Now all that delicious food that I wrote about yesterday and on Monday has to be accompanied by a good drink or two, and today I will write a bit about Chinese beer as a great complement to the spicy food of Sichuan - tomorrow will be reserved for that all important drink that makes the eyes of every Chinese light up, Bai Jiu.
The first point about Chinese beer is that it really has ancient roots in China. There are records of the first beer-like drink being brewed in China in 7000 BC. It had its modern re-introduction via Europe in the late 19th century with the first modern brewery being opened in the Far North town of Harbin (a city with a population of about 7 to 8 million), by a Russian merchant to support the Russian workers working on the Trans-Manchurian Railway, connecting St. Petersburg and Moscow to Beijing and Vladivostok. The beer from Harbin is called HAPI, or Harbin Pijiu, and is a pilsner-like beer with a smooth taste, and just the type of drink to wash down a good, spicy Kung Pao chicken. I prefer the 1900 classic brand, which tries to recreate the initial beer the Russians brought to China in 1900. The Harbin Brewery is the fourth largest in China and is a fully-owned subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch, after a bitter take over bid battle with SAB Miller several years ago. Welcome to globalization! This beer is one of my favorites in China and has a reputation for a nice, smooth taste, and good variety of brands. There is nothing like drinking a big glass of this beer in a Harbin beer garden in the summer, but don't try it in the winter or you may end up frozen to your seat (temperatures in the winter there regularly dip to minus 30 celsius).
Of course, being from Shenyang and counting as my favorite restaurant the great Sichuan restaurant of Chun Xia Qiu Dong in Shenyang, I also have to make a pitch for the local Shenyang beer, Snow Beer. You will notice as you travel throughout China, there are few national beer brands, as locals are intensely loyal to their local brew and it is hard for outsiders to penetrate local distribution networks, though that is quickly changing. Snow Beer is also a Pilsner-like beer, and a bit more heavy-tasting than HAPI's 1900, which almost tastes like a light beer. This is just the type of beer to down some piping hot ribs or braised/grilled eggplant, the ones I discussed yesterday. Snow Beer is quickly becoming a national and international brand, as in my many travels around China over the past 4 years (42 cities), I keep seeing more and more of this ubiquitous beer, almost as much as the well-known China brand of Qingdao. I am told that Snow may well become the world's second largest brand soon, as this year it is projected to sell over 4 billion litres. Those foreign brewers certainly know a good deal and market when they see it, as the London-based beer company SAB-Miller, now owns Snow Beer, so little old Shenyang has now joined the big time of international beer battles.
Now, I have to confess I am not a real fan of big international brands when it comes to beer, so my third beer for tonight is a slightly obscure beer out of the port town of Yantai in Shandong province, the home of the mighty Qingdao brewery. Back in the states, my favorite beers are always local breweries, and my absolute favorite town for beer is Portland, Oregon and the Widmer Brothers great brews, especially their magical HefeWeizen. Well, Yantai produces this very nice dark beer (Hei Pijiu), which is somewhat of a rarity in China - although Qingdao also produces a very nice dark beer which I tasted a couple of years ago on a brewery tour, but I have yet to find this at any restaurants around China. Hei Sheng, the beer brand of Yantain brewery that I like, is not a heavy dark beer, and has a nice, robust, malty flavor that for me is the perfect complement for Sichuan food. This is not the kind of dark beer like Guiness, but more like a nice German dark beer and is a real versatile drink for both summer and winter weather, spicy and more hearty Northeast peasant cuisine. Alas, this small brewery has also not escaped the hands of foreign ownership, as the Japanese brewery of Asahi has a major ownership stake in Yantai.
That's it for tonight, but stay tuned for tomorrow and the discussion of the mother of all drinks - Bai Jiu and the chinese toasting ritual. Below is a picture of bottles of all the beers i discussed today.