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Inscrutable brew

The search for Brewery Number One and some answers about Tsingtao

We were having dinner in a favorite Chinese restaurant in Manhattan. My companion, food and beer critic Jim Leff, ordered a Tsingtao. That is what one does in a Chinese restaurant in the Western world. There are other Chinese beers, of course, but they come and go like snowflakes. Indeed, wasn't one of then called Snow Flake? I think it was, but it came and went. On the other hand, everyone has heard of Tsingtao. It has never seemed to me a great beer, but I always thought it had a decent hop character. Until that recent dinner. As Jim pointed out to me, our New York sample was as bland as a fortune cookie.

The only adequate response was to take a plane Beijing. A further hour's flight South of Beijing and a similar distance North of Shanghai, I found myself in the city of Tsingtao, where the beer was born. Tsingtao, today usually transliterated as Qingdao, is in the province of Shandong (Shantung), once known for its trade in silk.

The city, on a peninsula jutting into the Yellow Sea, embraces a small island. Quingdao means "green island." It is a centrally-positioned, ice-free, port, providing easy access to Taiwan, Korea and Japan.

It grew as a colonial-style town, with its own German brewery, established in 1903.

At the turn of the century, China granted a trading rights in this province to Germany. The port of Tsingtao/Quingdao was intended to offer Germany the sort of oriental outpost that Hongkong provided to the British or Macao to the Portuguese. It grew as a colonial-style town, with its own German brewery, established in 1903. The nearby marble and granite hills provided good brewing water, and the Germans planted hops. It was not only a port but also a resort.

The German period lasted only a decade or two, the city being occupied in the Sino-Japanese conflict, and later by the Americans in World War Two. The brewery was nationalised in 1945, and is now a state-private enterprise, with shares on the Hongkong stock exchange and a very small percentage in the hands of Anheuser-Busch.

The ride from the airport into the city revealed that Quingdao is no longer the romantic spot it sounds to have been. It now has six or seven million people: "A medium-sized city in China," explained the guide (I had joined a party of visiting brewers from Germany).

Brewing remains a very important industry, but no one I met knew anything about hops having been grown locally. (They are now cultivated in the West of China). Domestic electronics is a newer industry, and grapes are grown for wine.

As the tour bus negotiated the late afternoon traffic on the road from the airport, the guide pointed out "Tsingtao Brewery Number Two," and said we would be visiting it next morning. Given that the company has four or five breweries in the area, and almost 20 nationally, several with their own maltings, I could not expect to see them all. However, I had travelled thousands of miles to check out the original source: "Brewery Number One." When I explained this, I was told that there would not be time for that. My impression was the Tsingtao wanted to show us state-of-the art technology, not a brewery that we might consider "old."

At Number Two, built in the late 1980s, I learned that the plant accommodated six-to-eight brews a day, using single decocotion, at a batch size of 920 hectos, totalling two million a year. I was told that the malt was made from Chinese and French summer barley (though German, Canadian, U.S. and Australian had been used over the years). The regular Tsingtao beer had 11 degrees Plato; 25 per cent rice adjunct (some lighter Chinese beers have 40 per cent); 3.4 per cent alcohol by weight; and 20-plus units of bitterness. Process time was said to be 30-35 days. My hosts vehemently denied that the level of bitterness had been lowered in recent times, or that a less hoppy version was made for the United States.

A version called Tsingtao Gold had 45-50 days, but a similar level of bitterness, I was told. The product I most enjoyed was a Black Beer of 14 Plato (4.3 per cent alcohol by weight), made from three malts. This had a wonderful balance of malty bitterness and sweetness, and the full flavours and oiliness of a strong Viennese coffee. The Tsingtao beer for export, and the Black Beer, were both made at Brewery Number One.

The young manager next to whom I was seated seemed less than passionate about such matters. He was keener to discuss Goethe and Schiller, quoting from each in their own idiom.

Over dinner, with a group of youngish, German-speaking, Chinese managers from Tsingtao, there were many toasts. As the beer went down, my requests to see Brewery Number One gained in volume and frequency. The young manager next to whom I was seated seemed less than passionate about such matters. He was keener to discuss Goethe and Schiller, quoting from each in their own idiom. I have never had such a conversation with a brewer in Germany (nor, for example, discussed the nuances of Shakespeare with a beer-maker in Britain, though I can think of an American micro where Raymond Carver occasionally cuts through a stuck mash).

Next morning, we were taken on a tour of the old city: the hillside mansion that had been the Germans' headquarters and later a guest-house for visitors such as Chairman Mao (his sharpened pencils still on his desk); a 1908 Protestant church, its clockface inscribed with the names of the German makers...the former Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm streets were pointed out...there was talk of seeing the German botanical gardens, the railway station and a Catholic Church. I was beginning to wonder whether I would ever see Brewery Number One.

Finally,the bus stopped in the city-centre. Just two of us, both journalists, were allowed a quick tour of Brewery Number One. I loved the goldfish pond and fountain designed to look like beer glasses surrounding a bottle of Tsingtao (even the label was beautifully executed), but that was only six or seven years old. The brewhouse we saw was from 1992. Together with a 1982 brewhouse in an adjoining building, it produces two million hectolitres a year. These two brewhouses replaced one dating from 1940, at which we briefly peeked through a window. This may in future be turned into a museum. Near the gate, two small original buildings still stand, well maintained; one an office, the other serving the workers children as a kindergarten.

However big and largely modern it was (and, in the event, similar to Brewery Number Two), I felt that I had connected with beer history. I am still not sure, though, how Tsingtao in New York has gotten to taste so bland.

Published Online: SEPT 18, 2000
Published in Print: APR 1, 2000
In: Ale Street News

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