Growing up in a part of the world largely isolated from Asian culture, two of the things I associated most with China were fortune cookies and Tsingtao beer.
I quickly found out after eating a couple meals in Beijing that fortune cookies are not a Chinese tradition. But Tsingtao beer is to China what Budweiser is to America: the emperor of beers.
Tsingtao is brewed in Qingdao, a city on China’s east coast, which hosts an international beer festival every year. Since I rarely meet a cold drink I don’t like, I decided to go there last August to mingle with the country’s top beer connoisseurs.
I took a high-speed train from Beijing to Qingdao, a service that was only opened last summer. If you haven’t taken a trip yet on a high-speed train, you should. The ride is comfortable; it’s less bumpy than a jet and more spacious. I’m about 6 feet tall, and I have trouble getting comfortable on long flights between China and the US. But on the four-hour train ride, I could stretch out without digging my knees into the back of the person sitting in front of me.
One of the first places I visited in Qingdao was a boardwalk along the shore of the Yellow Sea, on the east coast of China. The sky was overcast, and the beach was dotted with couples posing for pre-wedding pictures — a popular practice among middle- and upper-class Chinese. A light breeze ruffled the brides’ white wedding gowns as the photographers and their assistants scrambled to finish before sunset. The air in Qingdao was clean and fresh and provided a much needed break from the stagnant, gray air I’ve become accustomed to breathing in Beijing.
That evening I went to the trip’s main event — the international beer festival. It was held in a huge lot that reminded me of some of the fairgrounds in the United States. A steady rain was falling, and the ground was muddy. Large tents had been set up for the “designated drinkers,” and people crowded inside to stay dry. Many of the tents had stages that featured singers and dancers, turning the beer festival into a sort of variety show. Every so often, a half-loaded man would spring from the audience and join in, drawing cheers from the crowd.
Maybe I set my expectations too high, but I came away disappointed with the festival. The beers were pricey, especially the imports. And the variety was similar to what I’ve found at some of Beijing’s foreign grocery stores.
The next day I visited the Tsingtao Brewery. It’s located on a popular downtown thoroughfare called Beer Street, where you can find restaurants that serve fresh seafood and a Tsingtao stout draft that’s difficult to get in other cities.
The brewery was built by German settlers in 1903, five years after the country took control of the city — a concession by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) for the death of two German missionaries during a local rebellion. Signs of the Germans’ time here can be found in the large European-style homes and churches in the city. Meanwhile, the brewery became a state-owned business in 1949, the year the People’s Republic of China was founded.
The tour of the brewery provided a glimpse of how early 20th century beer making techniques evolved into an automated assembly-line-style operation that quickly churns out bottles by the thousands. At the end, we were given a bag of peanuts and a complimentary beer.
I left wishing I had set aside more time to explore Beer Street, where a drinking festival can happen any night.