What country would you guess to be the world’s largest beer producer? The United States? Germany? Ireland or England? Mexico, perhaps? Nope. The world’s largest producer of beer is China, which has more than 600 breweries and some 2,000 companies linked to the brewing industry. The United States is ranked second. Germany comes in third, followed by Brazil, Russia and Japan. China’s beer market is some dozen times bigger even than Australia’s! True, tea is China’s most popular drink. But beer is second.
What’s more, the Chinese aren’t just producing more beer'they’re also drinking it. Downing around 24 billion liters of brew last year, Chinese beer consumption was up a whopping 5 percent, as opposed to an increase in beer sales in the United States of only about 1.5 percent. The average annual growth in beer consumption for China in recent years has been around 7.5 percent, making me think I’m in the wrong business. Individually, Chinese citizens don’t drink all that much beer'about 19 liters per person, compared to 75 liters for the average European. But of course, the population of China is so huge that they could drink 80 percent less beer per person and still come out on top in terms of overall beer consumption and sales.
Surprisingly (to me, at least), the overall Chinese beer market is not dominated by mega-producers like Tsingtao, Yanjing, Jinxing, Chongqing and Xuehua. The beer industry in China is mostly characterized by geographic loyalty and an affinity among the people for local brands'kind of like the French and their wines. These companies are typically owned by foreign-funded enterprises or provincial, local municipal and township governments. So in China, there are few truly national beer brands and local brewers tend to dominate their regions. Imagine if Uinta and Squatters outsold Bud, Miller and Coors in Utah! That’s the sort of thing that’s happening in China.
China’s two biggest beer producers'Tsingtao and Yanjing'still only represent about 20 percent of Chinese beer production. Compare that to the United States, where Anheuser-Busch alone accounts for half of all beer consumed. On the other hand, the biggest beer producers in China export their product worldwide, which the local guys aren’t capable of doing. Tsingtao, for example, ships to more than 50 different countries.
In my forays, the only Chinese beer I’ve been able to find outside of restaurants and bars in Utah is Tsingtao, which sells for $1.95 per bottle. That’s probably appropriate, since Tsingtao is China’s biggest and oldest brewery. The brewery was built by German settlers in Qindao, in the province of Shandong, in 1903, and now accounts for more than 50 percent of the beer that China exports. Since coming to the United States in 1972, Tsingtao has been the top-selling Chinese beer in this country. I rarely delve into a plate of Kung Pao chicken without a Tsingtao at my side. It’s not that I think of Tsingtao as a great beer; it just seems appropriate to drink Chinese beer with Chinese food, and other brands are difficult to find in the United States.
Beer guru Michael Jackson simply calls Tsingtao “bland.” Oddly, I’ve found big differences in quality from one bottle to the next. I don’t remember a single bottle I consumed in New York City’s Chinatown when I lived there being bad. But lately, I’ve come across a few skunky-tasting samples of Tsingtao. I can’t help but think that this might be due to the brewery’s insistence on the use of green bottles, which gives the beer more than ample opportunity to oxidize during its journey from China to North America. Normally though, Tsingtao is a light, refreshing beer that’s sufficient to put out any Kung Pao fire.