Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Beer Scene in China, Redux

Back in April of 2008 I posted my comments on The Beer Scene in China, based on tastings during my second trip to Shanghai. I've just returned from my third trip and have new and different tasting adventures to share.

The old standbys remain the same. Tsingtao is readily available and quite good for its style, a dry Austrian pilsner. I also tried several other beers in this same vein: Asahi, Carlsberg, and Heineken. The last one is commonly available here in the States as well. I had it for the first time from a can while in Shanghai and I must say that it is much better from that superior container than from its more typical green bottle. Boo to green bottles. It tasted much more fresh and had a better malt to hop balance than other times I have tried it. Even better was the Heineken I had for the first time on draft in the Minneapolis airport. This was even better, tipping well over toward the malt end of things and really quite enjoyable. The Asahi and Carlsberg were just ordinary; nothing worth commenting upon.

I tried the microbrew scene of Shanghai for the first time at the Boxing Cat Brewery. They had four of their ten beer line-up on tap, so we got a sampler. Unfortunately for my palate, I started with the Sucker Punch Pale Ale. This was a juicy, citrusy American style pale ale. It didn't really stand out, but was okay. We got an order of french fries to cleanse the palate and then tried the other three. Of these, it seemed to me that there was clearly something wrong with the Title Belt Altbier. This was decidedly tart, which seemed totally wrong for the style. Of the four, this was the only one that was downright unpleasant. The Standing 8 Pilsner was a good specimen for the style, earthy and crisp, but lacked any of the spicy notes that make a great Czech pilsner. And the Brewer's Choice was okay, but again not really noteworthy. This is billed as a "malty libation not on our list"; to me it lacked any real character. It was as if the brewmaster just dumped a bunch of caramel malts together without much regard for balancing the final product. So I was relatively underwhelmed by the offerings at this establishment.

We left the Boxing Cat and went to the Paulaner Brauhaus for a bit of supper and, we hoped, some better beer. They were gearing up for the kick-off of Oktoberfest that evening and were expecting a seriously large crowd. The wait staff (lovely Chinese maidens attired in traditional German dress—somewhat incongruous to be sure) were able to seat us in the biergarden which was fine on such a lovely warm evening. I ordered a half liter of the Oktoberfest with great expectation. This is one of my favorite styles and I have enjoyed the Paulaner version before. But alas, as I experienced the last time at the Paulaner in Shanghai, there was a problem. There was a distinctive astringency to this beer, exactly like that I experienced in the M√ľnchen I tried last time. Basically, I think that either the water in Shanghai is not conducive to brewing these German styles, or they are pressing their extraction rates too hard and getting some tannins in the beer. Or both. The ambiance is lovely, the food is fine, but the beer just isn't. Too bad.

The real highlight of the trip was a new find. I have heard of a Tsingtao Dark, but have never seen a specimen while in China. But while perusing the shelf of the local equivalent of a 7-Eleven, I did spy some bottles of Tsingtao Stout. This I had to try. It was quite good. A very sweet stout, it leans much more toward the molasses and brown sugar than roasted coffee. And upon first taste I definitely detected a distinct but not unpleasant alcohol note--sure enough, it comes in at a respectable 6.7% ABV. Rich, slightly syrupy, satisfying. I went back several times for more.
So, the bottom line is that there's beer in China. There's even good beer in China—and happily one of the best is from a Chinese brewery. But ultimately it's just not the place to find great beer.