Sunday, July 09, 2006


Beer is something easy to both love and hate in Shanghai. On one hand, there's no denying that the beer in Shanghai is no damn good. On the other hand, it isn't particularly bad, it is generally very cheap, and it goes well with Shanghai's humidity.

I mentioned before about cheap Chinese Booze. The distinct tastes of Chinese hard alcohol definitely requires acquiring. Chinese beer is the opposite: for the most part it's impossibly generic, with very little taste beyond a watery sweetness. It's often of a light lager style that I associate with American mass-produced beers.

The beer is typically sold in 640 mL bottles, about twice as large as a normal 355mL bottle of beer. It's also sold as cans or sometimes in different-sized bottles. The bottles have the manufacture date stamped and the shelf life printed on the label, rather than the expiration date stamped as in many countries.

China doesn't have a legal drinking age, although a bar would be reluctant to serve children. Drinking in Shanghai often takes place with meals, either at home or at restaurants. My neighborhood has dozens of restaurants but no corner bars, and the bars that do exist in Shanghai are dominated by foreigners and the friends of foreigners. Overall I think Chinese people drink much much less than Westerners.

Tsingtao Light Beer - Tsingtao is probably the only Chinese beer that comes to mind for a non-Chinese person. The beer goes for about fourty cents for the large bottle. Even at a restaurant, it'll only be marked up to half a dollar. At a bar, though, it can easily cost five dollars - bars are most aimed at Westerners with lots of free cash. The English name says Light, but really it's just cheap - it's worth paying the extra dime to get the mid level Tsingtao, or even upgrade to:

This is Tsingtao's premium beer, selling for eighty cents a bottle. Many beer labels will offer a large number of different labels and qualities of beer. I would call this the best lager-style beer available in China, although it loses points by force of having a light skunk smell. And to be honest, the difference between this beer and every other Chinese lager is somewhat subtle. Update 5/31/2007 - I noticed that premium Tsingtao beer is now widely available in San Francisco and Oakland. I didn't see it in Honolulu so I'm guessing it's being test-marketed. If you see it for sale, I recommend giving it a try!

Reeb is the cheapest commonly available beer. Their beers are extremely neutral and flavorless. They don't have Tsingtao's slight skunk smell, possibly because the Reeb in Shanghai is usually very fresh - the stores near my house will have beers that are only a week or two old. Reeb has a number of different variations, this is the Shanghai-produced version that would possibly be wildly popular in the US. It's bottled at 12 proof, which in the US would make it a malt liquor - Mickey's are 11.4 proof. Also, the 24 oz sells for 36 cents.

Kirin is a Japanese labeled, locally-produced beer popular in China, selling a cheaper flavorless variation, and a version that tastes more like the Japanese beer, although still lacking much flavor. The premium version is almost as good as Tsingtao premium. Japanese beers are pretty common - most popular is Suntory, which sells premium spirits in other countries but competes with Reeb for the low end beer market in Shanghai. Asahi is somewhat common - along with Kirin, it really advertises heavily.

Budweiser sells a normal and a premium beer, although confusingly enough the difference in prices is small - seventy five cents, compared to eighty five cents. It's the only American brand that manufactures here. Heineken manufactures in China as well, selling a large bottle for $1.35. Personally I think Budweiser and Heineken are flavorless, with both Tsingtao and Kirin's beers being a much better value. But I'm aware many foreigners in Shanghai think Heineken is just great. Guinness manufactures a variation of their beer for the Chinese and Indonesian market. It's lighter and generally tastes different than the Guinness back home, isn't all that easy to find, and sells at $1.50 for an American-sized bottle, but is still pretty good.

At grocery stores targetting foreigners, or at Lianhua's fancier import-oriented grocery stories, it's not all that difficult to find imported beers from Europe in China, although they're much more expensive and not entirely fresh. This Hoegaarden is certainly interesting, more resembling a Sprite more than what I consider a beer, although still pretty tasty. Anyway I have to say that the best beer you can find in Shanghai is a Newcastle - but at $3 for a large-ish can, it's too expensive. The only American import you can find is Samuel Adams. I wouldn't order it in the US, but I consider it a contender for the best beer available in Shanghai - and $1.50 for an American-size bottle is more reasonable.

I'll put Harbin Beer as the worst beer I've had in Shanghai. The taste itself is fine, but the water used is entirely metallic. It leaves an unsettling rust aftertaste and I really couldn't finish the can. Making it all the more dissappointing, I looked around to find it. The search showed the oddities of the Chinese distribution system. It's pretty common to find at restaurants, but I can't find it at even the largest grocery stores. Finally I found a chain convenience store with a few cans, although other convenience stores of the chain don't carry it. Actually I also tried a bottle of this at a restaurant, and I thought it was decent, so it could be a canning problem, or maybe the spicy food had numbed my tastebuds.

Light lagers dominate Chinese beers, but in the last year Reeb has made a large push with a dark, more flavorful beer. It's available at most grocery stores and convenience stores. I'm all for the idea of doing something different, but this beer is truly awful - it tasted unbearably sweet, with a flavor reminding me of what I don't like about Sarsaparilla Soda. I'd rather try Xinjiang's dark beer, which I hear is excellent, but I've never seen in a store.

Much better than Reeb is Tsingtao's take at dark beer - actually, they have two. The first I tried was directly bottled under the Tsingtao name, and is the most expensive Chinese-label beer I know of, costing $1 for a US-size bottle. The beer is pretty tasty, but has an unfortunate aftertaste resembling soy sauce. Better is the slightly cheaper dark beer they manufacture under the Haidao Black Beer label. The aftertaste is strongly of chocolates, toffee, and vanilla, giving it a desert feel that might be a little unusual, but keeps it interesting enough that I'd drink it from time to time, even if I was back in the US. And to be honest, that's the only Chinese beer I can say that about.

And I almost forgot to mention two important details. First, that beer is often served warm at the cheaper restaurants. Gross! There's a line of Yin-Yang medicine belief that cold drinks are bad for your health. Also refrigerators are kind of expensive. Also there is actually a second Chinese-produced American beer, although it's hard to find. Surprisingly enough, it's...Pabst!


Oaktown Crack said...

Stale Harbin from China ... I think I've found the name of my new band.

acidelic said...

What about the kugua pijiu (bitter melon beer)?? Maybe they only give that to the tourists.

Jeff Rutsch said...

Huh - bittermelon beer? I'm not familiar, but when I asked around, people I talked to were vaguely familiar - they had heard of it, but had never tried it and couldn't even answer vague questions like "is it actually a beer?" Anyway I'll keep my eyes open and say something here if I can find some - sounds interesting and I am a big bittermelon fan!

acidelic said...

It's real beer! It even has a picture of a bittermelon on the label. I'm not sure why it's called "kugua pijiu" though. I had a few times, but I don't think it tastes bitter.

Anonymous said...

I saw the bitter melon beer when I visited the Qingdao brewery. Unfortunately it was as part of the museum display so no tasting.

Feel free to check out my blog BTW. If you click the link to the 'shandong' category you will find the brewery visit some place.

exit here said...

Why have I clicked on the booze blog 1st ...its breakfast here in Oz and I am sure it is poor form to read about alcohol so early in the day