Just In 👉 Nikka Whisky Celebrates 90th Anniversary With The...

Beer Reviews

We Taste & Rank China's 8 Biggest Beers: Tsingtao, Harbin, Snow, Pearl River, Yanjing, Laoshan, Laote, Cheerday

 

The beer history of China began in a far-flung corner of the empire, in a city that was being practically built by Russians. Harbin is China’s remote bastion in the frigid north that only exists due to the Tsar’s desire to shorten the arduous route of the Trans-Siberian Railway by taking a short cut through China’s north-east region – a project that gave birth to the Chinese Eastern Railway. To quench the thirst of many Russian railway workers in Harbin, a Polish entrepreneur, Jan Wróblewski decided to establish a brewery in this bustling city in 1900. It was at this brewery that the first documented batch of genuine beer was ever brewed in China.

 

Notable for its ice sculpture festival in the winter, Harbin sees snow every day of the year.

 

Jan’s brewery grew into a major brewer now known as Harbin Brewery, which of course stands as the oldest brewery in China. The brewery produces traditional European-style lagers, but within China, it is also renowned for its "ice beer" style that is made by freezing portions of the brew during production, leading to a crisper and somewhat stronger beer.

Not long after Harbin Brewery was founded, German settlers in the eastern coastal city of Qingdao were also eager for a taste of home. Tsingtao Brewery was founded in 1903 using world-famous German beer brewing expertise and German ingredients, including imported malted barley, hops and yeast. This pioneering enterprise, though initially aimed at fellow German expatriates, is credited for introducing beer to the wider Chinese market at a significant scale. Tsingtao is also arguably the most recognisable Chinese beer brand outside of China.

 

Vintage labels of Yebisu, Sapporo and Asahi Beers under Dai Nippon Brewery.

 

As we turn to the darker decades of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, Kirin Beer and Dai Nippon Beer (the Asahi Beer that we know today) formed a joint venture in 1934 to establish a brewery in Shenyang city. After surviving the tumultuous tides of World War II and the Chinese Civil War, along with changing hands several times, the brewery would finally find a steady handunder Chinese state ownership and be renamed as Snow Beer (or Xue Hua) – a ubiquitous beer that can be found in practically every corner of China today.

 

 

Despite already having these 3 beloved and familiar brands, China was newly embarking on economic reforms and eager to project an image of national pride in the 1970s. The government might have found itself in a bit of a quandary because the top three beers, Tsingtao, Harbin, and Snow Beer all boasted roots in foreign influence and colonialism. So, in 1980, Yanjing Brewery was established in Beijing as a state enterprise and a wholly Chinese-founded brewer. Yanjing Beer also earned the privilege of being the official beer served at important state banquets in the Great Hall of the People.

 

Beijing's Yanjing Brewery.

 

Yet it wasn’t until the mid-1980s when China began to experience a real beer boom. Consumption increased fivefold and breweries sprang up everywhere to serve their vicinities.

Guangzhou, a metropolis where China's Pearl River meets the South China Sea, became home to another major state-owned brewery in 1985. The aptly named Pearl River (Zhujiang) Brewery reflects the brewery’s connection to the city’s iconic river. Pearl River Beer has since grown into a big player in the southern Chinese market with its iconic green packaging and association with Cantonese cuisine.

Hangzhou, a city renowned for its natural beauty also received its own brewery in the same year – the Hangzhou Qiandaohu Brewery, which has been given a rather cute English name: Cheerday. What sets them apart is a focus on brewing exceptionally light beers, perhaps taking inspiration from the pristine landscapes surrounding them.

 

 

This rich tapestry of Chinese brewing history sets the stage for us to explore the 8 flagship beers from China’s most iconic beer brands. To ensure our palate doesn’t give out on us halfway, we’ll start with tasting the lightest and lowest ABV beer (Cheerday) and work our way to the standard ABV offerings.

Cheerday Beer (千岛湖啤酒) 3.1% ABV – Review

Brewed by Hangzhou Qiandaohu Brewery

 

 

Tasting notes

Nose: Very crisp, very citrusy. This beer bursts with refreshing citrus aromas – think zesty lemon peel and hints of pomelo. There's a subtle sweetness, like lemonade and a touch of corn, along with a delicate barley grain aroma reminiscent of Korean barley tea.

Palate: The crispness really shines through. It's light and spritely on the tongue with a bubbly effervescence that adds a lively zestiness. The lemon zest flavours intensify upfront, creating a pleasantly drying sensation similar to a Japanese karakuchi sensation, but just a tad drier. There's also a delicate malt presence - almost like a whisper of sweetness.

Finish: Short, yet distinct. Earthy barley notes rise momentarily, along with a hint of yeastiness that emerges right at the very end. There's absolutely no hop presence to be found in my opinion.

 

 

My Thoughts:

Cheerday lives up to the connotations of its name. It's incredibly light and refreshingly dry, with a vibrant citrus character that's perfect for quenching your thirst. The barely-there alcohol content makes it feel almost like a sophisticated non-alcoholic beer, but those lovely malt and barley notes add a welcome touch of complexity.

If you enjoy a dry beer with a clean, crisp profile, this is definitely one to try.

My Rating: 7/10

Score/Rating Scale :

  • 9-10 : Exceptional, highly memorable, 10/10 would buy if I could.
  • 7-8 : Excellent, well above most in its category, worth considering buy-zone.
  • 4-6 : Good, okay, alright; a few flaws, but acceptable; not bad, but not my personal preference; still worth trying, could be a buy if the price is right.
  • 1-3 : Not good; really did not enjoy; wouldn't even recommend trying.
  • 0 : Un-scored, might be damaged, new make, or very unusual.

Yanjing Beer U8 (燕京啤酒U8), 2.5% ABV – Review

Brewed by Beijing Yanjing Brewery

 

 

Tasting notes 

Nose: Very welcoming mix of bright citrus – a hint of lemon hard candy – alongside a mildly sweet, pleasant toasted malt character.

Palate: Like Cheerday, it has an incredibly light body enhanced by a lively effervescence. Upfront, it showcases a more obvious steamed pearl barley character and sweetened barley water (薏米水). A clean dryness sweeps in, balanced by a subtle citrus essence that's less pronounced compared to Cheerday. There's also a faint yeastiness that adds a hint of complexity.

Finish: Lingers for a moment while maintaining a clean profile. Lingering dryness nips pleasantly at the back of the throat, while a subtle roasted malt note carries through to the end. As with Cheerday, hops are nowhere to be found.

 

 

My Thoughts:

For such a low ABV beer at just 2.5% ABV, Yanjing U8 packs a stunning amount of flavour. It shares Cheerday's refreshing nature but leans more heavily into a malty profile, offering a bit more depth and less dryness.

Another excellent choice for anyone seeking a light, easy-drinking beer with just enough character to keep things interesting.

My Rating: 7.5/10

Score/Rating Scale :

  • 9-10 : Exceptional, highly memorable, 10/10 would buy if I could.
  • 7-8 : Excellent, well above most in its category, worth considering buy-zone.
  • 4-6 : Good, okay, alright; a few flaws, but acceptable; not bad, but not my personal preference; still worth trying, could be a buy if the price is right.
  • 1-3 : Not good; really did not enjoy; wouldn't even recommend trying.
  • 0 : Un-scored, might be damaged, new make, or very unusual.

Pearl River Draft Beer (珠江生啤酒) 3.6% ABV – Review

Brewed by Guangzhou Zhujiang Brewery

 

 

Tasting notes

Nose: Clean and sweet. It presents an intriguing, slightly synthetic honeyed sweetness reminiscent of corn – something I often get in macro lagers. There's a stronger sense of graininess here, setting it apart from its lighter counterparts.

Palate: Medium body with a satisfying weighty texture for its low ABV. Upfront, there's a burst of malty sweetness with a hint of citrus, along with an yeastiness that brings to mind savoury notes like Marmite or chicken essence. The grain and corn flavours continue to dominate, balanced by a gentle effervescence. While not overly sweet, this beer definitely leans towards sweetness rather than dryness.

Finish: Brief, with a quick fade. It does, however, reveal yet more distinct yeasty character, almost umami-like, with a touch of unexpected white floral notes. Not much hops character detected here either.

 

 

My Thoughts:

Pearl River offers a pleasingly substantial texture at 3.6% ABV. Its focus on sweet malt flavours makes it a good choice for anyone who prefers less dryness in their beer.

This thickness and malty backbone would pair nicely with the richness of some Chinese dishes, like Chong Qing grilled fish, although if you’re having something very oily, you might prefer a dryer beer.

My Rating: 7/10

Score/Rating Scale :

  • 9-10 : Exceptional, highly memorable, 10/10 would buy if I could.
  • 7-8 : Excellent, well above most in its category, worth considering buy-zone.
  • 4-6 : Good, okay, alright; a few flaws, but acceptable; not bad, but not my personal preference; still worth trying, could be a buy if the price is right.
  • 1-3 : Not good; really did not enjoy; wouldn't even recommend trying.
  • 0 : Un-scored, might be damaged, new make, or very unusual.

Laote Beer (崂特啤酒 ) 3.6% ABV – Review

Brewed by Qingdao Laote Brewery Co., Ltd.

 

 

This beer originates from Qingdao city which is renowned for the world-famous Tsingtao Beer. Funnily enough, we realised it’s actually produced by an unrelated Qingdao Laote Beer Company. Not to be confused with original Tsingtao Brewery!

Tasting notes

Nose: Sweet and bright. Similar to the Pearl River, there's once again a touch of synthetic honey and sweet corn, layered with distinct grainy notes and a hint of yeastiness.

Palate: This one strikes a fine balance. It’s got a medium body with sweetness from the malt and a touch of citrus, along with subtle yeastiness and actually a very pleasant aroma of jasmine rice.

Candied lemon notes dominate upfront, intertwined with barley malt and just a hint of yeast. A touch of umami yeastiness also emerges as you sip. It leans slightly towards dryness but it's balanced with very well-integrated flavours.

Finish: A light, lingering sweetness reminiscent of steamed rice, with just a whisper of hop bitterness.

 

 

My Thoughts:

Laote delivers a surprisingly robust and fragrant flavour profile for such a low ABV rice lager. While this should pair very well with food, this is a bit more complex and would be a beer you could enjoy on its own.

My Rating: 7.5/10

Score/Rating Scale :

  • 9-10 : Exceptional, highly memorable, 10/10 would buy if I could.
  • 7-8 : Excellent, well above most in its category, worth considering buy-zone.
  • 4-6 : Good, okay, alright; a few flaws, but acceptable; not bad, but not my personal preference; still worth trying, could be a buy if the price is right.
  • 1-3 : Not good; really did not enjoy; wouldn't even recommend trying.
  • 0 : Un-scored, might be damaged, new make, or very unusual.

Snow Beer (雪花啤酒) 4% ABV – Review

Brewed by China Resources Snow Breweries

 

 

Tasting notes

Nose: A subtle citric freshness. But more interestingly, there's a slightly ashy note with a roasted quality – a bit surprising, but not unpleasant. A touch of corn-like sweetness rounds out the aroma.

Palate: It’s got a medium-to-light body with a satisfying texture. Upfront, lots of distinct barley malt sweetness takes centre stage, followed by a light, citric dryness that adds a refreshing balance.

Finish: The finish lingers a bit longer than some of its counterparts, showcasing more of those sweet barley notes with a hint of toasted cereal grain.

 

 

My Thoughts:

Snow Beer is incredibly straightforward but quite enjoyable, focusing primarily on its barley and citric character. It's a great choice for anyone seeking a Chinese beer with a slightly richer texture and more maltiness. This would pair nicely with stir-fries or other hearty Asian dishes, and it's the kind of beer that lets you enjoy your food and conversation without distraction.

My Rating: 7/10

Score/Rating Scale :

  • 9-10 : Exceptional, highly memorable, 10/10 would buy if I could.
  • 7-8 : Excellent, well above most in its category, worth considering buy-zone.
  • 4-6 : Good, okay, alright; a few flaws, but acceptable; not bad, but not my personal preference; still worth trying, could be a buy if the price is right.
  • 1-3 : Not good; really did not enjoy; wouldn't even recommend trying.
  • 0 : Un-scored, might be damaged, new make, or very unusual.

Tsingtao Beer Standard (青岛啤酒) 4.7% ABV – Review

Brewed by Tsingtao Brewery

 

 

Tasting notes

Nose: Lightly sweet, with a pleasant toasted maltiness, à la to Snow Beer. It brings to mind the aroma of roasted coffee beans at a traditional Singapore coffeeshop.

Palate: Tsingtao has got a remarkably fluffy texture due to the effervescence that expresses itself the moment you take a sip. Opens with dominant notes of barley and toasted cereal, quickly followed by an equally intense citrusy dryness.

Finish: The most expressive part of this beer is the finish. While a light barley sweetness continues, there's a lovely hop aroma that shines through. Think grapefruit pith, accompanied by a hint of barley candy sweetness. Overall, the flavours are very clean and lack any distinctive umami yeastiness.

 

 

My Thoughts:

It's clear why Tsingtao is a well-known brand with a reputation for authenticity. It's clean-tasting and offers a touch of hop character compared to some of the other Chinese beers. However, I find that its strong citrusy dryness somewhat overshadows other potential complexities. A decent beer, but it didn't stand out as much as I expected for something at a higher ABV of 4.7% ABV. Interestingly, I find Laoshan Beer, also from Tsingtao Brewery, much more memorable (see below).

My Rating: 6.5/10

Score/Rating Scale :

  • 9-10 : Exceptional, highly memorable, 10/10 would buy if I could.
  • 7-8 : Excellent, well above most in its category, worth considering buy-zone.
  • 4-6 : Good, okay, alright; a few flaws, but acceptable; not bad, but not my personal preference; still worth trying, could be a buy if the price is right.
  • 1-3 : Not good; really did not enjoy; wouldn't even recommend trying.
  • 0 : Un-scored, might be damaged, new make, or very unusual.

Laoshan Imported Premium Beer (崂山啤酒), 4.7% ABV – Review

Brewed by Tsingtao Brewery

 

 

Tasting notes

Nose: Presents a gentle richness, starting with honeyed notes, a touch of citrus, and a light, inviting maltiness. The overall impression is a pleasant and mild aroma.

Palate: A sweeter profile with a medium-light body and a slightly creamy texture from the denser foam. Sweet barley flavours dominate upfront, followed by a mild yeastiness and a touch of that karakuchi dryness right at the end. There's a hint of pomelo and toasted cereal adding depth.

Finish: Relatively short. Rice notes emerge, and surprisingly, it also offers more bitterness than I expected, with hints of pomelo or grapefruit pith. Just as it fades, a light yeastiness lingers, faintly reminiscent of ginjo sake.

 

 

My Thoughts:

Laoshan stands out as a slightly more flavourful, denser option among the Chinese beers tasted so far. It leans sweeter and boasts a touch more hop character, complemented by pleasant rice and barley notes. While still relatively neutral overall, its more dominant flavour profile and dryness makes it a versatile pairing for various foods. Really reminds me of a Japanese dry beer.

My Rating: 7.5/10

Score/Rating Scale :

  • 9-10 : Exceptional, highly memorable, 10/10 would buy if I could.
  • 7-8 : Excellent, well above most in its category, worth considering buy-zone.
  • 4-6 : Good, okay, alright; a few flaws, but acceptable; not bad, but not my personal preference; still worth trying, could be a buy if the price is right.
  • 1-3 : Not good; really did not enjoy; wouldn't even recommend trying.
  • 0 : Un-scored, might be damaged, new make, or very unusual.

Harbin Imported Premium Lager (哈尔滨啤酒) 5% ABV – Review

Brewed by Harbin Brewery, AB InBev

 

 

Tasting notes

Nose: This beer opens with a rich maltiness, showcasing layered barley sweetness along with hints of corn, cereal and light florals. Overall, though, it’s quite mild and gentle on the nose.

Palate: Delivers an incredibly refreshing experience. Bright and luscious from the very first sip, amplified by a fluffy texture of the foam. Sweet malt notes and a touch of lemon zest dominate the palate.

Finish: The beer remains clean and luscious on the finish. A distinctive floral hop aroma rises, accompanied by hints of anise and a sake-like yeastiness. As the other flavours fade, a light, almost coffee-like character also emerges in the aftertaste.

 

 

My Thoughts:

Harbin’s Imported Premium Lager stands out as the most complex, layered and well-balanced among the Chinese beers I've tasted so far. Its increased hop presence might not be for non-beer drinkers, but most beer enthusiasts will likely appreciate this one for being one of the most multifaceted beers from the Chinese beer industry. It's also impressively bright, clean-tasting, and luscious – a very delightful beer experience.

My Rating: 8.5/10

Score/Rating Scale :

  • 9-10 : Exceptional, highly memorable, 10/10 would buy if I could.
  • 7-8 : Excellent, well above most in its category, worth considering buy-zone.
  • 4-6 : Good, okay, alright; a few flaws, but acceptable; not bad, but not my personal preference; still worth trying, could be a buy if the price is right.
  • 1-3 : Not good; really did not enjoy; wouldn't even recommend trying.
  • 0 : Un-scored, might be damaged, new make, or very unusual.

Overall Thoughts

This journey through these eight Chinese beers has been a delight. For those seeking lighter options - think shandy or a refreshing lemon spritz - both Yanjing U8 and Cheerday impressed me. Yanjing U8, at a mere 2.5% ABV, surprised me with its depth and flavour, showcasing a balance of barley and dryness that makes it highly quaffable. Cheerday, another low ABV option, offered a clean, crisp profile with a pleasant citrusy character – a perfect refresher for a hot day.

 

Harbin is our top pick.

 

On the richer end of the spectrum, the Harbin beer really stole the show. It’s got a complexity and layering of flavours unmatched by the others. From its rich maltiness to the surprising floral hop character and hints of coffee on the finish, it's a beer that keeps you engaged with every sip. Following closely behind is Laoshan Imported Premium Lager, which left a lasting impression with its distinctive rice aromatics and touch of sweetness.

So don’t cast all Chinese beers under the same light – they’re generally lighter in body, but within the richer brews, there’s still plenty of nuances with lots of character. Try a couple of them the next time you visit a Chinese restaurant – you might just surprise yourself.

@CharsiuCharlie