China is a great country for so many reasons, but beer is usually not one of them. With some exceptions, Chinese beer tends to err on the side of lack of flavor, thin and watery mouthfeel, and low alcohol content. If you are like me, you are probably a fan of rich, full-flavored beers with high alcohol contents. For example, my favorite beer in the world is Bear Republic’s (Sonoma County, California) Racer 5 IPA. It has an extremely hoppy flavor, very bitter but also with undertones of grapefruit, and it’s ABV is 7%. So when I came to China, I had to make a decision: pay exorbitant prices for imported beer, or try to fit in with the local culture, and drink Chinese beer. I chose the latter.
My daily table beer is Harbin. It comes in green bottles (the ones I buy), and more expensive clear bottles. The more expensive variety tastes no better than the green bottle. One thing I like about Harbin is that almost every cap wins you another free half-bottle. Thus, drinking four bottles, you usually earn two free bottles for your next trip to the store. But I digress.
Harbin is very light in flavor, with a very grainy taste, and a watery mouthfeel. On pouring, it develops a small head that quickly dissipates. Its ABV is a mere 3.3%, so if your plans are to become rip-roaring drunk, you might have to drink ten bottles. I have been trying to think of reasons why Chinese beer tends to be like Harbin. After all, why would the Chinese not enjoy a rich, full-flavored beer with a stronger kick? I believe that I have finally come up with a reason: Chinese drinking culture.
The Chinese do not dine as the Westerners do. Western dining is very individualistic: everyone gets their own plate and meal; everyone controls his or her own drinking rate and beverage of choice, and there are generally no toasts, or maybe just one. But not so in China.
At a Chinese meal (and this applies even more if the meal is important, celebratory, or formal), everything is shared. Food is served in large dishes, and everyone shares. And it is the host who decides what the drinks will be. At a Chinese meal, you cannot take a sip of your drink when you want to. Rather, you drink in a series of toasts that continue all night. And when the beverage is beer, it is common to fill smallish glasses for everyone, and with a hearty shout of ganbei (literally empty glass, meaning bottoms up) from the host, you must drain your glass on each round.
Chinese business dinners have a reputation among Westerners as being brutal, with how much you can drink not only determing your worth and manhood in the eyes of your Chinese hosts, but also often determing if they will do business with you. This sort of formalized heavy drinking is simply a part of Chinese culture. So I think it makes sense that they would choose beers that are lighter and have lower alcohol content. After all, when your entire social status, and perhaps career, depend upon how many shots of beer you can down with dinner, you might as well go with the easest to drink. So, do I occasionally sneak down to the Western bar and pay ridiculous prices for imported beer? Yes. But I have adopted to Chinese-style beer, and I feel like I am fitting in. After all, I can drink many Chinese men under the table.