Performers celebrate the opening of Qingdao Beer Festival in August 2013. [Xu Chongde / For China Daily]
Top-end brews are pouring in while cheap brands inundate China. Ye Jun gets a taste of the changing culture transforming the market as the country toasts the German Oktoberfest tradition with its own celebrations.
Chinese are swilling more beer than ever — both in volume and in variety. But while better brews are washing over the market, watery factory-bottled offerings will likely carve out an even larger share than their currently dominant slice, some experts say.
This is the mix of what remains surging demand — fertile terrain for enterprise wars — that has grown in all dimensions. From the creatively conjured, pricier home brews to the most industrialized — and hence cheapest — distillations, China’s beer market has created a deluge of market share rise as wine and spirit growth are drying up.
Beer surged 30 percent a year from 2007 to 2011, during which time wine’s annual growth evaporated from 50 percent to 12. Spirits also dropped 8 percentage points to 16 percent year-on-year growth by 2011.
Paulaner Brauhaus, The Kempinski Hotel Beijing Lufthansa Center’s beer master Zhang Wei says this is perhaps a continuation, if not an acceleration, of beer consumption’s transformation he has seen since the early days of his 21 years in the industry and 12 with Paulaner.
"Compared to 20 years ago, so many more (Chinese) people are willing to drink beer," he says. "And there’s new demand for diversity."
Most customers were Germans when Beijing’s Paulaner opened in 1992.
Now, half are Chinese, Zhang says.
"You can now find beers from around the world in (Beijing’s) supermarkets. Chinese consumers have become discerning in taste. They demand better quality."
Many Chinese German-style beerhouse copycats tried replicating the European beer icon’s style but were shuttered because of quality problems, Zhang says.
"But Beijing’s German beer houses are so much better now," he says. "They take brewing seriously."
Paulaner’s historical standing creates a recipe for popularity that keeps Zhang busy conjuring for the annual Oktoberfest from Oct 11 to 27.
Last Oktoberfest’s 8,500 attendees chugged 14 tons of beer, he says. They also gobbled 3,500 sausages and 1,500 pork knuckles — Bavarian delicacies — Kempinski marking manager Liu Shuchi recalls.
But while more Chinese are imbibing more beer, their boozing culture remains distinctive.
German brew master Thomas Dobiezynski says that’s one of the first things he noticed when he took his trade to Beijing 10 months ago. "It’s a traditional thing to do to — ganbei, ‘bottoms up’," he explains, referring to the Mandarin toast calling upon drinkers to chug the entire glass. "It’s a new experience for me. Back home, nobody does it."
Dobiezynski works as brewer for Hopfenstube Restaurant & Bar and DK 1308 Restaurant’s Tianjin branch. He says some Chinese friends try to “make you do bottom up and bring you down”.
Presumably, he means down to ground level, as in drunkenly horizontal.
The China Alcoholic Drinks Association’s beer branch’s general secretary He Yong explains beer is more about relationships than taste in China.
"Chinese people and some other Eastern countries like to share beer and other alcoholic beverages," He says. "That’s different from the West. It has to do with culture, history and humanity."
Hosts are expected to push booze on guests, especially in northern China, where the population is believed to able to handle their drink.
Adages proclaim: "It’s not a proper banquet without alcohol" and "empty the glass if your feelings are deep".
Especially formal banquets center on jiuwenhua (drinking culture), a complex etiquette regime governing the copious toasts that are arguably more important to social networks formed at dinner tables than the food. In fact, edibles are often more of a means to soak up excessive booze.
This psyche might contribute to the larger and growing sales of low-alcohol beer that allow people to down a multiplication of mugs without getting sloshed, He Yong says. "Only some Chinese drink strong beer," he says.