Harbin Beer (Wheat King 10°)
Of the many differences one might notice between Northern and Southern China, one in particular becomes clearly apparent after walking into any North Eastern barbecue establishment after 8pm. Dongbeiren (east north people) like to drink. Up here, the beverage you most often see in their miniature beer glasses (beer is often shot after toasts) is going to be something produced by the Harbin Beer Company.
Harbin Beer’s history is quite the roller coaster. Founded by a Polish-born German in 1900 to supply Russians building the Trans-Manchurian Railway; fell under Chinese and Czech control in 1932; was captured by the Soviets in 1946; fell under Chinese state control in 1950. Like many mass brewers of adjunct lagers around the world, it was acquired by Anheuser-Busch in 2004 after a prolonged battle with SABMiller. Let’s drink it.
Beer: Harbin Beer (Wheat King 10°)
Brewery: Harbin Beer Company (AB InBev)
Country: Harbin, China
Style: Wheat Ale
Beerlandia Advisory: A staple in Northeast China that pairs well with meat on a stick.
If you spend a few days in China drifting through various eateries or exploring the brews that small corner shops have to offer, you will quickly notice a theme. Many (but #notall) Chinese beers at least look exactly the same: a watery, pale yellow color. This specimen has short-lived carbonation, no head, and no lacing to speak of. You could dump this straight into your glass without fear of it pouring over.
The aroma is just as exciting as the appearance. This particular variety of Harbin - and there are many - is called “Wheat King”. I chose this one for our foray into the world of Harbin because you see it everywhere here. There is a hint of sweet graininess there…is it wheat? Maybe. It’s so faint it’s hard to say for sure. There is definitely an overtone of malt, and the party ends there.
One big difference between Chinese drinking culture and the West is that the Chinese prefer slamming back cheap brewskis over a big dinner. Drinking expensive, more complex beers in bars is only a relatively new phenomenon after the purchasing power of the middle class grew exponentially. Therefore…what’s on the palate with this one? Not much. You once again encounter the light sweetness of the grain and quite a bit of yeast. It tastes as watery as it looks. But! If it is paired with food, it’s not terrible.
As you might predict, this Harbin can is extremely light-bodied and starts off a bit bubbly. Don’t nurse it, though (not that you need to). You might find that carbonation to be very fleeting. Nobody wants a room-temperature, half-drunk Harbin that’s been sitting out for an hour. Unfortunately, you will find that beers in restaurants are quite often served at room temperature in China unless you specify otherwise.
Yī píng píjiǔ, liáng de.
ee - ping - pee - joe, lee - ang - duh
One bottle of beer, cold.
Remember the above. It’s your first and most important Chinese lesson.
This is the everyman’s beer in China.
Is Harbin Beer a good beer? Absolutely not. I won’t go as far to say it’s a terrible beer, and that is possibly some of my bias and attachment to it as an institution in Northern China getting in the way. However, you can be sure of this. When you crack open that golden can and pour that thin, watery liquid into your tiny beer glass sitting next to your big plate of charred meat on a stick, you can be sure that you’re having an authentic Chinese experience.