Brew Review: Harbin Lager

Comes wrapped in a thick sort of tissue paper that has an elastic neck underneath. Also a thin metallic gold drawstring.

Harbin Lager (China)
Appearance (0 to 4 stars): 3.
Aroma: 3.
Flavor: 3. Quite strong initially, almost bitter like Heineken. No funky aftertaste.
Texture: 3.5. Nice fizz.
Drinkability: 3. Nice going down.

Overall score: 15.5 / 20.0

Cost: $3.
On the label: 1 pt., 4.3 oz. Inspired by the Tradition and Culture of China's Most Northern Province of Heilongliang.
Summary: I normally don't care for bitter beers, but this one is nice when cold, goes well with chili, fried chicken and kim chi. Once it gets warm, ugh. A true hot-weather beer. I wonder if the Danes had an influence on the breweries in Northern China. I know the Germans built a few breweries there.

Reviewed Mar. 8, 2007

Epilogue: I did a little surfing and came up with this from (where else?) Wikipedia. Turns out this beer and its brewery has its roots in a Russian national and Russian workers who built the Trans-Manchurian Railway. I just wonder if the brew today has any resemblance to that turn-of-the-century Russian-influenced beverage.

Harbin is China's fourth largest brewery. Harbin is one of the oldest brewers in China, has a leading position in Northeast China and produces the Hapi beer brand.

The history of Harbin dates back to 1900, when Ulubulevskij, a Russian national, founded a brewery in Northeast China (called Manchuria then), which he named after himself - 'Ulubulevskij Brewery.' The initial objective of the Brewery, considered the first in China, was to supply beer to Russians working on the Trans-Manchurian Railway Project5 started in 1898. In 1908, the company was renamed Gulunia. In 1932, the brewery got one more new name - 'Harbin Brewery Factory', when it went into joint control of Chinese and Czech nationals.

Later, with the Soviet Red army capturing Manchuria in 1946, the company was controlled by Soviet nationals, who called it Quilin Stock Company Limited. This situation prevailed until 1950. In 1950, when Stalin, ordered the return of Chinese assets, the ownership of the company was returned to the Chinese government. The Chinese renamed it Harbin Brewery and operated it as a state-owned entity.

Driven by the famine the company became the first to brew beer with corn instead of rice, in China in 1959. Through the 1960s, the company focused on investing resources to improve its brewing technology, as part of which, in 1973, it installed its first sterilization machine in Heilongjiang Province. In June 2003, SABMiller acquired a 29.6% equity stake in Harbin. In 2004 it was taken over by Anheuser-Busch after a bitterly fought takeover bid battle with SABMiller.

It's a fascinating story and history, and it makes me want to travel there just to visit the area and the brewery. Oh, and to sip a little bit of that fresh Harbin brew. A little more digging led me to this 2004 Time magazine piece. This piece, by Matthew Forney, adds information about the Japanese management of the brewery under Hirohito.

This bit of info is especially compelling: Even two decades after economic reforms began in 1978, China still had about 800 breweries, most set up by local governments. Only one, Tsingtao, has built a national name. The vast majority, with brands like Celestial Peach and Country Man, stay local and sell their brews for about 25¢ per bottle.

Oh man, it's time for a China Beer Tour! I'll have to figure out how to bring 800 empty bottles home, though.