Qingdao is famous for its beer. In 1903, German merchants founded Tsingtao beer (then known as Nordic Brewing Company) in Qingdao which at the time was colonized by Germany. Since that time Tsingtao has grown to be an internationally recognized brand with revenues (in 2009) of over 17.7 billion RMB (over US $2.7 billion). Tsingtao beer was first exported to the United States in 1972 and in 1993 was the first ever Chinese company to be listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
1979 Tsingtao Beer label - Brewed in Qingdao, Imported to US
Obviously, one of my goals and intentions for my trip to Qingdao was to drink beer. There is a museum/brewery tour at the Tsingtao brewery (on Beer Street) in downtown Qingdao, but I didn’t put it on my priority list as I was traveling with 3 Chinese girls who probably A) could care less about beer and B) probably wouldn’t want to spend the money on the ticket price for the tour. Drinking, however, was a necessity. I drank surprisingly less than I had planned, however, I still got the chance to sample a few beers and draw up my opinions.
The first day we arrived in Qingdao, we made our way down to Beer Street in the evening. I had been in Qingdao for hours and had yet to try the beer. I heard the beer you can get in town is WAY better than the stuff in the bottle for sale elsewhere in China (which honestly, doesn’t mean that much…) and I wanted to test it out. Plus, I had heard many tales of beer being served in plastic bags and I figured a trip to Qingdao would not be complete without such an experience.
Beer Street - The sculpture is made entirely of Tsingtao beer bottles and is the character 九 which has the same pronounciation and tone as 酒 which is part of 啤酒 or beer.
Walking down Beer Street, on a cold, foggy day, Monday night when everyone in China was enjoying the last evening of a three day weekend, it was quite empty. There were seafood restaurants lining the street, and most of them had stacks of kegs sitting outside with beer for sale. But no plastic bags were to be seen. We stopped at one where they had prices listed for a pitcher and a glass and asked if we could get the beer to go, well of course! How do we take it to go? We will give you a bag! Ah… perfect! Now the beer selection…
There were four beers available on tap along beer street – all were listed in Chinese (at least at the places I went to) and apparently describing the attributes of beer is not one of the things my friends had learned over the course of their lives studying English. So, here are my basic descriptions I had to work with:
Tsingtao’s regular beer, filtered.
The same beer not filtered.
All of them were (supposedly) brewed that very day. I doubted the claim at the time, but now thinking about it I realize not only would they have been really fast at distribution –but it was a NATIONAL holiday. I don’t think that the brewery was cranking out kegs of beer to distribute to the local restaurants on a national holiday. Hmm…
Options... Outside a restaurant on Beer Street
Anyways, I decided to have the unfiltered beer. I was served my beer in a thin plastic bag, nothing special about this plastic bag, just the incredibly thin plastic that many street foods are served in. To drink – tear a hole in one of the corners of the bottom of the bag and squeeze the beer into your mouth. Not the easiest way to consume beer, but I managed (while spilling a bit… I think tying the bag shut may have made it easier.)
Am I doing this right?
The beer was indeed far better than the bottled stuff around China. But by all means it wasn’t a GREAT beer. It was okay. But not the exceptional beer I had been told of. Then again, I have high standards. With plastic bag in hand, we decide to go get dinner at one of the restaurants along beer street that had a big sign outside that says “The Birthplace of Beer Culture”.
The Birthplace of Beer Culture
Ironically, whoever made the little packets of napkins translated incorrectly and printed "The birthplace of wine culture".
We order our food and a pitcher of the filtered variety of the beer I had in hand and sat down. I poured the rest of my bag o’beer into my cup for drinkability. The filtered variety was also just okay. I didn’t notice the sweet flavor of my beer to go, but I definitely felt the filtered pitcher of beer was very sweet, almost fruity (like apple juice) and again just OK.
After dinner we wandered around the surrounding area, our beer drinking was complete for day one. I never did try the Black beer or the Green beer – but I wasn’t terribly impressed by drinking Tsingtao beer in Tsingtao. Maybe I should have toured the brewery and learned more about the beers… oh well, next time.
Tsingtao Brewery on a very foggy day
The other beer I wanted to try in Qingdao was Stong Ale Works beer. Never heard of it? Well, I don’t think may people have. The only reason I knew of this beer was because of an article I saw a few weeks ago on craft beers in China: http://www.echinacities.com/expat-corner/quenching-a-thirst-on-the-search-for-craft-beer-in-china.html. The author of the article, John Herrington, brews SAW beer in Qingdao and from their website: http://www.wix.com/strongaleworks/qd, I learned the beer was available at TWO bars in Qingdao. (Actually, I believe those are the only two places in the world where the beer is currently available.) And I was set out to find it.
We went to Laoshan mountain that day (to be blogged about later) and on the bus on the way back we decided to go find one of the two bars I had written down the addresses to in order to try Strong Ale Work’s beer. We jumped off the bus near Book City (a large bookstore) and thought the bar was within a couple blocks. Tired from waking up early, about 4 hours in a bus, and walking around Laoshan, we decided before beer we needed coffee, but before coffee we needed a restroom. There was a small coffee shop on the corner – directly across the street from Book City, we noted it as our next stop and ran into the bookstore for the restroom.
Osteen and Amanda got distracted looking at books, but I was exhausted and cranky having not had a coffee all day. So May and I said we would meet them across the street at the coffee shop. The shop we had seen, however, didn’t seem to have a place to sit and enjoy coffee. As we were running across the street we saw two other locations which were possibly better suited for a cup of joe. A bakery and some old looking café named, “Old Jack’s Café”. Wait… Old Jacks?!? That is the name of one of the bars that serves SAW beer… but it can’t be the SAME Old Jacks! (Right… how many Old Jacks are in Qingdao?)
May waking up with coffee at Old Jack's
We glance at the address –it IS the same Old Jacks! We stumbled upon it before we started looking for it!! They served coffee as well, so we sat outside and had Americanos (Amanda had a latte – not being a coffee drinker it was a good choice for her) then I ordered myself a beer.
My search has paid off!
Amazing, smooth, refreshing… WOW. This is a GREAT beer. I let May, Amanda and Osteen try it and wished I had caught the absolute, surprise and shock shown on May’s face when she first took a sip on camera. They all agreed – this is a mighty fine beer. There was only one variety to be had and it was the “Origin Ale”. Described on the website (and on the label) as, “A beer with roasted malts, bitter hops and a higher alcohol content. Brewed locally with fresh ingredients. Unpasteurized and unfiltered. Amber colored, lightly carbonated and smooth.” I really didn’t think it was bitter, neither did the other girls, but smooth – oh yes. Fantastic!
Label - Origin Ale
After a delicious afternoon coffee & beer break, we did some more sightseeing, then took a cab in the direction of the second location serving SAW beer in China and had dinner nearby at a Shandong restaurant recommended by our cabbie. We drank the local province’s iced tea with dinner and waiting until after dinner for the beer drinking to commence.
After a fabulous dinner (will blog about food later too…), we walked to Kings Head Pub – SAW beer location number two. We actually had to look for this location, but were pleasantly surprised when we found it. A cute, small English pub – was completely empty when we arrived on a Tuesday evening, except for the musicians (who I assume play there live on weekends) practicing at the bar. We took a seat and asked about the beer.
They had two varieties of Strong Ale Works beer available for purchase, the Origin Ale and the Black Ale. I normally shy away from dark beers, but I wanted to try something new so I ordered one. May ordered the Origin Ale and we learned they had two bottles of the Origin Ale in stock, one was not refrigerated. We took the cold one and went through a few bottles of the Dark Ale as well. (I drank the majority of the beer, but we shared the bottles between the four of us.)
The Dark Ale was really good! Uh-oh – it looks like I have a whole new selection of beers to sample now, if I like dark beers. Again, very smooth and fresh tasting, molasses is the only thing that comes to mind when I think of describing the flavor. The label described it as, “A black ale brewed with dark malts. A beer with rich roasty flavors. Brewed locally with fresh ingredients. Unpasteurized and unfiltered.” We all liked it, and all agreed that the Origin Ale served at Kings Head was slightly more bitter than the one served at Old Jacks. The labels were also different so I’m assuming it was a different batch. Batch number 48 – actually, according to the label.
Origin Ale and Dark Ale - both delicious!
We enjoyed our beers, the impromptu live music and conversation then headed back to the hotel – with King’s Head’s last bottle of unrefrigerated Origin Ale in tow as a souvenir. Apparently, in my opinion, the American’s currently residing in Qingdao brew a better bottle than the company founded by Germans living in Qingdao 108 years ago.
May, Osteen and Amanda in King's Head Pub