China actually has a long and storied history when it comes to beer or ‘pijiu’, as it’s pronounced in Mandarin. Archaeological findings have shown beer type alcoholic drinks being made as far back as 7000 BC in some Chinese villages. Methods and processes would have been similar to Egypt and Mesopotamia, and these brews were important in ancestral worship and other cultural rituals of the Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties. During the Han Dynasty however, ‘huangjiu’ (yellow wine) replaced beer in this capacity, and it would be two thousand years before the modern era brought beer back to prominence in China.
Late colonialism and unequal treaties brought Western influences into China in the late 19th century, and with them came modern breweries set up by Russia, Germany and other European powers. This accounts for the widespread development of lagers and pilsners, though these styles do go down well in any hot climate, they also go very well with delicious and often spicy Chinese food.
China has over 500 breweries and produces well over 35 billion liters annually, making it the world’s biggest brewer. A typical Chinese beer uses rice as well as barley malts, is mild tasting, only slightly hopped, virtually no aroma, is light bodied, easy on the palate and rarely over 5 % ABV.
The major Chinese brewing groups include Tsingtao, China Blue Ribbon, Yanjing, Sie-Tang and Zhujiang. Many international brewers now have interests in or joint ventures with Chinese breweries (Carlsberg, for example, which is now produced there), giving them access to a huge new market, maximizing production and perhaps even raising local brewing standards.
One of the largest brewers, Tsingtao, opened in 1903 in the city of Qingdao, is by far one of the best selling beers in China and the brand most widely exported around the world. The vast majority of China’s other many breweries serve only their local vicinities. Only a few brewpubs exist at this point, primarily in major cities like Shanghai and Beijing, which have large resident Western communities. Also, Belgian Beer seems to be very popular and easy to find in Beijing. I was fortunate enough to spend 3 weeks in Beijing during their Olympic Games, so here are the beers I found and some of the places I visited.
Bottles & Cans
Tsingtao Beer (4.7%) This medium hopped standard pilsner is the flagship brew, accounting for most of its production. An unpasteurized version is sold as Tsingtao Draft Beer (4%). There is a reason Tsingtao is popular world wide – it is a good version of the style, well balanced and crisp. Most other Chinese beer falls into this broad lager category; a little sweeter or a little drier sometimes being the only difference.
Harbin (3.6% ABV) Harbin is China’s fourth largest brewery, but also one of the oldest, originally founded in 1900 by a Russian in Northeast China. Another clean, refreshing light lager, with a small initial hop bite (well, hop presence anyway).
Yanjing Beer (4.5% ABV) First brewed in 1980, is a slightly malty, smooth premium lager brewed in the Shunyi district of Beijing. It is the most commonly available beer in Beijing, and as well as being the official state beer of China was one of the major sponsors of the 2008 Olympic Games. They also make Yanjing Draft (4%) which is perhaps a little less sweet;
Yanjing Lemon Beer (2.5%) big citric nose, tastes like lemonade really, light and refreshing, very pale (straw) and rather thin;
Yanjing Dark (4.3%) A sweet malt aroma, fuller body than other Yanjing products, dark tawny colour, hints of black liquorice with some tobacco smokiness;
Yanjing Pineapple Beer (2.5%) strong pineapple aroma, quickly dissapating head, very light straw colour, effervescent, light body, sweet finish – more like a fruity cooler.
MORBeijing Beer (Asahi Co. Ltd) 3.6%. Japan’s second largest brewer, puts out this and a few other local beers in China. This light lager starts a little dry, but finishes with some sweetness.
Laoshan Beer (4%) Mount Laoshan is a famous mountain outside of Qingdao where the Tsingtao brewery supposedly gets its water. This is a very pale brew, light tasting, easy to drink.
Shanshui Beer (3.6%) Another Tsingtao product, but too sweet, somewhat thinner and lighter than most other brews from Qingdao.
Haido Black (4.7%) Perhaps the best Tsingtao brew, the colour is actually copper-brown, nice malt balance, no noticeable hops, decent head that laces, does not sit heavy on the palette like other Chinese ‘black’ beers, hints of caramel but huge chocolate notes, smooth, dry finish.
Blue Diamond (2003) Beer (4%) This clear gold beer has a small tight, white head, is light bodied, some maltiness present, but overall rather thin, yet not as dry as some. Blue Diamond is affiliated with Beijing Naale Brewery.
Naale Stout Beer (4.5%) A deep, dark brown brew, dry malt aroma, light body, not a stout per se, but with a mild dry roastiness on the palate.
Snow Premium Dry (4.5%) Partly owned by international brewer SABMiller. Light and dry, more carbonated than most, some middle malt, tiny sweetness in the finish. Through this joint venture, Snow is now one of China’s biggest brewers.
Snow Special Brew (4%) Slightly deeper amber colour, drier overall palate and finish.
DRAFT BEER in BEIJING:
Fresh draft beer did not seem to be too prevelant in Beijing pubs and restaurants, as ubiquitous cold half liter bottes of Tsingtao and Yanjing seem to rule the roost. I did find, however, some establishments that served the ‘big two’ on tap – and some other interesting brews as well.
Sunman Dark Beer – Displays a big frothy tan head that quickly dissipates, a malty nose and palate, light in body, surprisingly thirst quenching, some sweet notes in the finish.
Sunman Green Beer – Interesting brew, starts thin, no head, no aroma, rather flat and non-descript, yet it tastes like a light lager, somewhat thirst quenching. Some Chinese breweries add ‘green health’ ingredients like spirulina (a type of algae) which colours the beer green. Still, two glasses of this did not put out the fire of the Sichuan Chili Pepper Rabbit.
Beiwei Beer – A light draft style lager, neutral palate, dry finish, enough hops to go great brew with a very spicy Hakka Steamed Garlic Bullfrog Stew.
BEIJING BREWPUBS and BEER BARS:
Paulaner Brauhaus http://www.paulaner-brauhaus.com/beijing
Traditional German food was dished up in heaping portions in this beer garden and brewpub located at the Kempinski Hotel. We washed it all down with delicious and excellent Bavarian brews made right on premise. The Munich Lager has a big frothy head, nice hop aromatics, is slightly cloudy and pale, but effervescent with a medium body and full of malty goodness. A hidden hop element catches up for a long, dry finish. Their Munich Dunkel starts off with a slight malt nose, is deep brown in colour, displays an off white head, is well balanced with nutty nuances, some fruity notes in the palate and a smooth finish. Their Weizen has some citric aromatics, is quite pale and cloudy with a very thick head, some tartiness with small clove and banana notes. This is very authentic example of a German wheat beer..
Beijing Okhotsk Beer (BokB) 7 Shangye Jie, Phoenix City, 5 Shuguang Xili, Chaoyang District
Without any hesitation I’d have to say that this is the best brewpub in Beijing. Hidden away in Phoenix City, a large residential complex (it took my taxi driver 2 phone calls and two stop-to-asks along the way) but BokB is definitely worth searching out. This ultra-modern restaurant/pub is actually a spin-off of a popular Japanese chain. They serve four beers, each in their own particular glasses. If you are lucky enough to be there on a Tuesday, it’s 2 for 1 night. Otherwise prices range from 28 RMB (or $4) for 300 ml up to 72 RMB ($12) for a 1 liter German stein. I started with their Weizen, displaying a creamy head, aromatic nose, with a slight cloviness hinting at its German origins. It is well balanced, has citric notes, is yellow and cloudy with a tart finish. Very refreshing. Next up, their simply named Ale, the only example of a British style beer I tasted made anywhere in Beijing. Served in a proper sleeve, this light copper- coloured brew has a somewhat understated fruity aroma, is not overly bitter, but has much hoppy playfulness on the tongue. Actually served too cold, this ale warmed up nicely and the complexity widened on the palate as it reached its optimum temperature. The Pilsner had a quickly disappearing head, but some floral hop aroma, no real hop bite, but a nicely balanced middle with a long dry finish. This indeed is another very good example of a beer made to style. What really surprised me was the Mild Stout. Again, this ale is served too cold (Beijing in the summer after all), so no aroma to speak of to start off, but the patient drinker is rewarded. It warmed up to a nice mild malt hit on first taste, smooth and creamy, very Irish, malt accented, black in colour, thick tan head, an excellent beer to finish the evening. One of the best Irish stouts I’ve ever had!
Beijing is a giant modern metropolis of almost 20 million people, and in such a world class city you can find anything you like: international cuisine, nightclubs, lounges – yes, even Irish Pubs. But what caught my eye were the Belgian Beer Bars.
Morel’s Restaurant & Cafe, Gongrentiyuchang Beilu, Beijing
Founded by Mr. Renaat Morel, an internationally renowned chef from Belgium, this restaurant offers a variety of authentic Belgian dishes, such as a pot of mussels and Flemish Stew. Even more intriguing is the fine selection of Belgian beers available. We started with a deliciously refreshing Morel’s Wit (3.5%) mild spices dancing on our tongues, that went so well with the local oysters. Mussels and frites arrived after that with a bottle of Waterloo Triple (7.5%) served by the very friendly and informative Mrs. Morel. Husband and wife run two establishments in Beijing, both specializing in all things Belgian. We thoroughly enjoyed a famous Chimay Blue (9%) with a Trappist ale infused stew. This became one of our favourite spots.
The Tree http://www.treebeijing.com and Nearby the Tree http://nearbythetree.com are two sister pubs that we made regular visits to. Famous for their wood-oven pizzas and a fab selection of Belgian Trappists and Lambics, you can also find Hoegaarden and de Konnick on tap, as well as their own bottled Tree Beer (6.5%) brewed at the Brasserie De Bouillon in Belgium. Served in a tall Belgian tulip glass, this pale amber – gold in colour treat has a touch of cloudiness, an abbey style malty palate, some subtle spicing and a hint of wheatiness in the finish.
Beer Mania http://www.beermania.cn Another beer mad bar not far from Worker’s Stadium. The bar was full of ex-pats when we visited, a very loud European crowd. In the fridge was a great variety of Belgain ales, Russians brews and a number of other international beers. We went for Kraak, Duchese de Bourgogne and Hoegaarden on tap. Hard to beat the maltiness, the sourness and the wheatiness these three beers had to offer, Belgian style, when you’re thirsty from the Beijing heat. No food to speak of, but a small out front patio allowed for some people watching as we drank in the surrounding street life.
I only scratched the surface of Beijing beer life, but I found some unexpected treats and ate some wonderful food in my explorations. There are a number of other places I would have liked to have gotten to, and a number of other beers I would of liked to have found, but suffice it to say that there is a great variety of beer to be found in Beijing; domestic, micro-brewed and international. Down any alleyway or around any corner, serendipity could lead you to the most amazing finds and the most interesting people.
Beer in China comes in a multitude of cans and bottles, tall and short, from 300 ml to 750 ml. But mostly, when you order a beer in a restaurant, you’ll be getting a half liter bottle. The prices can vary wildly as well, depending on where you are. A half liter bottle of Tsingtao or Yanjing from the corner store will cost you about 3 RMB (50 cents), a small bottle in a hotel bar may cost you 10 times that amount. I bought my first 10 cans and bottles at the WuMart for 20 RMB ($3). Also, every Chinese beer lists their starting gravity in degrees Plato on the label (a hint at their German origins), as well as the brew’s Alcohol By Volume as a ‘greater than or equal to’ number. Armed with this information, a thinking drinker can figure out how well the beer is attenuated. Or not. Better perhaps to just enjoy whatever comes your way.