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Gettin’ Boozy in Beijing: China’s Most Popular Beers

Some tips for what beer to drink when you’re getting tipsy in Tianjin, hammered in Hong Kong or sozzled in Shanghai

06·11·2013

Gettin’ Boozy in Beijing: China’s Most Popular Beers

Some tips for what beer to drink when you’re getting tipsy in Tianjin, hammered in Hong Kong or sozzled in Shanghai

06·11·2013

Although beer brewing in China dates back to as early as 7000 BC, it’s only become really popular in the last few decades. Since then, like everything else in the Middle Kingdom, it’s grown at an astonishing rate. As The Economist reports, since 2010, China has been the world’s biggest beer guzzling nation, chugging its way through over 50 million hectoliters per year; more than double that of the thirsty Americans. Being British, I didn’t need much more of an excuse to sit down and sample some of China’s most popular beers.

Chinese beers tend to be pale lagers with pretty meager alcohol content. They wash down well with spicy food, but don’t always hit the spot if you’re looking to catch a buzz. There are one or two exceptions, such as Tsingtao Dark Beer, a stout with a heartier 5.2 percent alcohol content. In recent years there has been a rise in imported beers, with European brands, such as Heineken and Carlsberg, attempting to infiltrate the world’s biggest beer market. I came across some bottles of Stella Artois during my journey through China’s beers. Expecting a taste of home, I grabbed a couple, but this Stella was not the strong, five percent Belgian lager of Europe, but again a pale, weak piss-beer; a veritable sheep in wolf’s clothing. The cost of Chinese beers in comparison to their sturdier imported cousins means that they’re still number one here; a typical 330ml can cost anywhere between 2 and 6 RMB, about half the price imported beers.

Tsingtao 青岛啤酒

Tsingtao beer turns 110 this year, and is the product of an Anglo-German colonial enterprise. It’s had a tumultuous history, becoming Japanese owned after the First World War, then nationalized in 1949 and eventually privatized again in the early 1990s. Tsingtao’s European roots might account for its slightly stronger alcohol content and fuller flavor. The 4.3 percent can is pretty decent, though strengths vary widely between canned, bottled and draft versions. 

Yanjing 燕京啤酒

This beer is interesting for a number of reasons, not least because it’s the only state-owned beer left in China; all the other brands were privatized decades ago. It’s also made with fewer of the traditional grains found in western beers. Rice is the main grain in this thin, watery brew. So, mildly interesting? Yes. Tasty? No. This 3.4 percent featherweight is awful. The first thing I thought of when I drank Yanjing was the Victory Gin Winston Smith drinks in 1984. I’ll let Orwell’s words sum up my experience of drinking a can of Yanjing: “He took up his glass and sniffed at it. The stuff grew not less but more horrible with every mouthful he drank.” Recently, Yanjing has made a foray into the fruit beer market with pineapple and lemon versions. But as the users of ratebeer.com point out, there is little about their flavor or strength to suggest that they deserve the title of beer.

Snow 雪花啤酒

As TimeOut reports, Snow has been the world’s best selling beer since 2008. It’s less well known than Tsingtao, but over 61 million hectoliters of the stuff are slugged every year–almost entirely in mainland China. The joint venture between beer-giant SABMiller and China Resources Enterprises has only been around for twenty years but has grown so large by buying up breweries all over China. It’s a fairly typical Chinese beer, though even more delicate than Yanjing or Tsingtao. I tried a couple of types of Snow, a can that measured 3.6 percent and a bottle with a miserable 2.5 percent. Both were so slight it was barely worth drinking them.

Reeb 力波啤酒

Yes, that’s right, the branding geniuses behind Reeb came up with the brilliantly creative idea of reversing the product’s name. I heard they were also the people behind Rac motors and Eeffoc brand coffee. This dainty lager is produced and is mostly consumed in the Shanghai municipality. It’s made by Asia Pacific Breweries, who are also responsible for producing Heineken in Asia. The 3.7 percent lager tastes great, if like the name suggests it’s opposite day and everything’s reversed; including my taste buds.

Harbin 哈尔滨啤酒

Founded in the city of Harbin in 1900, the eponymously named beer is the oldest on my list, and the product of China’s oldest brewery. In 2004 Harbin was taken over by the world’s largest brewer, American company Anheuser-Busch InBev after a bitter takeover battle with rival beer-titan, SABMiller. Anheuser-Busch is responsible for the global brands Stella Artois, Beck’s, Michelobe, and Budweiser, among others. Despite being just 3.6 percent, Harbin offers a fuller flavor profile than a lot of other Chinese beers and was the one I enjoyed the most.

So, after a grueling day of sampling China’s best-known beers I started to feel the effects, despite the low alcohol contents. The problem with Chinese beer is that it just takes so much of it to get a buzz. By the time you’re done you’ll just be left with a full belly.

Anyway, now you know about the swill, why not check out the beers of Beijing’s hutong micro breweries, or if you’re sick of beer why not learn about Beijing’s best mixed drinks.