The Great Wall of Chinese beer

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CHINA IS a country of 1.3 billion people, 513 breweries and, apparently, one beer.

Tsingtao.

No one brews more beer than China, but you wouldn’t know it from the beer shelf at your local deli. Almost certainly the only Chinese beer you’ll find here is the familiar pilsner in the green bottle and red label. Tsingtao has been the best-selling Chinese beer in America since it was first imported in 1975. Other beers from China have made their way across the border over the years, only to disappear without a trace.

You might say, big deal.

Even as we celebrate the Chinese New Year on Sunday (the Year of the Dog), it’s not as if anyone’s complaining about the miserable selection. After all, China isn’t exactly Germany or England when it comes to storied beer-making heritage. In fact, it was early 20th-century German immigrants to China who made Tsingtao in the first place, and the beer still tastes like your basic European pilsner.

But that’s hardly the point. Sheer numbers alone suggest there should be a wider variety of Chinese beer here in the United States.

There are 2.4 million Chinese-Americans, yet they have far fewer choices of beer from the old country than immigrants from so-so beer countries like Greece and Italy. I mean, exactly how is it that the United States gets more beer labels from Lima, Peru, than Beijing?

And what about the rest of us? By one estimate, there are more than 35,000 Chinese restaurants in America – more than all the McDonald’s, Burger Kings and KFCs combined. But every time you order kung pao chicken, you have to drink the same beer.

The beer’s importer, Jim Ryan, CEO of the Chicago-based Monarch Import Co., says proudly that Tsingtao is served in 100 percent of Chinese restaurants with a liquor license. Not even Budweiser can make a claim like that.

“There’s a lot to be said for being here first,” Ryan said of the brand’s dominance. “Over the years, we’ve built a niche market that’s been reinforced by the idea that it is an authentic Chinese beer. We see other brands come in from China all the time. They come and they go. Some come in with a lot of rhetoric about how they’re going to build market share. But very few brands can be built overnight. “

Indeed, a couple years ago, Yanjing – the biggest seller in Beijing – took a stab in America, tying itself to Chinese pro basketball player Yao Ming.

Though the lager was named official beer of the Houston Rockets, it has been unable to make much of a splash elsewhere. (When I tried, for example, to get some info from the beer’s importer, Harbrew Imports of Long Island, N.Y., a spokeswoman seemingly had never heard of Philadelphia. )

Now, Tsingtao is trying to grow beyond Chinese restaurants. Recently, it began selling 12-packs, a move that is already increasing its sales in grocery stores and takeout shops.

An even bigger boost might come when China hosts the Olympic games in 2008. Not just for Tsingtao, but maybe for some of those other 500-plus breweries.

Most of them, I understand, are small, serving only their local communities. Kind of like American micros.

Not to be overly idealistic, but the Olympics would be a great opportunity for some cultural (and beer!) exchanges between small brewers in the two countries. I nominate Sam Calagione, of Dogfish Head in Delaware, to break the ice. He got a running start last year: His company turned to the East when it concocted a beer whose recipe was based on a chemical analysis of 9,000-year-old pottery residue found in northern China.

It might already be too late, however.

Just as China is poised to expand its presence in the world marketplace, many of those smaller breweries will almost certainly disappear. That’s because the rest of the world’s giants – the very companies responsible for shutting down breweries in America and Europe – already own a big piece of China’s brewing industry.

InBev, the world’s No. 2 beer producer, is spending millions to acquire China’s breweries. SAB-Miller and Heineken are pulling out their wallets, too.

But the early leader is, natch, Anheuser-Busch. Faced with flat sales at home, it’s been buying up everything in sight. It now operates 14 breweries in China, including the Harbin Brewery, in northeastern China, which it purchased in 2004 for nearly $700 million.

What about Tsingtao?

Assimilation is already under way. The Borgs of St. Louis now own 27 percent of the No. 1 Chinese beer in America.

Resistance is futile.

Joe Sixpack by Don Russell appears each week in Big Fat Friday. This week’s column was written with a bottle of Penn Pilsner. 

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