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June 3, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright June 3, 2009 Robert Bickers. Used by permission.


‘What are we to drink?’ asked a British doctor in Shanghai in 1867, reflecting on the precautions needed to maintain health in the sweltering city. His answer, asShanghai water was too filthy a solution, was simple: beer. For ‘7 or 8 months of the year’ he wrote, bitter was ‘as wholesome a drink as we could have’. Its medicinal properties were, I rather suspect, far from the minds of the inhabitants of the new military garrisons established in north China after the late 1890s ‘scramble for concessions’, and the Boxer rising and war. They wanted the relief only a cool pilsener could bring them. To slate that thirst, a new brewery was established in the German naval colony at Qingdao, and therein lie the roots of China’s favourite tipple, and its most visible global brand: Tsingtao Beer.

Therein too, lie the roots of current anxieties in China about the sale of a 19 per cent stake in the Tsingtao Brewery Co. by Anheuser-Busch InBev to Japanese brewers Asahi, giving them an almost 27% stake in the firm (and a relatively easy springboard from which to take full control). Sketches of the firm nearly always note that its origins were as a German company, and it’s a badge of pride in the company’s own publicity materials, not least those around its centenary celebrations in 2003. But it’s actually more interesting than that, and more revealing of the earlier world of transnational business activity in pre-communist China.