For All The Beer In China: The Mainland and Hong Kong Beer Scenes.

So, as you have probably guessed from the title, I am splitting my quick look at the beer scene in China (Based on my admittedly limited experiences in one trip) into Mainland and Hong Kong. mainly because they are two very different scenes and two very different places culturally. As always, these are based on a short couple of weeks away, so feel free to chip in with anything I missed or got wrong.

Mainland China:

Ok first to get it out of the way – there is no google access in China, so no google maps – along with a lot of other sites. There are equivalent China approved sites, but obviously, they are in Chinese, so may not be as user friendly for most people visiting. Do your research beforehand – find out if your apps will work, and if need be, do what I did and just print out some paper maps and take them with you. It makes beer hunting a lot easier.

Beer hunting is a tad harder that usual to do in China – well fancy beer hunting is. The craft beer scene seems comparatively small and there is no real ale tradition – in fact, based on chat with our tour leader there are a lot less bars in general – a lot of the drinking scene revolves around restaurants and a drink with your meal. This does seem to be changing, and there are a few dedicated brewpubs popping up, but it is unlikely that you will just wander over them. Well, in one case I literally did just wander over one after getting lost, and I managed to use that to find my way back to the hotel – but that is the exception not the rule. Even in a lot of brewpubs there is the food and drinking link. I wandered into one in the middle of the day, where they put the coffee menu in front of me – as soon as a I grabbed the beer menu to look at they presumed I was here for food and put the food menu on my table.

There is a beer tradition in China, just a bit different to what I’m used to – a lot of pale lagers. As we travelled around the country we encountered a lot of regional variation in what bottled lagers were served – from the well know Tsing Tao – which it turns out has a lot more variants on its pale ale than I would have ever expected, to “Snow Beers” to, well basically a lot of blask as the Swedish would put it. However this emphasis on lager and restaurants does have a good side to it as well – while there are few full on brewpubs, there are quite a few restaurants that have their own locally made lagers on tap, which tend to be slightly better than the bottled stuff around – so for a lager fan there is some room for decent stuff if you know where to look, if not a patch on say German or Polish stuff.

Speaking on that, if you are looking in local supermarkets there is very little to no local Chinese craft beer – I saw the odd IPA and craft lager in 7/11s and the like, but less so in the bigger supermarkets– instead concentrating on local mass produced lagers – however they do have a mix of imported German lager, a smattering of American and British craft beer and the like. German beer seems especially popular, especially in the more tourist areas.

I found it interesting that I did not run into the biggest backed craft beer brewery in China – Boxing Cat who take up most of the highest rated spots of Chinese beer on ratebeer. It had been bought by AB InBev earlier this year, so I had presumed that it would be fairly easy to find and didn’t look for any pubs that would specifically have them. Didn’t see hide nor hair of them – maybe I just missed the places that had them – but on my quick run around the beer scene of China I did not see them. Then again, they are Shanghai based – one of the few cities I did not visit, so I may have had more luck if I had been there.

There didn’t seem to be any particular style dominating the scene – maybe a slight bit higher amount of IPA as you may expect, as it follows the USA craft beer scene – but generally they were alongside lagers, brown ales, barley wines, wheat beers and such. They cover a pretty decent range – generally following the American style in interpretation – though without the current obsession with sours or NE IPAs – neither of which turned up in local examples that I found. Generally they seemed solid, but none of them really stood out as a scene in itself yet – there were no unique quirks that I could say made a beer a Chinese craft beer rather than another country. Now some of this could be due to my lack of language skills, but the impression I got was of good solid takes on the style, but with none of the experimentation that dominates a lot of the other areas. I saw only a little barrel ageing, and no odd ingredients – which may be a plus point for you if you are sick of that side of things over here currently.

An interesting side note is that the language barrier seemed to be less of a thing in the craft beer bars. In general I found that I encountered very few non Chinese people in China and comparatively few locals spoke English, which is kind of to be expected, I’m in their country, right? However the craft beer bars seemed to have a significantly higher proportion of westerners than I encountered in the rest of the country, and with it seemed to come staff more likely to be able to help me with my total lack of language skills. Which is nice. Failing that the good old method of order by mime still worked ok.

On the whisky side of things, I didn’t see any specifically Chinese whisky, but I did find out where all the age statement Macallans went to. For a few years we have had Macallans rated by colour, with no age statements here in the UK, with reasons given being ideas such as doing it that way gives you a better idea of what the whisky will be like (Because of course we lack eyes to see the colour ourself) – the more likely reason is that, as was confirmed by going to China, as the bigger market it gets first dibs on the good stuff and we get what is left. Prices were actually fairly similar to UK prices, so if you want an age statement Macallan it won’t break the bank (Barring, ya know, cost to get there and the bloody high Chinese visa costs) and you should be able to find some. That is for the sub hundred pounds stuff anyway – cheaper to mid range whisky seemed similar to the UK, with the cheaper stuff often being actually lower than the UK. The high end stuff? Got way more expensive than the UK equivalent. Range wise you got mainly the same few distilleries in most places, even alcohol stores – you needed to hit specific specialist whisky stores for a big range. Though supermarkets did sometimes have a surprisingly good set of Macallans. There is also the, erm … definitely legit honest guv side of the trade as well – by street side stalls and in market stalls I saw such well known labels as “Jack Club”, made to look nigh exactly like a Jack Daniels bottle except the name. If you want to try them you are a braver person than I, but the option is there.

For local spirits there is a rice spirit – I say rice spirit rather than rice wine as unlike Japanese Sake/Nihonshuu this stuff comes in at 40% abv and up. The versions I tried were kind of rough, like the Japanese Shochuu – but there were much more expensive aged varieties around. I never found somewhere where I could really experiment with that by the glass and didn’t want to drop a lot of money on a large bottle sight unseen so I will have to leave this in the area for further investigation. Once restaurant did sell rice spirit with animal penises. I did not try it. I went for the one with plums instead. It tasted like a stronger Umeshuu/Plum Liqueur, and was not bad. And did not have animal cocks, which is a plus point in my opinion.

Generally I would say, take a look and see what you can find if you are over in China, but it is not really a place for booze tourisms – some nice stuff, but generally the high end of solid rather than stand out. On the other hand there are shit-tons of non beer related reasons to go to China , The wide variety of food that definitely stands out, the huge diversity over the vast variety of cultures within, the Great wall, the million odd awesome temples and Buddha statues, and much more so I would still recommend the place. Just not for beer hunting

Hong Kong:

So, after not really rating China for beer, I am about to rave about Hong Kong – which is not as odd as it would first seem. Despite being owned by China again, Hong Kong really is a completely different feel – and, with very lax visa requirements for a lot of places, including the UK which helped me, it is a much easier place to try.

So, just to let you know, most of this is based Kowloon area, and a little of Hong Kong Island – I didn’t spend more than a few moments in New Territories, but from the sight of it from a train it did look very different again. Kowloon seemed most like what I, as a foreigner, expected Hong Kong to be like, while Hong Kong island seemed the most built up and dominated by business and big shopping centres – though it was not like Kowloon lacked for those either. Anyway, I only had a few days so this is an even more whistle-stop view than usual.

The beer scene, and in fact the country seemed much more familiar – with there being a lot of references to brewers from the UK setting up over there, as well as the native grown scene. While there was not any real ale scene I encountered, it did seem to be equally influenced by USA and UK scenes – the most telling USA influence, above and beyond beer styles, was the tendency to list measure sizes in fluid ounces which always causes problems for me after a few drinks as I try and do mental conversions. There are many more actual pubs, as opposed to restaurants that serve alcohol on the side, as well and in general there was a communal drinking experience that was much more familiar to me as a Brit – many more instances of starting chats with other drinkers over a pint. Like the rest of Hong Kong it does seem a true melting point of styles, with the familiar and the new to me mixing freely. It is definitely the easier place to visit, and manageable without a guide, while I would highly recommend having a guide if you head to mainland.

Despite the obvious western influences, it did not feel like an attempt to copy the USA beer scene as a lot of the mainland beers did; There seemed to be plenty of experimentation that led to experiences I had not encountered before – from Sichuan peppercorn infused porter , gentle rhubarb sour beers and banana split tasting saisons, I felt that I was drinking new and interesting beers, and things that made it feel like Hong Kong has a scene of its own, rather than copy of another’s scene.

Now I will admit that most of my experience came from the Kowloon Taphouse – so it is possible that they just had an awesome selection on, but looking at the other craft bars around it did seem indicative of a small, but quality beer scene. Most of the specialised bars are not ones you will just stumble over, you have to look for them, but they aren’t super hard to find unlike some of the truly tucked away joints of mainland (Which definitely had character, but it could make beer hunting a royal pain). On the other hand, if you are just looking for a general bar, as mentioned before, they are plentiful, and they seem to have a moderate amount of local beer – though a lot seem to concentrate of the more general mainstream imports.

Costs are more in line with what you would expect – prices are roughly what you would expect in the UK in a major city, which seemed bloody expensive after time on the mainland – in fact, let’s face it craft beer can be bloody expensive by anyone’s standards so the fact it is that expensive in HK as well should not be a surprise. Some of that can be chalked up to the rubbish exchange rate post bloody Brexit, but in general HK seems to be roughly similar costs to what I would be used to if I was hitting Manchester or London. Bottles came in at around 5 to 8 quid, a taster rack that had 4 lots of 4 fluid oz drink came in about a tenner, with a standard pint being a bit cheaper than that. Non craft beer was, of course, significantly cheaper.

The emphasis did seem to be for beer from taps, with some bottles but not a huge range in that form– I saw a few beers around in supermarkets, but not many – and I didn’t get chance to hunt out a dedicated bottle shop, so my perception of this is probably biased towards what I encountered in the bar scene.

It was a rushed visit, but one that makes me think it would be well worth a return – there was plenty left to see and do in Hong Kong in general, and if I happen to try some more of their beers as well, well that would not be a hardship.

Final words:

So, there we are – if I am wrong on anything, or if you have anything to add – places to recommand etc, please let me know – if I get the chance to return one day It would be great to be able to take a wider and more educated view than these first impression – and until next time, enjoy your drink!