I am often asked “what is my favorite/least favorite part about China,” and usually respond to both questions with one word: beer or 啤酒 (pí jiǔ). This often brings a look of confusion to the questioner’s face, but it’s quite telling of “beer culture” in China. How can you both love and hate Chinese beer? It’s simple. You love the price, but hate the taste. You love the availabilty but hate the monotony. Chinese beer isn’t great, but for about 3o cents, a tall boy of Tsingtao of 青岛 (pronounced Qīng dǎo) is all yours.
Sure the quality is bad (notice how in the above picture, the bottle has “free from fromaldahyde” on the center label?), but like most domestic goods produced in China, beer can be found everywhere at any time. 4 am on a Saturday night? Yeah there are at least ten places within walking distance that can hook you up. Stuck in a crowd of tourists along the Great Wall? Just find a vendor, crack a bottle and relax while the flag waving, matching, red-hat-wearing tourists hustle on their way. I’ve even bought “drive through beer” while dressed as Santa Claus in the back of a three-wheeled, tuō lā jī tractor (don’t ask). Further, I have never-ever found myself saying: “I wish I had a beer right now” and not being able to remedy that wish within Chinese borders.
In terms of variation, there really isn’t much variety of taste in Chinese Beer as China produces lagers almost exclusively. The average Chinese beer is less alcoholic than “cheap lagers” in the United States (think Budweiser, Coors and Miller) and rests around 3.5 %–so very weak that you drink beer like you would water. Hell in parts of southern China, namely the Qiandaohu area, beer gets as low as 1.8 percent. Good luck getting your buzz on.
Flavor doesn’t change much from one Chinese beer to another, but you will find that local preferences and tastes take precedent. While I admit they almost all taste the same, I do prefer Yanjing (Beijing’s Beer!) over Qing Dao (take a guess where it comes from). This doesn’t really mean much, but is telling about where you drink or where you are from in China. Go to a restaurant and order anything other than the local beer and you’ll hear about it from both customers and employees alike.
Chinese beer truly is made to be consumed in large quantities as Chinese beers mostly come in 22 ounce glass bottles and in crates of 24. These glass bottles are reused and recycled constantly and China is quite environmentally/economically mindful of recycling every empty bottle after it’s used. In fact, for every 6-8 beers you drink, you get another one free, so long as you return the bottles to a multitude of corner stores, liquor shops, restaurants, trash collectors, “retirees” or 退休人 (tuì xiū rén) and beggars or 乞丐 (qǐ gài). Free beer? Don’t mind if I do…
So come to China and drink like a college student right after finals. Regardless of where in China you are, you will undoubtably stumble upon the local qingdao equivalent. Here are some big name brands to help get your swerve on.
Harbin Beer (哈尔滨啤酒)
A northern local beer that is slightly stronger in alcohol content and flavor. It is the fourth largest brewery in China and was founded in the early 20th Century in collaboration with Russian brewers.
Quite literally “beer” spelled backwards. Reeb is a staple of Zhejiang, Shanghai and Southern China for people wanting really cheap beer. When you think beer, think reeb.
Snow beer (雪花啤酒)
Labelled as a “luxury beer”, Snow beer is slightly crisper and cleaner than other local counter parts and usually comes in a smaller bottle (what gives?) but costs 2-4 times as much as a local tall boy. In my opinion, the price isn’t worth it.
Tsingtao Beer (青岛啤酒)
China’s most famous and oldest beer which enjoys global recognition. It was founded in the mid 19th century by Germans who wanted to introduce the tradition of brewing to China (too bad they didn’t impose their stringent brewing laws on the QingDao brewery). It can be found almost everywhere and is usually 3 kuai a bottle. Unfortunately for those in the mainland, the better tasting and stronger form of the beer is exported, while the tall boys with little flavor and ABV stay within the country. Talk about putting your best foot forward.
Yanjing Beer (燕京啤酒)
Yanjing beer is “Beijing’s Beer” even with the close proximity to QingDao. I like it above all other domestic Chinese beers, not necessarily because of a specific taste, but namely because I’ve drank a lot of it. It’s also slightly higher in alcohol content than QingDao, which matters if you plan on drinking a lot but don’t want to get full.
Zhujiang Beer (珠江啤酒)
Zhujiang is a GuangZhou beer that in contrast to the above breweries, actually makes a pale ale! The lone ale in a litany of lagers…wow. It’s shocking, I know, but the beer is decent enough and is a huge break from the lager tradition. It is a somewhat bitter beer (although not very hoppy) and has an alcohol content around 5.4 %. While it wont impress you like US pale ales, it does bring some sanity to your tastebuds after gallons and gallons of “water beer” have pass over them.