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China may only have rediscovered beer towards the end of the 19th century (after a hiatus that lasted around two centuries) but they are certainly making up for that now. Beer consumption in the country has grown exponentially and it is set to become the world’s biggest beer market by 2017. It is perhaps therefore unsurprising that the best-selling beer brand in the world is Chinese, although the vast majority of the rest of the world probably won’t have heard of it. In our guide, we look at the history of Chinese beer, its biggest brands and most popular styles of beer, what to eat with it, and a few tips on Chinese drinking etiquette to impress your mates with.
A brief history of Chinese beer
China has a long beer brewing history, dating as far back as 7000 BC. Recent archaeological findings show that this early beer-like drink was similar to those produced by ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, considered to be the world’s first beers. This brew, created from rice, honey, hawthorns and grapes, was used largely in religious rituals, given as offerings at funerals and during ancestral worship. In the mid-2nd century AD, beer fell out of favour and huangjiu, a low-alcohol spirit, took prominence for the next two centuries. Beer didn’t begin to make a comeback in China until the end of the 19th century, when four breweries were established in the city of Harbin by Russians, Germans and Czechs. Today, China boasts the best-selling beer on the planet and is on track to become the largest beer market in the world, not just in terms of volume (which it already is) but value too.
Chinese beer - the lowdown
The vast majority of Chinese beers are pale lagers and have a fairly low alcohol content. One of the strongest of its lagers is Tsingtao, though the can still only offers around 4.3% ABV. They are perfect session beers, especially in hot weather, and can be paired with a wide range of cuisines, including notoriously difficult to pair spicy foods.
The craft beer scene, which has exploded in many other beer-drinking countries (not least Australia) has been slow to gain momentum in China. However, a few craft breweries do exist, largely in the major cities of Shanghai and Beijing, and the Shanghai International Beer Festival, launched in 2012, has been credited with raising awareness of craft beer in Shanghai at least. Craft brewers such as Great Leap Brewing, Slowboat, Shanghai brewery and Boxing Cat produce a range of different styles and often incorporate Chinese ingredients such as teas and spices to create unusual, highly interesting brews. Brewpubs are also on the rise, not only in China’s major cities but in second- and third-tier cities, highlighting a growing thirst for craft beer in the country.
China’s crisp and light-bodied pale lagers are the perfect beers to drink with spicy dishes, including those from the spice-loving Chinese regions of Sichuan, Hunan and Yunan, but also Thai, Malay and Indian food. The mild flavour and light body of a Chinese pale lager also lends itself to delicately flavoured foods such as seafood and sushi - dishes which would be overwhelmed by heavier, stronger tasting beers. Being ultra-refreshing, light in alcohol and easy to drink, the majority of Chinese beers are made for sipping with your feet in the sand and the sun beating down on you.
Chinese drinking etiquette
If you ever find yourself drinking with beer buddies in China, there are a few simple rules you should adhere to: The Chinese for ‘cheers’ is ‘gānbēi’, which literally means ‘to dry the glass'. This doesn’t mean you have to down your glass but if you do you will be expected to do the same each time ‘gānbēi’ is cheered so expect a heavy night to follow! Always toast the host of the meal. If the person clinking glasses with you is superior to you in age (or perhaps holds a higher position than you at work) it is considered good manners to clink your glass just below the rim of theirs. If you are seated around a large, round table and cannot comfortably reach the person opposite you to clink glasses with them, you can simply tap the Lazy Susan in the centre of the table with your glass instead. After a glass of beer has been downed, you may be offered the glass in question but this is not necessarily so that you can fill it and definitely not so that you can drink from it - it is customary to do this to prove that the glass is empty.