The History of Beer in China

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China is considered one of the biggest exporters of beer in the world, as the country is home to several popular beer brands like Snow Beer and Tsingtao Beer. Both of the previously mentioned beers are lager, which is made by cold brewing yeasts until they ferment near the bottom of the tank where the liquid is contained.

However, lager beer was not the first type of beer to become prominent in China, as there is one interesting beer type that has been popular in China eight thousand years ago, and through its age, you will see that beer brewing has been around in the country even before the beer in Western Asia and Europe became well-known. To know more about this beer, let us take a look at the history of beer in China.

The First Beer in China

Researchers suggest that the ancient Chinese has been brewing beer since 7000 BC, as proven by several artifacts found in several parts of China that were once used to craft beer. It is believed that the ingredient used for the ancient Chinese beer were grapes, honey, hawthorns, and rice.

This rice beer, which was called the Lao Li, was used as an offering for the Gods and the dead during the first recorded dynasty in China, the Xia dynasty, up to the Zhou dynasty. But the Lao Li was eventually replaced by the huangjiu as the most popular alcoholic drink in China during the Han dynasty.

Learn more about ancient beer brewing techniques in our post about how ancient civilizations brew their beer.

Huangjiu

Huangjiu, which is translated as yellow wine in English, uses rice as the main ingredient like the Lao Li, but other ingredients such as millet, sorghum, and wheat can replace rice to suit a specific person’s taste. The drink should be aged, filtered, and pasteurized before it becomes ready to drink, and some brewers would even age their huangjiu for more than ten years for better taste.

Although the most common huangjiu is yellow in color, the drink can also come in a variety of colors depending on the ingredients used and how long it is aged. Some huangjiu variants are beige due to the abundance of wheat in the mixture, and a few can be reddish-brown if sorghum is used as the primary ingredient.

Many consider the grains to be the most important ingredient in the huangjiu, but expert brewers suggest that water should be given more priority, as the quality of water used to mix all the ingredients together before it is pasteurized should be high. In addition, the water should not contain chemicals and other substances that can ruin the overall taste of the drink.

Interestingly, people are still drinking huangjiu today, but it is not as well-received today as the lager beer that has been introduced to the Chinese during the 19th century.

Modern Beer Brewing

At the end of the 19th century, European immigrants from Poland, Germany, and Czechoslovakia have come to China and shared their expertise in beer brewing. The lager beer then became one of the most popular types of beer in China during the 20th century, which resulted in the founding and creating of several companies and brands in the country that are focused on making lager beer.

Two of the most successful beer brewing companies in China were Tsingtao Brewery and Manchuria Beer.

Tsingtao Brewery was founded in 1903 and was owned by German businessmen, who first established a company called the Anglo-German Brewery Co. Ltd. in Hong Kong. The businessmen then moved to Qingdao in the Shandong province and subsequently named their new brewery after the name of the area.

Manchuria Beer was founded in 1934 through the combined venture of Kirin Beer and Nippon Beer, two Japanese companies that wanted to expand their beer brewing business in China. The Manchuria Beer Company has gone through many name changes over the years, but the one that stuck the longest was Snow Beer, which was its name from 1957 up to 1997. From 1998 up to the present time, Snow Beer is known as Shenyang Huarun Snow Beer after the company was acquired by the China Resources Enterprise.

Shenyang the city where Snow Beer was established

Both of these beer companies produced the best-selling beer not only in China but also in at least 70 countries around the world, with Snow Beer overtaking Tsingtao as the number one beer company in China since they are able to take approximately 21 percent of the market share in the country.

Besides Snow Beer and Tsingtao, other brands have also emerged and became successful after Chinese consumers have slowly gone tired of drinking beer from the two brands. Some renowned brands or companies in China include Zhujiang Beer and China Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Microbrewing has also become popular in China during the 21st century, and many companies specializing in making craft beer such as Bad Monkey Brewery, Shanghai Brewery, and Great Leap Brewing have received acclaim from drinkers.

The beer in China has a very distinct taste that is different from European and American beer, as it has a slightly sweeter flavor that caters to the preferences of Chinese drinkers when it comes to enjoying alcoholic beverages. Foreigners have also come to love Chinese beer, as it serves as a great alternative to the sometimes tiring and redundant taste of Western beer.

Fun Facts About Beer Making and Beer Culture in China

Chinese businesspeople toasting beer at a craft beer station

China has a rich and long history of making and consuming beer, so here are some fun facts about it that you may like to know:

Today, China is the largest producer and consumer of beer in the world

China is the world’s largest producer and consumer of beer, with a thriving beer culture. Archeologists estimate that beer was first produced in China around 9,000 years ago using rice as the grain of choice, while modern brewing using barley and hops did not start until the 20th century.

Today, China produces more beer than any other country in the world, despite being a country where more than one in three people are estimated to have Asian flush syndrome – a genetic condition that causes redness in the face after consuming alcohol. Seven large brewery groups dominate the Chinese beer market – most of them have partnered with large foreign brewers to improve access to new markets and new brewing techniques.

Annual beer production increased by roughly 3-5% each year. In 2020, China produced 341.1 million hectoliters of beer (286 million barrels) [1].

The Chinese have been making beer for at least 9,000 years ago

The Chinese have a long history of making beer, with evidence of beer production dating back to the Neolithic period.

Archeologists have discovered a residue from an alcoholic brew drunk 9,000 years ago in southeastern China. These vessels contain the ancient dregs located near two human skeletons, suggesting that mourners may have consumed the beer in honor of the dead. Researchers found these Neolithic artifacts at the Qiaotou archeological site.

Pottery vessels were used to hold beer, such as several long-necked hu pots discovered in pits at the site. Researchers found starches, fossilized plant residues, and remains of mold and yeast, indicating that it once held a fermented alcoholic beverage. This ancient beer would not have been like the IPA beers that we have today, but instead, it was likely slightly fermented and sweet and was probably cloudy in color.

The pots of the ancient beer contain ancient artwork

The hu pots themselves are unusual. Some have paintings, while some are decorated with abstract designs. These vessels are some of the earliest known examples of painted pottery in the world. Researchers claim that no other pottery of the same kind has been found at the other sites from the period.

China had a beer-making facility 5,000 years ago

In 2016, archeologists unearthed a 5,000-year-old brewery in China. They discovered beer-making tool kits in underground rooms dated between 3,400 to 2,900 BC. The kits included pots, funnels, and specialized jugs; their shapes suggest that they could be used for filtration, brewing, and storage.

For example, archeologists found a pottery stove that would have heated to break down carbs into sugar. And the brewery’s underground location helped store beer and control temperature well. They also found pots and jugs with ancient grains that had lingered inside. They found evidence that the grains were malted and mashed, which are two necessary steps for beer-making.

It indicated that ancient people applied the same principles and techniques as brewers do today.

Ancient Chinese beer contains barley

The discovery of the 5,000-year-old brewery also led to the discovery of an ancient beer recipe that included a mix of fermented grains. Ingredients include broomcorn millet, barley, Job’s tears, and Chinese pearl barley. The recipe also called for tubers (starchy and sugary parts of the plant), which were added to bring sweetness and flavoring to the beer.

Scientists were surprised to find barley in the mix, as they had never seen it in China this early. Barley was one of the main ingredients for brewing beer in other parts of the world, like ancient Egypt. It’s possible that when barley was introduced to the Central Plain of China by Western Eurasia, they also passed the knowledge that the crop was good for beer brewing.

The discovery made experts conclude that the Chines have been making barley beer in the same period as the earliest-beer mashing facilities in Egypt, the earliest chemically-attested barley beer from Iran, and the earliest wine-making facility in Armenia.

The ancient Chinese may have used beer to build social relationships

Beer is an important part of fostering social relationships, and the Chinese knew that, too. Chinese beer is typically enjoyed as a social drink and is often served at banquets, festivals, and other social gatherings. Interestingly, it has been used to help shape the hierarchical societies in the Central Plain of China thousands of years ago. It’s found that it would have been an exotic ingredient that elites could have used to stay in power and impress their friends.

Some researchers argue that the production of beer may have helped build social relationships and encouraged greater cooperation in farming in ancient times. Beer could have been a factor in the development of rice-farming societies in Zhejiang, China.  

The most popular type of Chinese beer is Tsingtao

The most popular type of Chinese beer is Tsingtao, which is a pale lager that is widely recognized as one of the flagship beers of China. It’s clear yellow in color, tastes fresh, and is a little bitter.

Tsingtao beer was jointly established by British and German businessmen in 1903, and Tsingtao Brewery was the first in China that use European technologies. It’s also one of the earliest beer producers in China. After more than 100 years of development, Tsingtao Brewery has cemented itself as one of the top beer brands in the world today.

Snow Beer is the best-selling beer in China

Holding 21% of the market share, Snow Beer, produced by CR Snow, is the best-selling beer brand in China. Having recently overtaken Tsingtao Beer, Snow Beer is loved by young people today for its fresh and refreshing taste. Snow Beer offers different variety of beers, including the draft series, Brave the World Series, refreshing series, stout series, and Opera Mark series. Among these, the most popular is the Brave the World Series.

Craft beer has become popular in China

The beer culture in China has evolved over the years, with a growing trend towards craft beer and specialty beer bars, particularly in urban areas. As the economy and living standards improve, the purchasing habits of Chinese consumers change dramatically as the young generation continues to seek new, trending products with high quality, unique taste, and freshness. To meet changing consumer needs and preferences, craft beer emerged.

Craft beer uses only malt, yeast, hops, and water for brewing, without any artificial additives. It satisfies the preferences of middle-class consumers who want a cultural experience and the satisfaction of trying something different, which can hardly be found in traditional industry beer.

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