Sipping a dark Belgian beer out of a glass chalice, Jacky Qian reflected on how drinking culture had changed compared to his parent’s generation. “My father doesn’t like this kind of beer. I tried to introduce him to some Guinness or Belgian beer,” said Qian, a Shanghai native. “It’s just too strong.” The older generation prefers the light, weak lager drunk in most parts of China, he said.
While that lager is often viewed as “Chinese beer,” it was only introduced to China in the early 20th century. Russians opened a brewery in Harbin around 1900 to supply workers building a railroad in Manchuria, and Germans began brewing a similar beer in Qingdao in 1903 to supply sailors. The dominant style ever since, that lager remains the only type of beer many Chinese have tried.
Qian regularly drinks the stronger, heavier stuff at Kaiba, a Belgian beer bar near his home in Shanghai’s Changning district. The variety of beers at the bar, about 70 in all, appeals to him, as does the culture – particularly that every Belgian beer is served in a special glass, he said. As a risk analyst at a life insurance company, Qian has the disposable income to pay RMB50 (US$7.87) for a Belgian beer, even though a Chinese beer would cost one-tenth of that.
“Imported beer doesn’t come cheap, so you have to reckon that we’re targeting the middle- and upper-class of society,” said Thomas Leclercq, CEO of Third Place China, a consulting company working to open a location of the Belgian Beer Café chain in Shanghai. “But it’s not the super rich that treat themselves to Belgian beer. You have a lot of people from the middle class who are becoming more well traveled and are willing to try stuff from abroad.”
Purveyors of Belgian beer hope it will gain the same recognition and status that German beers have had in China for many years, said Leclercq. Germany’s Paulaner Brewery, for example, opened its first restaurant and microbrewery in Beijing in 1992, and it now has 12 locations in China. Belgium-focused Kaiba, meanwhile, began in 2008 and now has three locations.
But Belgian beer culture is still far from garnering widespread recognition in China.
“If they ask me something about cocktails, I know they maybe came to the wrong bar; we don’t make a big selection of cocktails,” said Kaiba outlet manager Steven Wang. “Most of the Chinese customers coming in here don’t really know what this is about.”