chocolate. Unlike others of its kind that I've sampled before, there was no bitter aftertaste and the aroma was not too powerful. Like a good steak, this beer had a meaty bite.
Currently, the only food options at Kaiba are modest pairing plates filled with fresh fruit, nuts, soft brown bread, and a sample of cheeses. As a lightweight with a pitifully empty stomach, I noticed the joy of the Carolus start to sink in. On any other evening, it might have been wise to call it a day and grab a proper bite to eat. However, with the enticing glow of the oversized fridge full of awesome beer beckoning to me like a Flemish maiden, I had no choice but to barrel forth and indulge in another bottle.
The Grimbergen Blond (6.7% ABV, 50 RMB), an Abbey pale ale that has been brewed since the year 1128 (!!!), tasted pretty much like a beer. And by that, I mean a damn good beer, without any distractions, like hints of berries or chocolate. The golden ale had a bite, but wasn't bitter. The sweet and crisp aftertaste would be perfect on a humid summer evening, a likely scenario in the coming months after the winter thaw.
The rest of the menu has enough selection to potentially please any type of customer, with customized glasses for each different variety, aimed to maximize the entire experience. A range of trappists, 50-110 RMB, 5-11.3% ABV; Abbey ales, Strong Pale or Dark ales, or Tripel distilled for around 55 RMB a hit; Quadruple distilled Kasteel Bruin at 11% ABV for only 60 RMB; Gueuze-Fruit lambics for the ladies and their comfortably secure male companions; and, of course, Belgium's most typically recognized - Stella Artois - on tap. From rare finds to common standards, you may want to stop by every night just to sample each and every one.
The local staff are warm, professional and fairly knowledgeable (at least more than your average Belgian beer virgin). If you have a question about the beer, there's no shame in asking. It is better to be sure about what you're about to consume than end up with a bottle of something you might not enjoy. Even if you're a big, tough guy who happens to enjoy the kriek.
At Kaiba, visitors pay a reasonable price for a premium product. When you take pause to consider a weak gin and tonic at most of the city's popular night spots will cost you at least 50 RMB (closer to 100 RMB if you're on the Bund), a bottle of imported Belgian beer for as little as 40 RMB (35 for happy hour draught) is a considerable deal. This is not the place to come if you intend to get sloshed on cheap booze and end the night clutching your toilet or a questionable stranger (head over to Windows for that). This beer is to be enjoyed and appreciated.
If you enjoy a quality drink with a little more complexity, an environment where you can actually hear the conversation, and an atmosphere that fosters comfort over glitz, you can't go wrong with Kaiba. It's your favorite neighborhood bar from back home, whether you're Belgian or not.
-by Neil Yeung
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