For most of recent history, the Chinese beer landscape has been dominated by a few major domestic brands churning out easy-drinking lagers by the millions of barrels. But over the past decade, a craft beer revolution has swept across China bringing innovative new breweries producing diverse styles with an emphasis on quality and creativity.
The long-standing giants of Chinese Beers
The long-standing giants like Tsingtao and Snow remain popular in the world’s largest beer market by volume. However, consumer tastes are maturing, especially among younger and more affluent demographics. This has fueled excitement and growth for small startups carving out a niche by offering alternatives to the mainstream light lagers that have defined Chinese beer culture for so long.
Tsingtao has been China’s most famous beer brand since it was first brewed in the coastal city of Qingdao in 1903. Known for its crisp, mild flavor profile, Tsingtao established the quintessential Chinese lager template that many other major brands have followed. These include Snow, the best-selling beer in China first brewed in Beijing in 1993, Yanjing, another staple Beijing brand dating back to the 1950s, and Harbin from China’s northernmost major city.
While these brands have overshadowed the market for decades, the arrival of small independent craft breweries is shifting perceptions. Creative new companies are proving there is appetite in China for more diversity and bolder flavors beyond the mild lagers most drinkers are accustomed to.
The craft beer renaissance sweeping China can be traced to trailblazers like Master Gao in Nanjing, which claims to be China’s first microbrewery launching in 1997. Boxing Cat Brewery, founded in Shanghai in 2008, also deserves credit for helping spark a broader interest in craft beer culture.
Today Boxing Cat remains one of the most popular microbreweries in China. Along with their main Shanghai location, they have added pubs in Beijing and now distribute bottles to stores nationwide. Their lineup covers a spectrum of styles from hop-forward India pale ales to coffee porter with unique ingredients like Sichuan peppercorns incorporated.
In Beijing, Jing-A has emerged as a leading force sharing the capital city’s craft scene with Boxing Cat’s pub. Jing-A is widely praised for beers like their Flying Fist IPA and Worker’s Pale Ale. The brand is now served across China and has collaborated internationally with breweries in countries like Norway and the UK to expand their skills and influence.
Passionate homebrewers opening microbreweries can be found in cities across China, tapping into local tastes. Suzhou’s Taihu Brewery relies on area rice and wheat for their ingredients. In tropical Hainan province, Hainan Beer Company uses coconuts plentiful on the island to create their Coconut Dark Ale.
The beer renaissance has spread beyond established major hubs as well. In remote Yunnan province, Essential Air Brewing brings award-winning IPAs and porters to Kunming. Further north in Ningxia province, Helan Mountain Craft Brewery earns acclaim for beautifully balanced Belgian witbiers and Belgian strong ales produced in the desert climate.
These craft brewers are benefiting from several factors unique to the current Chinese market. As tastes mature, more consumers, especially younger demographics with rising disposable incomes, are willing to pay a premium for perceived quality and exclusivity. Smallerbatch production methods allow for experimentation with new ingredients and techniques impossible for major brands focused on mass appeal.
The future looks bright for independents continuing to move the Chinese beer industry beyond its light lager traditions. More newcomers are sure to join the scene as they challenge perceptions with unique new flavors. They will push the limits on styles, local ingredients, and fusions of Chinese brewing heritage with inspiration taken from brewing cultures worldwide. There remains massive untapped potential for those creative and bold enough to continue this new era of beer appreciation across China.
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