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Oakes Weekly - Warsaw to Bangkok

China, Part One
Oakes Weekly November 11, 2004      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

My Chinese adventure started in Kashgar, the fabled Silk Road city in the far west of Xinjiang Province. There is only a little bit of the ancient world left in Kashgar, and even the famous Sunday Market has been reduced to a sterile "International Trade Center" selling flip-flops, hats and children’s clothing. The main beer in these parts is Xinjiang Beer. The former owner had amassed great personal wealth but disappeared last year just before a fraud scandal involving the brewery broke. If you’re ever in the Caymans say hello to him for me.

Thankfully, Xinjiang Brewery produces a passable Black Beer. Overall, though, their beers are sweet and uninteresting. A smaller rival, Wusu, makes drier beers and is my brewery of choice in the region.

Pale lager rules in China, and there are countless brands. There are a couple of major brewing groups, Tsingtao and CBR. Tsingtao has breweries all over the country, many offering regional brands. Their beers generally have more hop flavour than typical Chinese lagers, but no more bitterness. CBR is the Blue Ribbon Group. Again, they have a host of regional brands in addition to national brands like Snow, Blue Cowrie and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Anheuser-Busch has a brewery in Wuhan and Budweiser is everywhere. They charge import prices for it, which is ridiculous, and it’s the first beer offered to a foreigner at any restaurant, which is also ridiculous.

In Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, I began beerhunting in earnest. Walking around town, I felt like Chengdu really ought to have a microbrewery. My initial round of research had turned up nothing, but I found a name - Smith River Marina Brewing. It was close by and I practically ran there. When I arrived, signs for Valentine’s Day and Christmas greeted me. The lights were out and the inside torn up. The equipment was still there, but Smith River Marina Brewery had gone mams up.

I also found in Chengdu the Chinese version of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout. This packed a full flavour punch despite being a paltry 5% abv. That is quite light for FES, but much stronger than normal Chinese beer, which ranges between 3.3 and 4.0%. Bottles are huge and prices rock bottom, but it’s still hard to get more than a slight buzz off the stuff.

In Wuhan, a minor beer scene has developed. The Kaiwei Beer House is a local institution and features three German-style brews. A helles (embarrassingly named "Yellow"), a dunkel and a wheat are the staples. There are five Kaiwei locations in Wuhan, two with breweries (one in Hankou, the other across the Yangtze in Wuchang). There are further branches of Kaiwei in other cities. They are presided over by a German named Hans, but the brewers who work them hail from the Sino-German joint venture Wuhan Brautechnische Akademie.

This is China’s national brewing school, at the Technical College in Wuchang, Wuhan. I paid them a visit and found a typical brewing school. They don’t speak much English, so unless you’re fluent in Mandarin or German, call ahead to arrange an English guide.

They make one beer for commercial purposes - Zentrumsbier Weizen. This excellent hefeweizen is available at the school’s tap room and in bottles. All brewing schools have bottling lines to train students in that part of the business, and the result is one of China’s best bottled beers. At the tap room, you receive your weizen in a properly labelled weizen glass. They don’t have food, but the street outside the Technical College is lined with a wonderful variety of dirt cheap restaurants.

Since its inception in 1988, the school has turned out some 2000 graduates, and many of these have gone on to China’s fledgling microbrewery industry. Beijing and Shanghai both have several brewpubs, and other cities like Nanjing, Guangzhou and the Kaiwei cities are enjoying craft-brewed beer, too. I, however, headed south to investigate some rumoured breweries elsewhere.


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start quote When I arrived, signs for Valentine’s Day and Christmas greeted me. The lights were out and the inside torn up. The equipment was still there, but Smith River Marina Brewery had gone mams up. end quote