Colonial Past and Present of Tsingtao Beer

Tsingtao beer (source: shutterstock)

If you ask a foreigner about Chinese beer brands, most of them would first come up with Tsingtao beer, the one named after Chinese coastal city Qingdao. First of all, its green packing gives consumers a feeling of refreshing and relaxation. As China’s second largest brewery, Tsingtao Brewery boasts around 15% of the total domestic market share.

“In the Carrefours here, the only Asian beers selling are Asashi and Tsingtao beer.” Overseas student studying in France said. In Belgium, a beer shop stocked with hundreds of types of beers has a sign pointing out the ten greatest beers in the world, with Tsingtao among them.

In fact, 99% of Chinese beer is lager, a lighter and more refreshing choice compared to ale, which is more commonly seen in today’s craft beer houses. In the early days, lager had a major advantage, as it was both cheaper and more easily mass-produced. Beers commonly found in the market, such as Tsingtao, Budweiser, Heineken or German dark beer, all fall into the category of American industrial light lager.

In fact, the word “lager” comes from the German word of “cellaring”. Originating from Germany and the Bohemian region in the Czech Republic, lager refers to a kind of beer that is fermented for a long period of time under cold temperature. During the 16th-19th centuries before industrial production, locals would place beers in underground barrels for long-term storage. The huge barrels now displayed at the Tsingtao beer museum used to store as many as 6 tons of beer, enough for a family of three to drink for 20 years, one cup a day.

German cellar at the Tsingtao beer museum

History of Tsingtao beer — remembrance of the colonial past

Looking back over a century ago, the colonial past of the city is closely intertwined with the history of the breweries. Colonialism, in many ways, represents cultural symbiosis. Using the word of the founder of Doctor Beer, a beer culture-related blogger in China, “the modern Chinese beer industry is one of the major products imported from the west, whether it’s the Ulublevsky Brewery, the predecessor of Harbin beer established in 1900, or the 1903 Tsingtao beer.”

In November 1897, the German army occupied Qingdao and forced the Qing government to sign the Jiao’ao Concession Treaty in the following year. In 1903, German and English merchants from Hong Kong Anglo-Saxon beer company invested 400,000 Mexican silver dollars to jointly build the Qingdao branch of German Brewery Co., Ltd. (the predecessor of Qingdao beer factory). This is the first beer factory that Germans built in China.

In October in 1904, the Qingdao German company was officially put into production. At the 1906 Munich Expo, Tsingtao beer was officially granted an industrial gold award.

Interestingly, from the label designs on display at the Tsingtao beer museum, viewers could easily identify the localization efforts. It’s actually one of their earliest localization designs. However, when you first look at it, you might mistake it for the swastika sign of Nazi Germany.

earliest localization designs of Tsingtao beer

Commercials during the time would include lots of Chinese culture related content. For instance, the three sworn brothers in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

On August 15, 1945, upon the victory in the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression. The Dai-Nippon Beer Company Tsingtao workshop was taken over by officials delegated by the government of the Republic of China and renamed it “Tsingtao Brewery”, brewing Tsingtao beer, which was sold to domestic coastal cities and Singapore. The capacity of the brewery once reached 2,800 tons a year. However thereafter, due to the sluggish economy and the shortage of raw materials and fuels, the capacity of the brewery went from bad to worse, decreasing to 1,200 tons in 1948.

During that period of time, German elements as Gaul chicken, eagle and lion were replaced by Kirin, and a number of other trademarks such as “Tsingtao”, “Asahi”, “Kirin”, “Sapporo” and “MANJI”. The excellent quality of the beer remained unchanged.

At the beginning of the new century, the new label of Tsingtao Beer especially highlights the English name “Tsingtao”, which is a unique spelling according to the EFEO system, with a hidden colonial implication, but also thus reinforces the global vision of the brand.

Surviving the new rising trend of the brewery industry

According to the introduction at the Tsingtao beer museum, each year, Tsingtao Brewery produces 18 billion bottles of beer; Around the globe, an average of 40,000 bottles are consumed per minute.

The massive consumption has brought along new challenges of the times. In recent years, young generations in China are beginning to chase upon a new rising trend, with craft beer bars springing up like mushrooms. As China is one of the largest beer markets on earth, the beer culture here has evolved from one categorized by mass entertainment to a western niche crowd luxury. Beer is no longer merely an appendage for street food carts kebabs. For the century-old breweries like Tsingtao, staying competitive remains an urgent problem.

Paul from Stone Brewing, a California-based brewery that has opened stores in China commented, “It’s not really we think the Chinese beer isn’t good. It’s very good, but there aren’t very many options. And so we’re helping to expand the options. To be more specific, I think we, in America, produce the types of hops that aren’t really available in China.”

“If we just put a beer in a room and invite everybody over to try our beer. We don’t think that experience is what everybody wants. We felt the consumer here is really interested in a total experience. We felt that it was important to really provide a complete hospitality experience. And even that setting, you can come and learn to appreciate something new, which is this kind of craft beer.” Paul speaks about the essence of opening beer bars. A wholistic experience matters more than the taste itself.

In this sense, the Tsingtao museum is a perfect example of combining touristy experiences with productive marketing. Each visitor could get one free small cup of raw beer. Along the street outside the beer museum, raw beers sold in typical cans become must-buys for tourists. Raw beer refers to the beverage product before the filtration, which is named as fermentation liquor in factories.

Tsingtao beer museum (source: shutterstock)

One of the local staff at the museum extolled, “There are three most enjoyable things to do in Tsingtao, drink beer, eat clams and take baths in the oceans.” Old local Tsingtao people would carry beer with plastic bags.

Tsingtao people carrying beer with plastic bags (source: new.qq.com)

While the nostalgic arousal has no comparison, the brand has indeed been taking new approaches to reinvigorate the drinking experiences for consumers. Currently, Tsingtao Brewery now has over 20 flavors and more than 1,500 varieties of specifications. At the original factory on Dengzhou Road near the museum, the varieties of beer packaging has increased from more than 70 in the previous year to 190 this year. The company has successively launched a series including Classic 1903, whole wheat white beer, Hyunqi fruit beer, Pearson to today’s Tsingtao beer IPA (India Pale Ale), etc.

different packings of Tsingtao beer (source: shutterstock)

One tourist from the Tsingtao beer festival who paid 110 yuan for one cup of Tsingtao IPA commented on Chinese Quora-like Zhihu, “The traditional British IPA has been around for hundreds of years, the modern American IPA has also come out some thirty years ago. It is hardly something new.”

According to the official website of Tsingtao, the alcohol content of Tsingtao IPA is about twice that of ordinary wine, with four times of bitterness, twice the original wort concentration, and ten times the aroma. In one word, it is much more bitter and strong. But for true beer lovers, bitter and strong is what beers should be like, otherwise it would be no different to drinking water for them.

Tsingtao IPA (source: official website of Tsingtao Brewery)

Paul from Stone Brewing said, “If everyone likes your product, your product probably doesn’t have a very strong point of view. This is not about being arrogant. I just thought the market is already fully packed with ordinary flavored beers. Our goal is to bring the drinkers something new. And so some people may find it too strong, too heavy, like when Stone started in the 1990s, in California, many people also said this is too strong for America. It’s a matter of finding the right drinker and the right product. You know, we’re not for everybody. That’s okay.”

With the ending of traditional mass production and the rivalry with other domestic brewers, maybe it’s the right time for Tsingtao to have a “stronger” point of view.

production factory at the Tsingtao beer museum