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Vagabond Journey

The Strange Beers of China

Beer nerd Lawrence Hamilton samples random and strange beers in China.

What is the difference between American beer and having sex in a canoe.

They’re both fucking barely above water!

This old Monty Python adage could well be used to describe most Chinese beers. Weak lagers with an alcohol content that barely scratches 3.5%. Most of the usual suspects you find in stores around the country include Harbin, Tsingtao, or several other subsidiaries. For the most part, these brews are acceptable standard beers. They perfectly couple with a spicy Sichuan pepper dish or serve as the ideal bystander at an after work banquet.

Now is the time I confess that I am a complete and total beer nerd. One of the hobbies I picked up living in Australia was that of an avid home brewer. The idea is as simple as it is inversely illogical: you home brew to drink on the cheap, but you have to drink fancy beers to learn how to make better home brew. It’s the perfect occupation to make your alcoholism seem like a neat hobby. Nothing excites this part of me more than finding some new beer to put on the palate.

Leaving Australia and returning to China meant being away from the allures of Chimay Blue and the latest in Pacific Northwest IPA’s. I guessed that being force fed the Chinese equivalent of Budweiser for 2 1/2 months would at least force me into some sort of limited sobriety. The only thing worse than being sober is being drunk on Chinese alcohol, or so I thought.

chinese-beers

Luckily my imaginings were wrong. For the discerning eye, there is a whole world of completely random and strange beers that seemingly pop up out of nowhere and in the most unlikeliest of places here in China. Similar to a bolt of lighting, you just don’t know where or when these beers are going to strike.

Walking around a stationary shop looking for some pens I came across a Hefeweissbeir Biere Blanche, aptly called ‘Farmer.’ What the hell is this, I thought? Not generally being a fan of wheat beer I passed it on to a co-worker. She claimed it was ‘something else.’ I noticed when she left, half of it still remained in the can.

A small shopping center near the ‘ghost city’ of Zhengdong introduced me to the family of Big Bear beers. Ranging from 4.7% to 12%, these beers could keep Siberia chugging through an Artic winter. I drank a can on the train back to Kaifeng. The flavor was dark and intense. It would be best described has having the malty backbone of a brown bear and the hoppy skeletal system of a field mouse.

One day at the local shop that sells yogurt I discovered a six pack of something called ‘Cheerday.’ The can said it was fresh from the green waters of Qingdao lake. I hadn’t seen it before nor I have I seen it since. The taste quite literally resembled actual lake water, but the drink did make me smile.

Once I started looking for more an more beers to fill my appetite the list just kept growing.

Aptofel Brau, anyone? At 7.9 % alcohol and 8 yuan a can I think I know the answer. Or how about a Dbuchu, a black beer written with a giant golden tiger jumping over an image of the world. The can has Chinese, Russian, German, and Hebrew written on it. A beer for the true cosmopolitan man. Conversely, one could try the simple, yet elegant Burgfirst German lager. The perfect refined drink for when you are waiting for your rice to cook.

Once the trapdoor of Chinese beer is opened, turning back becomes impossible.

Of course, no group of random assortment can exist without a leader. That leader is Bestly, the king of the Chinese random beers. Some things can get better, other things are Bestly. Whenever I fret over not spending enough time on my lesson plan or that I should be doing something more constructive, I look down at my mate Bestly and realize that I am not drinking alone — I am just spending time with a friend, whose name happens to be Bestly.

And that leads to another random observation. It seems almost all of these beers are imported from Germany, but are they really? If not, then where do they come from? How are these beers funded? The journalist in me tells me I could probably spend time researching and finding out these answers, but then where is the fun in that? I think I would rather kick back with my Asia-Pacific Ice Anchor and let someone else do the hard yards.

chinese beers 2

I would like to imagine that most of these hardy beverages are made by a couple of friends who just happen to know someone who know someone who owns an aluminium smelting plant. After successfully brewing their mixture in someone’s backyard, the cans are made and soon the duo are off driving their bung-bungs around to different local shops. The profits would have to be slim, as most of these beers retail between 3-5 yuan. These friends don’t do it for money, they just love to home brew. There’s one thing that all home brewers know, and that is that nothing beats a unique drink.

Filed under: Alcohol, China, Food

About the Author:

Lawrence Hamilton is a freelance journalist focusing on South Asian security situations and border disputes. has written 51 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Lawrence Hamilton is currently in: Dunedin, NZMap

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