Bottoms Up

Don’t let anyone discourage you from writing a thesis. Wary though I was to assume the task, my experiences last semester patching together the beginnings of a 70-page rediscovery of Shakespeare and Dante were far from the stuff of painful discipline. I venture to say that they persuaded me to neglect valuable Winter Study work opportunities in favor of a month-long vacation. Sure, I did spend a portion of my first flight revising several spotty passages of the Vita Nuova, but upon arriving in Beijing I had no choice but to accept that I would only be kidding myself if I claimed intent to do further work.

Upon my arrival, the stage was set to enjoy some of the finer (and more intoxicating) points of life in urban China. My appetite for dubious nectars had already been whetted during the flight. Despite everything I had heard about the glory and comfort of Korean airlines, I was still pleasantly shocked to be served free beer miles above the earth. Accompanying two respective meals, I drank a Korean beer called Hite and a more familiar Heineken. The former was an impressively successful and refreshing pale lager. The Heineken, failing as usual to impress, nonetheless prepared me for its curiously active presence in the Chinese bar scene. Its ubiquity was matched only by that of the even more surprising Carlsberg, which I had never considered very popular or even well-liked in most parts of the western hemisphere.

Yet no foreign beers can possibly hold candles to the towering local popularity of the Chinese pilsner Tsingtao. Brewed in the eastern Chinese city bearing the same name, Tsingtao was the one Asian beer I was actually familiar with before my trip. Light and incomparably refreshing, Tsingtao has become, since the brewery’s founding over 100 years ago, China’s most famous beer. It extends well into an increasingly globalized context: It is present in many American liquor stores and it incontestably occupies the status as the ultimate “go-to” beer for Beijing’s inhabitants and visitors. Through its popularity it merits no title less esteemed than the “Budweiser of China.” Its name is among the five most essential Mandarin words a clueless visitor like me can possibly equip himself.

Rivaling the Tsingtao, however, is Beijing’s own Yanjing beer. The Yanjing is quite possibly more of a local favorite than Tsingtao, despite the latter’s relative popularity in bars. This is the all-purpose pale lager you are likely to find in just about any authentic Beijing restaurant or convenience store. At 40 American cents for a 640 mL bottle, it’s so versatile that its drinkers will lose no sleep for fear of being sold a repackaged and potentially impure substitute. Sure, one can splurge for the 355 mL can (about 60 cents) that’s more likely to be untouched. But the satisfaction of tasting purity might well be upended by the fear that one is being a bit too particular and, well, American.

Despite their various geographical origins, Hite, Tsingtao, Yanjing, as well as Asahi (Japan’s premier, “super dry” beer), all tended to be light and crisp rather than dark or heavy. Yet most leading Asian breweries did seem to also try their hands at these latter more typically western styles. I tried some kind of legacy-edition-or-whatever Tsingtao, for example, which wasn’t as much dark as it was overly strong. It seemed like an overwrought attempt at beer sophistication, adding to my fear that all such beers wouldn’t capture the distinction of European ales and stouts.
To my pleasant surprise, Yanjing Black was a completely different story. Dark like a western porter yet still favoring a crisp sweetness over mere boggy weight, it showed itself to be much more of a conscious synthesizer than a simple imitator. It took the gold medal for my own personal tastes, and remains the one beer I most advise future adventurers to seek out if ever their stubborn fates deliver them to the great city of the eternal haze.

I reluctantly admit that space permits me no more than a brief mention of Baijiu, a no less than legendary Chinese rice liquor. Imagine vodka with a 60 percent alcohol-by-volume content, costing less than a dollar for 250 mL. And, though I found myself often in the minority opinion on this point, tasting better than vodka! Vividly though I pray your senses might fabricate the experience, such things must perhaps remain ultimately foreign to the unknowing tongue. Yet I have seen the top of the mountain …