China produces a lot of beer, most of which is a) made by only a handful of giant companies and b) very pale lager. The across-the-board homogeneity and poor quality has caused not a few foreigners to stick to imports from Germany or Belgium whenever possible, but we all know that "swigging-local" situations are inevitable.
Chinese beers might appear as one endless expanse of boring, bland, and synthetic, but is it really so. In an attempt to answer this question, we conducted a blind taste test with 11 varieties representing the brands you're most likely to run into.
300 mL can | RMB6.5 | 4.5% abv
This relatively expensive beer manages to be light, sour, and strangely bitter all at the same time. Old-tasting, or cardboard- and grass-tasting, or maybe it's just been sitting in the can too long. ●●◐○○○○○○○
Lan Bei Stout Lodge
450 mL bottle | RMB5.2 | 4.3% abv
The sweetness of this, the only stout we tried, is reminiscent of molasses or caramel; then again, it might just be root beer with alcohol replacing half the sugar. Scary color, scary dark yellow foam, but in the end it's a drinkable beverage. ●●●●●○○○○○
Blue Lion "Great Value"
350 mL can | RMB1.5 | 3.6% abv
Like cheap store-brand sodas, this beer can only be bought at Walmart and Trust-Mart, which, not coincidentally, is also owned by Walmart. The package, a golden can with "Great Value" emblazoned in yellow, screams "Buy me only if you can't afford anything else." Definitely sports an artificial, chemical flavor, with maybe a hint of citrus. Strong smell, weak flavor. ●●●○○○○○○○
Blue Lion chao chun
500 mL tall can | RMB3.8 | 3.7% abv
A pungent, plasticky "beer flavor" that appears a moment after the first sip and takes a long time to dissipate makes this one a little stronger and a little fouler than the average Chinese lager. Also has high carbonation. Don't order this beer on a date. ●●●◐○○○○○○
600 mL bottle | RMB4.1 | 3.6% abv
The beer contained in this fancy clear bottle embossed with snowflakes is light with a clear but slightly artificial flavor and produces a good head of foam—even if it makes one of our reviewers say, "I can't feel my tongue anymore, but the taste is OK." ●●●●●●○○○○
355 mL can | RMB2.8 | 355mL | 3.6% abv
Neither the design of the can (Heineken) nor the beer's motto ("Kingway super cool") exudes originality, but all agreed that this was among the more interesting of the beers—although "interesting" for one of us actually means "blech." Its distinctive flavor evokes white cheddar popcorn, vanilla, and chalk. ●●●●●○○○○○
Snow ji shuang
580mL bottle | RMB2.4 | 580mL | 3.3% abv
Its light color and light, boring taste earned this one a low rating. And somehow it independently brought two of us back to memories we'd rather forget, so beware. ●●●●◐○○○○○
Blue Lion chao gan
350 mL can | RMB2.4 | 4.0% abv
The chardonnay of cheap beers: too sweet and too acidic. ●●●●○○○○○○
500 mL bottle | RMB2.9 | 3.6% abv
Next to its competitors, this normally pedestrian beer suddenly seemed to possess desirable qualities such as good consistency and aftertaste, and even a slight bitterness, making one reviewer compare it to a German beer. Yet ultimately it was still too light to get a truly high rating. Nonetheless, a classic. ●●●●●●◐○○○
Snow xuan cai
500 mL bottle | RMB7.6 | 3.6% abv
Snow's most expensive offering comes in a special "ribbed" bottle we assume is meant to enhance the drinking experience. This one actually tasted very close to the Tsingtao, but something was missing. Strong aftertaste. ●●●●●◐○○○○
528 mL bottle | 4.0% abv.
The "famous 528" was hollow-tasting and dull at best. Saving grace: If you stare at the picture of ice cubes on the label hard enough while you drink, you can almost imagine you're drinking something refreshing. ●●●●◐○○○○○
Evidently, experience counts; two of the oldest breweries in China topped the list. With a respectable average rating of just under 7 out of 10, Tsingtao's pilsner came in first. Started by Germans in 1903, Tsingtao brewery has gone through both ownership and recipe changes, but it has been and remains one of the largest breweries in China and the best-known Chinese beer internationally. Harbin placed second. Harbin was started in 1900 by a Russian and was China's first modern brewery. And yet another behemoth of beer production, Snow, which recently surpassed Budweiser as the biggest producer of beer by volume in the world, came in third with its expensive xuan cai variety.
Do the winners have anything in common (other than the obvious)? Worth noting is that they are all from bottles, and they all have an alcohol content of 3.6 percent. In terms of value, Tsingtao is undoubtedly the best deal, at only RMB2.9, while Snow's xuan cai is perhaps not worth the RMB7.6.
This article was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 32 ("everything you ever wanted to know about Chengdu but never knew to ask"). Text and photos by Isaac Myers. Thanks to Jan Bergmann, Amos Carlitz, and Xunyi for participating in the taste test.