If You Have a Beer in China, Thank a Pole

If You Have a Beer in China, Thank a Pole
Jul 30, 2011 By Bobby Finkelstein , eChinacities.com

You enter the gate, up ahead are a cluster of white tents. Soon the distinct smell of barbecue and beer is mixed with noisy conversations and shouts for ganbei. You take a seat with your friends and order a round of cold ones; it’s summer and it’s time to enjoy a beer festival in China.

You don’t have to look hard; it seems every major city in China is holding a beer festival or two these days. Beer is a big hit in China and is surprisingly consumed more than the traditional baijiu (rice liquor). That might seem odd to some; when most people think of beer China is not the first country that usually comes to mind. Yet China is both the largest producer and largest consumer of beer in the world. In 2009, 43 billion liters of beer were made in China alone and some reports predict that by 2015 one in every four beers consumed worldwide will be gulped in the Middle Kingdom.

That is a lot of beer! But how did beer get to be so big in a nation better known for its tea and kungfu kicks?

A little bit of history

Like most ancient civilizations, the Chinese had something that could be considered akin to modern day beer. As early as 7,000 B.C., Chinese were huddled over pots brewing a beer-like drink made of honey, rice and hawthorn fruit. Like early beer consumed in the Middle East, the Chinese often used the potent concoction in ancestor worship and religious rites, possibly even for some ancient beer festivals!

The drink remained in use all the way through the Zhou Dynasty, but then during the Han Dynasty the drink was quickly replaced by the more potent huanjiu (a non-distilled rice wine). By the time the Han Dynasty fell in 220 A.D., knowledge of how to make ancient Chinese beer had disappeared with the sands of time. It would take nearly 1,700 years for beer to make its reemergence in China.

A Russian? A Pole? A lover of beer!

By 1900 the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin was fast becoming a major stop on the Trans-Siberian railroad that connected Imperial Russia with its eastern seaport of Vladivostok. Russians and an odd assortment of eastern Europeans poured into the city which was rapidly developing a more Western feel. One of those that followed the railroad to the orient was a young Pole called Wroblewski. The young Wroblewski quickly noticed the Russian rail workers were hankering for something good to drink, so in 1900 he founded the first modern brewery in China using his Russian name, Ulubulevskij. That brewery is now known as Harbin Brewery and is home to one of China’s most popular modern brews, Harbin Beer.

In 1903, three years after Wroblewski opened the first modern brewery in China, German settlers did something similar in the coastal city of Qingdao when they opened a small brewery to cater to foreign workers in the area; that brewery now produces China’s most famous beer, Tsingtao.

By the formation of the PRC in 1949 these breweries became nationalised, yet beer production remained extremely localised, and was not as popular as the more traditional drinking options of huangjiu and baijiu.

Open and reform…let’s have a beer!

As is the case with many things in China today, the Open and Reform Policy of the late 1970’s completely changed the game for beer in China. As Chinese got more and more disposable income they started drinking more beer. In 1961 the average Chinese drank half a bottle of beer a year and by 1991, a little over ten years after China opened to the world, the average Chinese now consumes 27 bottles a year. Putting it numerically that is an increase from roughly 500 million bottles to nearly 33 billon bottles drank every year.

Foreign beer companies were quick to take notice and soon began to pour into China. By 1999 there were over 60 foreign companies invested in the Chinese beer industry, an increase from four in 1994.

Soon beer barons from the United Kingdom, America, Japan and Belgium were snapping up local Chinese breweries and heavily investing in larger ones like Harbin and Tsingtao. One of the biggest success stories is how UK brewery SABMiller took the little known Chinese beer brand Snow and turned it into the most consumed beer brand in the world in 2008. Even though international taste testers have said Snow “tastes like water”, it remains a big hit in China. 

You can have a pale lager, a pale lager or a pale lager

While it is not hard to find a variety of beer brands in China today, it is still difficult to find a variety of beers. That is because almost all beer produced in China is a pale lager: the golden-coloured and hop flavoured goodness that originated in the hills of beer-mad Bavaria.

One reason why pale lager is so popular is because of the nature of the Chinese beer market, which is still fairly fragmented and offers producers low profit margins. In such an environment breweries focus on pale lager because it is cheaper and faster to produce than other types of beer. There are also those who say the Chinese palate might not be well suited for darker, bitterer beers because it reminds them of bitter traditional Chinese medicine.

The major players

So if you find yourself enjoying a nice brew at a beer festival in China this summer, just remember the popularity of beer in modern China would not have been possible without the efforts of an enterprising Pole who, just like the heavily foreign-invested breweries of China today, was just looking for a good way to make a buck from a mass of hot and thirsty workers aching for a good way to kick back and relax.

Below are the four most popular beer brands in China today.

1) Snow
Produced by a joint-venture between SABMiller and China Resource Enterprises, the brand was taken from relative obscurity to the number one selling beer brand in the world. According to 2008 figures, it has captured roughly 18% of the Chinese beer market.

2) Tsingtao
There isn’t a foreigner in China who hasn’t enjoyed the crisp taste of a Tsingtao, and if you haven’t then you’re missing out. The brand, which in its history has been owned by Germans, Japanese, Americans and Chinese holders, is the number one Chinese beer overseas. It occupied a little over 13% of the market in 2008.

3) Yanjing
Proud sponsor of the 2008 Olympics, Beijing based Yanjing brewery is one of the cheapest and most widely drunk beers in China. In particular it dominates in northern China. If you live in Beijing, sometimes all a restaurant has is case after case of Yanjing. As of 2008, Yanjing controlled roughly 10.5% of the Chinese market.

4) Harbin
Even though Harbin brewery was the first modern brewery in China it has had a bit of a rocky history. Now, (99.66%) owned by American beer giant Anheuser-Busch, Harbin is making a big push and now controls over 5% of the Chinese market, and considering their recent advertisements in the 2010 World Cup, look for this to grow in the future.

Related Links
Chinese Alcohol Broken Down: The Facts You Never Knew
What's your favorite Chinese beer and why?
Nine Ways to keep Healthy While Drinking

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Keywords: Beer in China first brewery in China beer history China top beers China beer festival China


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That first photo - triple moob shot - is pretty nauseating.

Nice article Booby... I mean Bobby. Good research. Didn't realise Harbin beer had such a history! IMO it's better than Tsingdao and Snow, which let's face it makes Nongfu Spring taste good in comparison.

Jul 30, 2011 10:47 Report Abuse