huge beer hall, filled with middle-aged men, drunk and pot-bellied. Fake “wenches” dressed in dirndls. Dancing on tables; singing competitions; drinking contests. Oceans of frothy, yellow beer sloshing merrily. So far, so Oktoberfest. Except this particular mass worship of barley pop isn’t taking place in Bavaria. Every year the German festivities face a serious challenge from an unlikely quarter: China’s Qingdao Beer Festival.
While you may associate China with baijiu or rice wine — if you associate it with booze at all — the Chinese consume a staggering proportion of the world’s hops. China chugged 47 billion litres of beer in 2015, outstripping the US. Most of it is Tsingtao, which sponsors the festival and is China’s best-known beer brand. You’ve probably glugged a bottle of the stuff in a Chinatown restaurant after a mouthful of Szechuan chillies – but you probably didn’t know it’s the second best-selling beer in the world, accounting for 15 per cent of annual global beer sales, falling just behind Budweiser as mankind’s favourite brew.
Flying to Qingdao gives the opportunity to stop over in Beijing, where it’s obligatory to snap selfies in the Forbidden City and visit Silk Street Market: a seven-storey shopping mall with 1,700 vendors, all hawking counterfeit designer goodies. But if you’re here for beer it’s all about Beijing’s brewpubs. I head to Great Leap Brewing in the Dongcheng district, the largest of the brewery’s three sites in the capital.
I sink pints of Little General, its unique Chinese-style IPA — lightly hopped and dangerously drinkable for its 6.5 per cent alcohol content — before sniggering into a Chesty Puller, an extremely hoppy 6.3 per cent American IPA created especially for the Marine Detachment at the US Embassy here. After something else made with Szechuan peppercorns and “Iron Buddha tea”, I fall face first into one of Great Leap’s burgers. After enough Chesty Puller, you deeply appreciate these gloriously filthy patties — smothered in the best kind of terrible American cheese; buns dripping with meaty juice — but it would be nice to see nu-wave Chinese beer paired with traditional dim sum.
It’s a little worse for beer that I move on to Qingdao, a 90-minute flight away in China’s eastern Shandong province. Lunch is at the Shangri-La Hotel’s Shang Palace restaurant, where I tackle a massive lazy Susan, heaving with dim sum. Standouts include impossibly light crystal prawn dumplings, crispy lotus root and savoury custard buns dressed up as whole mushrooms.
Qingdao’s International Beer Festival
Zuma Press Inc/Alamy
Then it’s time to start saturating myself with beer once again. First up is the Tsingtao brewery and museum. on a road called Beer Street — lined with neon-lit restaurants and bars — every one of which has a massive flashing Tsingtao logo. No rival brewery would stand a chance.
A misty evening in Qingdao
Xinhua / Alamy
Here I learn that Tsingtao, first brewed in 1903, was made for German expats and soldiers in China – and I receive the perhaps not medically sound, advice that “a Tsingtao a day keeps the doctor away”.
I nibble on toasted hops, surprisingly sweet and nutty, before observing the bottling room, where an incredible 36,000 bottles are filled every hour. Then I find the “drunk room”, where my Great Leap hangover comes crashing back. The challenge is to get to the other side of a small room in which the floor is tilted at about 60 degrees, and wobbles like the Natural History Museum’s earthquake room. By the time I’m through I’m weak with laughter, desperate for a fortifying beer to revive me.
Tsingtao Beer Museum
Be careful what you wish for. At Sichuan restaurant South Beauty I learn to shout “gan bei” — the Chinese equivalent of “cheers!”, only each time you must also bang your glass on the table and down all the beer in it. Which Chinese hospitality dictates must immediately be refilled to the brim. Throughout the evening “gan bei” rings out constantly, particularly when I try Tsingtao’s newest offering, its first IPA — a sweetish, hoppy brew that could compete with any ironically named ales produced in a London railway arch.
The next day I walk off my beer belly around Laoshan mountain, a beautifully peaceful home to several Taoist temples. But really, I’m just killing time until the beer festival that evening. The event is spread across four sites, and I head to the biggest of them all, Huangdao Golden Beach. The approach is like walking into Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland — except for the huge neon motto at the entrance encouraging imminent swillers to “Gan bei with the world!”
Endless flashing lights line an avenue leading to huge tents from international beer brands. Not surprisingly Tsingtao’s is the biggest, and has by far the best entertainment. Contortionists, drinking races, fire breathers and pole dancers vie for attention with teeming crowds of beaming Chinese brew enthusiasts.
Most of the men are stripped down to their beer bellies, clutching plastic bags full of beer — an unusual twist on the German stein. And food here is much more Chinese than bratwurst — I end up snacking on an entire fried octopus on a stick, the size of my head. As electro music begins to pound, the semi-naked among us climb onto tables to dance, beer bags sloshing almost as much as the bellies. This is Chinese Oktoberfest: totally surreal, and hysterical fun. Forget tea. You shouldn’t miss this for all the beer in China.
A bartender pours pitchers
Swiss Air (swiss.com) and Lufthansa (lufthansa.com) operate services from Heathrow to Qingdao via Beijing.
Shangri-La Hotel Qingdao. Doubles from £150 per night, B&B.
China National Tourist Office: cnto.org.uk