Today, China possesses one of the largest beer export industries in the world. In 2018 along, it exported about 385 million liters of beer. This makes it the twelfth largest beer exporter in the world and boasts many well-known brands such as Snow Beer and Tsingtao Beer. Distinguished from their western counterparts due to the sweeter taste, Chinese beer has become an increasingly common sight in many countries.
These statistics, while impressive, are not entirely surprising if you consider the fact that China has been brewing for thousands of years. Their brewing tradition dates back even before the first dynasties and surpasses places like Western Asia and Europe.
Origins of Chinese beer
The origins of Chinese beer can be dated as far back as 7000 BCE where a number of artifacts used in brewing have been excavated. These beers were created using the many different ingredients available to the Chinese back then such as grapes, honey, and of course, rice.
When the Xia, the first dynasty of China emerged, so did a type of rice beer known as Lao Li. It was used by the Xia for religious purposes as an offering for their gods and their dead ancestors.
But religion aside, I learned in my Asian History classes that brewing and tea making became an important part of Chinese life because it helped make water safer to drink. In a time when there were few available sources of clean drinking water, brewing or boiling water helped make it safer and healthier to drink.
The practice of brewing Lao Li was carried on for many centuries long after the Xia dynasty collapsed and was replaced by the Shang and later the Zhou Dynasties. It was only during the Han Dynasty in the Second Century BCE where Lao Li was finally replaced as the most popular drink in China by a new beer called Huangjiu.
Huangjui loosely translates to Yellow Wine and like Lao Li, Huangjiu was also made principally out of rice. However, it could also be substituted by other things such as wheat, millet, and sorghum to suit the drinker’s taste.
What is remarkable about Huangjiu is still brewed to this day, although it has been overshadowed by more popular brands of beer that have emerged. Still, this does speak volumes to Huangjuis taste and popularity if it still remains in existence more than two millennia after it was first invented.
But modern beer brewing emerged only around the 19th Century in a period known as the Century of Humiliation. This was a time when for the first time, China was opened up to different foreign nations and their influences. This meant that various groups such as Germans, Czechs, and Poles began to visit China and share their own ideas of brewing with the local traditions. Among these ideas introduced was the new tradition of lager beer or beer conditioned at low temperatures.
This mixture of different brewing traditions quickly spread in popularity amongst the beer drinkers in China and soon enough there were a number of companies in China established specifically for lager beer. Amongst these new beer companies in China, Tsingtao Brewery was one of the oldest as well as one of the most famous even today.
This is just a little taste of the rich history of Chinese brewing, enough to give context to the next part of this article. That is, some of the more prominent Chinese made beers and some that you should certainly try when you get the chance.
12 Best Chinese beers you should try
1. Snow Beer 雪花啤酒
This lager beer holds the distinction of being the most consumed beer in the world by pure volume. The company that makes it, SABMiller boasts that it has sold enough Snow Beer to fill twelve Olympic sized swimming pools every day for about a year or so. To put that into perspective, that is close to eleven billion liters.
But aside from selling a lot of beer, Snow Beer is also sold cheaply. For a 330 ml can of Snow Beer, it won’t even cost you fifty cents as by 2020, a can of Snow is valued at about $0.43 (or about 3 renminbi.) Its price is not the only thing low about this drink, Snow also boasts a low 120 calorie count per can which is a nice plus for those on a diet.
Despite that, Snow remains to be fairly unknown outside of China. This is due to it being sold mainly within China or in neighboring countries such as Singapore. Still, if you’re ever traveling in that area, why not stop for a can of Snow Beer and see what all the buzz is about? As the saying goes “When in Rome, do as the Romans,” and if it can outsell every other beer in the world, then it has to be doing something right.
2. Tsingtao Beer 青岛啤酒
While Snow Beer is the most popular beer in China and the best selling beer in the world, Tsingtao is not too far behind in either of those regards. More than just a beer, Tsingtao is a piece of Chinese history and culture. For one, it is named after the original name of the Chinese city, Qingdao, secondly, it is a reminder of the colonial history of China.
During the 19th Century, Qingdao became a German colony and it was there that Germania-Brauerei was formed, creating the Tsingtao beer by mixing German brewing techniques with local ingredients. However, after the communist takeover in China, the beer found itself under the state-owned Tsingtao Brewery Company Limited.
Made from some of the best yeast, rice, and barely available, the beer offers a sour, bready, slightly grainy taste with a frothy head. This is mixed in with a fragrant aroma of rice and malt all mixing together.
3. Yalaso Beer 呀啦索香格里拉啤酒
When you think of the name Shangri-la, the word beer probably does not come into mind. But this beer comes straight from the town Shangri-la and tastes simply heavenly. Hailing from the mountains of Tibet in the Yunnan Province, the Yalaso beer was first created by Sonny Gyalzur a Tibetan who, when not impressed by the beers he tried, decided to make his own.
The beer he created became known as Yalaso Beer. This beer is made from the local ingredients including Tibetan Barley and the fresh spring water of the mountains to create a truly Tibetan beer that the people there can be proud of. Already it has won the silver medal in the 2016 Brussels Beer Challenge for its taste.
4. Honey Ma Gold 甫子啤酒
Being one of the first microbreweries in China, Great Leap Brewings has certainly made a name for itself with its products, among them is Honey Ma Gold. This golden ale was the first creation of Great Leap Brewings as well as one of their most popular drinks.
Made from a combination of Sichuan peppercorns and honey harvested from the Sichuan province, this Chinese beer offers an easy to drink ale with slight notes of fruity, spicy, and herbs. It truly stands tall amongst the different drinks that Great Leap Brewings has to offer.
5. Yanjing Beer 燕京啤酒
Made from high-quality malt, selected rice, and spring water harvested beneath Beijing to give it that refreshing taste, this beer has become a popular product in China as well as internationally. It is no wonder that this beer is one of the best selling beverages in China.
It has also become known as a green beer due to the methods used are safe for the environment which makes it an inviting item to try. Though perhaps not as inviting as the fragrant dry floral smell.
6. Sinjiang Black Beer 新疆啤酒
Similar to American Black Lager Beer, the Sinkiang Black Beer offers strong flavors similar to that of brown sugar on top of its intoxicating nut-like aroma. It is made from hops found in the northwestern provinces of China.
This brew is famous in its home province of Xinjiang and can be ordered in many restaurants and groceries all over the province. It makes a great compliment to all the spicy foods found in the region.
7. Harbin Beer 哈尔滨啤酒
Harbin holds the distinction of being the oldest beer brand in the company dating back to the 1900s after being brought into the country by the Russians. This blend of different cultures can be seen in the beer which offers a blend of ingredients from different parts of the world from Chinese hops to German yeast. Its fresh aroma is like walking through a wheatfield.
8. Wusu Beer 乌苏啤酒
Named after the city it comes from, the Wusu beer has come to represent the friendliness and warmth of the people of Wusu through its strong malt flavors. This has made it highly beloved by the locals. It is their take on a pilsner with its golden color and thick creamy head, added with just a hint of ester fragrance.
9. Cheerday Beer 千岛湖啤酒
This beer makes its home in the Hangzhou province, specifically near the Qingdao Lake which offers natural high-quality water. This makes it an ideal spot for brewing light beers such as Cheerday. Its creators in Hangzhou Cheerday brewery LTD pride themselves on using high-quality ingredients and machinery to make a high-quality product, one which can now be found in various cities across the world.
10. Pearl River Beer 珠江啤酒
The Pearl River Beer is named after the river of the same name (also known as the Zhujiang River,) a region also well known for its people’s culinary skills. This can be seen with the number of imported ingredients used in making it such as Czech hops and Canadian hop. Like its namesake, the Pearl River Beer is a sparkling and rich drink that is a must-try.
11. King Louie Imperial Stout 拳击猫啤酒
Louie was the name of the actual cat who inspired the name of Fighting Cat Brewery. Not only is this velvety beer made with several roasted malts, but it is also added with some subtle notes of coffee and even a little bit of chocolate which all blend together and add depth to this drink.
12. Guizhou Smoked Chili Porter 京A啤酒
Winner of the Asia Beer Cup 2015 Silver Medal, this beer is a perfect drink for the chilly autumn and winter months. This beer is made with chocolate and chili peppers (the latter of which is grown in the Guizhou province in southwestern China,) whose taste will ensure that you can remain nice and toasty in the cold season.
It is clear that Chinese beer brewing has a rich tradition that has led to the creation of countless beverages worth looking into. Many of these beverages have made their mark on the world and offer unique drinking experiences that can broaden your palette. Even with just a dozen items on this list, there have been beers brewed from the mountains of Tibet to the deserts of Xinjiang, made with things from underground spring water to dried chili peppers.