Having a Beer in China

People don’t normally think of China as a nation of beer drinkers. I think of Britain, the United States, and possibly a number of other countries as being beer aficionados, but not China. Most people place China in the category of a nation of tea drinkers. In Doing the China Tango I mentioned that the Chinese often drink beer with their meals. The beer is generally served warm and it’s usually consumed from a glass rather than directly from the bottle. But until I got to really know the Chinese people outside of my business meetings, I didn’t have any idea that China was indeed a nation of beer drinkers. In fact, the Chinese beer market is growing at 10% a year.

From this you might assume that the beer of choice would be Tsingtao, which is synonymous with Chinese beer in the United States. That’s because Tsingtao, which is 27% owned by Anheuser-Busch, accounts for 50% of China’s beer exports. However, in China Tsingtao is not the beer of choice and only has a 15% domestic market share. It’s actually Snow beer that’s the #1 beer in China. I confess that don’t know of anyone outside of China that’s even heard of Snow beer, but if you live in China it’s THE beer. The Chinese consumed 16.5 billion pints of Snow beer last year. To give you an idea of how much beer that is it’s twice the amount of Bud Light that’s consumed globally.

Snow beer was formed in 1993 as a joint venture between SABMiller, the same company that manufactures Miller Lite, and China Resources. In 2011 it brewed 50.8 million barrels of Snow Beer, which is only sold in China, not even in Hong Kong. Snow beer is considered bland tasting by most Westerners. Since beer in China is usually consumed at meals, with 50% being drunk on restaurants, the Chinese prefer a beer that’s less filing and has a low alcohol content, typically between 3% and 4%. Therefore, for the Chinese palate, it fits the bill: it’s bland, not filling, and with a low alcohol content.

The next time you think of a Chinese beer, erase the image of Tsingtao, and think Snow.

Alan Refkin

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