Outside of China, Tsingtao has a reputation for being that watery Chinese lager served in an amber green bottle with a red and gold insignia.
The brand is to China as Budweiser is to America. They’re both mild, neutral lagers to be had when there’s not much else available. And if your alcohol tolerance is high enough, you might be able to drink it like water.
Yet for many Chinese people, Tsingtao is a comfort beer.
“When we travel, we’ll try beers from all over the world, but we find Tsingtao very familiar” says Li Xiaomeng, an event manager at the Qingdao Beer Festival, which takes place in the brewery’s namesake city. “So of course we’ll buy it, raise a glass, and drink one as a souvenir.”
In 2017, it was the third-most consumed beer in the world, after American behemoth Budweiser and Snow, a Chinese beer that’s only sold in China.
And while Snow dominates by sheer numbers—China is the largest beer-consuming market in the world—Tsingtao has a more international reach, available in over 70 countries.
How did Tsingtao became so big, and what is its story?
Its origins are German
Tsingtao is one of the oldest beer brands in China, first started by Germans who settled there in the early 20th century.
Its home city, Qingdao, was a German colony from 1898 to 1914. Homesick for pilsner, a group of German businessmen established a brewery in 1903. They called it Germania-Brauerei, or German Brewery.
The recipe adhered to a 500-year-old German beer law that stated only water, barley, and hops could be used to brew beer. To get water, the Germans dug a network of 160 wells and built a centralized pipe system, a rarity in China at the time.
The Japanese later added rice to the recipe, where it still remains today.
“They had four wells right inside their breweries,” says Shen Hou, an associate professor of environmental history at the Renmin University of China who has written extensively on the history of Tsingtao. “It was not the very first city in China that created this central water system. Qingdao’s water system was actually much delayed compared to Shanghai and Hong Kong.”
But it was this system, Hou says, that proved to be invaluable to the brewery years later, when water shortages hit.
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In 1916, two years after Japan invaded Qingdao, the brewery was sold to Dai Nippon Brewery, the Japanese company behind Asahi beer.
The new owners added rice to the recipe, where it still remains today.
And in 1949, when the Chinese Communists came to power, the brewery became a state-owned enterprise. It wasn’t until the early 1990s when the brewery was privatized and became the brand we all know today.
But the German legacy is also a cultural construct
When you visit the Qingdao Beer Festival today, it’s hard not to notice the organizer’s affection for all things German.
There are performances by foreigners in lederhosen, and the structures are a clear nod to Bavarian architecture, as if the organizers want desperately for the beer’s German legacy to shine through.
Hou says that is precisely the case.
“You could say that in fact, the Japanese left a stronger legacy in terms of the taste of Tsingtao beer,” she says. “But this part is actually wiped out of Qingdao people's memory.”
While resentment toward the Japanese still lingers in China, European elements are more readily embraced.
Like the former British and French concessions of Tianjin and Shanghai, the German architecture of Qingdao has been preserved, and now serves as a reliable backdrop for camera-wielding tourists and wedding photographers.
The Tsingtao Brewery has also embraced its German legacy. The adjacent museum features displays of European mannequins brewing beer, and the tasting room is a replica of a German beer pub.
“People would like to associate their beer with Germany, not with Japan,” Professor Hou says. “So this German legacy to a great extent is kind of created, a kind of cultural construction.”
An international brand
Nearly a century since first opening its taps, Tsingtao is growing strong.
Today, it is the second-largest beer company in China and accounts for half of the country’s beer exports.
Its legacy has also been embedded in the culture of Qingdao itself.
“The identity of the city is beer.”
“The identity of the city is beer,” Hou says. Many locals like Hou and Li, the festival organizer, grew up drinking beer out of plastic bags filled from taps.
The beer still tastes the same as it did when the Japanese took over: malted barley notes with a hint of rice.
“In Qingdao, we have a motto,” Li says, “that we make friends through beer. If I raise my glass and you drink your entire glass, we’ll become really good friends.”