China. Chinese archeologists report that beer was first produced in China 7,000 to 9,000 years ago, at roughly the same time that other cradles of civilization showed evidence of some form of beer production. By definition, the production of beer requires the use of grain. In China, the grain in question was rice, sometimes supplemented with wheat or millet.

Until relatively recently, beverage alcohol, including beer, did not reach the widespread use in China that it did in other parts of the world. For millennia huangjiu (a drink often referred to as “rice wine,” though it is technically a grain-based beer) and lao li, another type of early Chinese beer, were drinks associated with ceremony and with the upper classes. Modern brewing, using malted barley and hops, began in China in 1900, when a Russian entrepreneur, Ulubulevskij, founded a brewery in Harbin, in Northeastern China. The area is suitable for the production of grains other than rice, including barley. German and Czech breweries opened soon after. The largest and best-known brewery in China is the Tsingtao brewery in Qingdao in Shandong province in east-central China. It was founded by German settlers in 1903.

At roughly 400 million hl (340 million US barrels) of annual production, China now produces more beer than any other country in the world. It is also one of the few in which total annual production is currently increasing, at 3% to 5% per year. The market is dominated by seven large brewery groups.

There has been considerable consolidation in the brewing industry in China in recent years, with 251 brewing companies now operating 550 breweries. Per capita consumption remains low at roughly 22 liters annually, but is also growing. This compares with roughly 80 liters per capita in the United States and 160 liters per capita in the Czech Republic. Most of the major Chinese breweries have entered into joint ventures with large foreign breweries in order to gain access to modern brewing technology and expertise. The foreign breweries have entered into these joint ventures in order to gain access to markets and distribution systems.

Chinese tastes in beer tend toward the lighter side of the international norm of mass-market light pilsners. Some of the larger breweries have offered a dark lager on special occasions, and some medium-sized breweries have sought a market niche with a more full-bodied pilsner with some detectable hop character, but none of these has been successful.

The craft beer movement has been able to establish a presence in China, but largely for unconventional reasons. One of the leaders in bringing craft beer to China is the Paulaner group, with 11 brewpubs (called beer pubs in China) in 10 Chinese cities. Many independent brewpubs elsewhere in China and Southeast Asia have copied the Paulaner model, which involves a highly visible copper-clad brewery, and a focus on just three beer styles: a helles (literally “bright,” implying a blond lager), a dunkel (a dark lager), and a wheat beer. See helles and dunkel. All tend to be brewed with less bitterness and a highly floral character relative to what one would find at the original Paulaner Bräuhaus in Munich.

Brewpubs emerged en masse in China in the mid 1990s, with eight opening in one year in Beijing alone. The motivation behind this flowering was that the state did not yet have the apparatus with which to collect excise taxes on brewpub beer, and brewpubs promised higher profits. The clientele for these brewpubs was a mix of foreigners working in China and local business types who could afford to pay more for beer as a status symbol. Nevertheless, those brewpubs that ventured away from the Paulaner model to bigger, hoppier beers did not last long, and others offered beers that were poorly made. The market had shed many of these brewpubs by the end of the decade and those brewpubs that understood the local market have survived. As China’s rapid economic growth progresses, it remains to be seen whether the Chinese public will develop a taste for beers other than mass-market light lagers.