Not just Tsingtao: A guide to Chinese beers

Not just Tsingtao: A guide to Chinese beers

We raise a glass or 12 to China's most popular versions of the amber nectar
Chinese beer
The economy isn't the only thing that's growing fast in China -- so are people's beer bellies.

John Lennon once said that French rock was like English wine.

Chinese beer is like both, and also like Chinese wine. But we keep coming back for more.

There’s a hierarchy of price, taste and most importantly, alcohol content.

To save you kuais and calories, here are the most popular beers in China, the best, the worst and, yes, the tastiest.

Chinese beer - stoutNaale’s impenetrable slogan: “Ale, love for you.”

Naale Stoutbeer (艾尔黑啤酒)

Alcohol content: 4.5 percent

Most frequently spotted: In your local bodega.

This baby don’t go down easy.

Described by a local beer drinker as “Pittsburgh factory weather runoff,” Naale Stoutbeer tastes like the backwash of an actual stout, yet somehow remains popular.

With hints of chocolate, coffee and indiscriminate metal that could be melted into bullets, it’s one of the most popular and readily available in big cities like Shanghai.

Your guess is as good as ours as to the reason people keep drinking this stuff.

What it says about you: You’re an adventurous son of the British Empire.

Chinese beer - whiteDrink it if you’re boring.

Naale White Beer (艾尔白啤酒)

Alcohol content: 3.3 percent

Most frequently spotted: Wherever fine spirits are served.

The albino cousin of stout, if you’re not interested in taste, and not interested in catching much of a buzz, this is your best friend.

Like many of its fellow white beers, Naale White is unsatisfying and smells like fermented coconut milk.

At least the nationalistic label gives you something to ponder while drinking. This beer, if nothing else, is proud of how boring it is.

What it says about you: You like boring beer and you need more variety in your life.

Chinese beer - snowThe brew for Shanghai skaters.

Snow (雪花啤酒)

Alcohol content: 3.2 percent

Most frequently spotted: At Shanghai skate parks.

We'll probably catch you and your bros chugging on some of these after your skate “seshes.”

Why? Duh, there’s a rock climber on the can.

So, technically it’s for rock climbers. But since Shanghai doesn't have many cliffs, unless you count the odd skyscraper, skaters embrace the next best extreme sport.

Characterized by its chilled, watery froth, this beer beats all on a hot day.

What it says about you: You're a sidewalk surfer, or maybe fruitbooter (in other words, your rollerblade).

Chinese beer - suntoryAn extremely localized Japanese brand.

Suntory (三得利)

Alcohol content: 3.6 percent

Most frequently spotted: Where is it not spotted?

Sino-Japanese joint venture Suntory is omnipresent and cheap.

It’s well-carbonated, well-balanced and the label harks back to Japanese woodblock printing.

It’s usually cheaper than Tsingtao, and comparable in taste, so this is often what non-discriminating drinkers reach for.

What it says about you: You drink beer.

Chinese beer - tsingtaoDon’t read the label to people from Qingdao.

Tsingtao (青岛啤酒)

Alcohol content: 3.3 percent (although there are several different varieties)

Most frequently spotted: On overpriced drink menus.

The most frequently mispronounced words in Mandarin, Tsingtao is a staple.

Hoppier than Suntory, but also more expensive and less potent, Tsingtao has tremendous international distribution, so people who frequent Asian restaurants back home know it by name and order accordingly. 

What it says about you: You’re a victim of clever advertising. Or from overseas.

Chinese beer - taiwan beerA taste from across the strait.

Taiwan Beer (台湾啤酒)

Alcohol content: 4.5 percent

Most frequently spotted: In stores in mainland China.

Since you can drink beer anywhere in China (we once spotted someone drinking in an ICBC ... makes waiting in line easier), this puts the punk rock back in day drinking.

That said, it’s not very palatable. But at a whopping 4.5 percent, who cares?

What it says about you: You root for the underdog.

Chinese beer - xinjiang black beerBest match for lamb kebabs.

Sinkiang Black Beer (新疆黑啤)

Alcohol content: 4.3 percent

Most frequently spotted: In Xinjiang restaurants.

It’s hard to drink this beer without having thoughts of cumin, lamb, tacky decor and delicious Xinjiang food. But once you manage to separate the beverage from the dining experience, life seems fuller.

Sinkiang is a marvelous beverage, rich in buoyant Loulan hops, full-bodied without being overbearing, dark and mysterious, yet welcoming.

What it says about you: You like this beer enough to drink in a Muslim restaurant, and they like it enough to serve it.

Chinese beer - 1903Tsingtao’s snooty cousin.

1903 Augerta (青岛啤酒奥古特)

Alcohol content: 4.7 percent

Most frequently spotted: At posh supermarkets.

The can’s got some German action going on, with some sort of eagle/snake crest and a heraldic shield featuring an invisible man’s face. Points for randomness.

This is Tsingtao’s premium line and they’re going for a stronger, manlier taste. It’s a bit more malty than regular Tsingtao, but it’s kind of sweet, too.

The higher alcohol content doesn’t translate into flavor and when it warms up it tastes a bit like talcum powder. Not that you’d rub this on a baby’s bum.

What it says about you: You hanker for the rolling hills of Bavaria.

Chinese beer - reebBeer for dyslexics.

REEB (力波啤酒)

Alcohol content: 3.6 percent

Most frequently spotted: Clutched in the hands of fading local rock stars.

Thin, flaccid, as tasteless as sucking on a dusty pebble, REEB is a poor excuse for a beer that should be thoroughly ashamed of itself.

It’s watery without being refreshing; sharp without being crisp.

The only redeeming feature is the label, which shows a skyline featuring Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl Tower, a windmill, the Statue of Liberty and Sydney Opera House. Why? Not even the people at REEB know why.

What it says about you: You like your beer spelled backwards.

Chinese beer - harbinSupposedly China’s oldest beer brand.

Harbin (哈尔滨啤酒)

Alcohol content: 3.6 percent

Most frequently spotted: In cheap, spicy restaurants.

Another watery journey into burp-ville awaits Harbin aficionados.

Despite its lack of taste, this is a hugely popular beer.

No aroma, no flavor, no aftertaste -- we’ve had mineral water that had more kick.

But if you’re chomping through a spicy meal and want something to put out the fire without getting in the way of your food’s flavor, Harbin is a good candidate.

What it says about you: You need to up your game and move on to something harder, like cream soda.

Chinese beer - diamond blueA Beijing export to train up girly, handbag-carrying southerners.

Diamond Blue (蓝带蓝宝纯生啤酒)

Alcohol content: 3.3 percent

Most frequently spotted: In the hands of a northern street tough.

Don’t let the wimpy alcohol content fool you, this little number is the bad boy of the convenience store.

Check the brutal styling of the can. It looks like it was designed by an angry eight-year-old using a glitchy copy of Photoshop.

The taste is coarse and harsh, which is welcome after all the watery foam.

What it says about you: You’re getting ready to rumble.

Chinese beer - ANTARKTIKBeer from the South Pole?

ANTARKTIK (力波南极啤酒)

Alcohol content: 4 percent

Most frequently spotted: Mushing across snowy tundra.

When a Chinese brand uses a sans-serif font, you know you’re in avant-garde territory.

An offshoot of REEB, ANTARKTIK is brewed with, wait for it, ice shipped in from the Antarctic!

This claim seems wildly improbable, but who cares? Check out the Soviet-era map of the South Pole on the label -- it’s like something from a 1970s spy novel.

The real surprise here is how drinkable this beer is. It’s bright without being watery, and has some decent layers of flavor in the mix.

It might not be a beer we’d take to the ends of the earth, but stack it up against most other Chinese brews and, ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

What it says about you: You cheer for Drago in “Rocky IV.”

Originally published November 2010. Updated May 2012.

Hunter Braithwaite is a writer and editor based in Miami. Before that he lived in Shanghai. He edits the Miami Rail and blogs at

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