I often try and match the beer I drink with the food I’m eating. Thai beer with Thai food, Indian beer with curries and, of course, Chinese beer with Chinese food. In recent years we’ve seen a number of different Chinese beers appearing on the shelves, although some, like Sun Lik are now being brewed locally under licence. So, when I spotted Harbin, a different Chinese beer on a supermarket shelf with a distinctive rice paper wrapper round its bottle, I simply had to try it.
As with everything relating to China, the numbers are simply staggering. With 1.3 billion thirsty Chinese drinking 80 billion pints a year brewed by regional 400 breweries, a market of that magnitude has not gone unnoticed by Western brewers. Anheuser-Busch/InBev now brew Budweiser in Wuhan and have a stake in 33 of those breweries; including a stake in Tsing Tao, and 100% ownership of the Harbin brewery.
Harbin is China’s fourth largest brewery, located in the former province of Manchuria, north-east China. The brewery was founded in 1900 by a Russian with an eye to the Russian nationals who were building the Trans-Siberian Railway. Russia took control of the brewery in 1946 after the conquest of Manchuria, but control was returned to the Chinese in 1950 on the instructions of Jospeh Stalin. In 2003 SAB Miller acquired a significant equity stake, but then it was taken over Anheuser-Busch in a hostile takeover in 2004.
Harbin is brewed using European and Chinese “Qindao Dahua” hops and German lager yeast, most Chinese beers use rice in their mix, but a failure of the rice harvest and subsequent famine in 1959 forced Harbin to use Maize in its mix – the first Chinese brewery to try this.
Having found the Harbin, I checked Michael Jackson’s notes… in 2000 he visited Beijing and was unimpressed with Harbin Beer, describing it as having “…a stale, musty, aroma; a bland, thin, taste; and a redeemingly crisp finish” in the same tasting he described Tsing Tao as being “notably hoppier, drier and more appetising”.
So, it is with some trepidation that I tried Harbin and while a chilled bottle, carefully unwrapped from its rice paper sleeve, was disappointing, at something approaching room temperature (it’s a dirty job but someone has to do it) Harbin demonstrated more depth of flavour.
As you’d expect, the German influence shows through, there’s not much nose, the “Qindao Dahua” hops aren’t as aromatic as their Saaz (or Zatec) cousins. There’s a rewarding, brilliant white head that subsides fairly quickly with no noticeable lacing.
The beer itself is light, very light, we’re talking Coors Light here, but the flavour, if the beer isn’t too chilled has a robust dryness. Closer to a Becks than a Heineken, and the absence of rice in the mix really shows through, sadly it’s nowhere near the complexity of most Asian lagers.
I’d give this two and half stars. If I saw it on offer in a supermarket I might get a couple of bottles, but it wouldn’t be my beer of choice to go with my favourite Chow Mein.