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China Has Beer Troubles Brewing : Suds Going Flat With Nation's Youth, Educator Reports

August 06, 1986|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Americans are giving beer a bad name in China.

This sidelight on a liquid aspect of foreign relations comes from an associate professor of education at the Claremont Graduate School. Joseph Weeres spent a month this summer touring more than 30 breweries in the People's Republic, exploring the folkways of beer consumption and production.

While he was poking around vats from Shanghai to Kunming, Weeres also was learning that the beverage--which has been around since about 6000 BC--is taking a beating with China's younger generation.

"What was interesting in China was almost everyone we met who was under, say, 30 had a negative view of beer and they had derived that perception from viewing Americans and Europeans," Weeres said. "They are convinced--at least the ones we talked to in every city we went to--that beer makes you fat.

Old and Fat

"They see Americans who are eating in the government-run restaurants consuming their local beers. . . . The age group of Americans who are traveling in China are in their late 50s, early 60s. It's a generation of people who aren't that weight-conscious. They look old, they look fat, they don't look very healthy and these young kids see these people and say, 'Hey, that's what Americans look like. . . . They think Americans drink too much beer."

Weeres, a slim man of 46 who has brewed his own beer for 25 years, is still chuckling over the fact that he was given money to learn this kind of stuff. He received a $5,000 grant from the American/Chinese Adventure Capital Program to pay for the jaunt through 15 cities and about double that number of breweries. His wife, Lee, a microbacteriologist, paid her own way.

The grants, administered by the Durfee Foundation of Los Angeles and ranging from $2,000 to $25,000, were available on a one-time basis to staffers at a number of local colleges, libraries and museums who were interested in "avocational pursuits" that would help "cement a special personal relationship with China."

Weeres admits he was looking for a subsidized way to get to China and that most of his friends laughed at the idea. Yet when Weeres talks about beer, it's evident that he takes the subject seriously. He has a "fascination with the subtleties of the taste" of the various kinds of beer, he said, adding that his family was in the beer-making business until Prohibition.

Armed with the "three paragraphs" of information he had gleaned from the college library about Chinese beer, Weeres wrote a three-page application in which he asked "to learn more about beer making in China, with a special emphasis on the adaptation of beer brewing to the cultural and culinary expectations of the local populations."

To Weeres' mild surprise, his application was approved. "I thought there was a slim chance they'd fund it. I thought they'd fund one off-the-wall, kind of whimsical project."

While Weeres' relationship with China may be more lubricated than cemented, he clearly increased his knowledge of beer beyond the Great Wall by quantum amounts.

The more salient points:

--Beer in China comes mainly in bottles of about 21 ounces. It is weak, often slightly sour and low in alcohol content, probably about 2%. It costs the equivalent of about 50 cents a bottle, expensive by Chinese standards where workers are usually paid much less than $100 a month. Price may be one reason why the average Chinese drinks less than a gallon of beer per year while the average American gulps down 21 gallons a year, Weeres said.

"The taste varied more than I expected," Weeres said. "Partly that's the kind of grain they added to the barley. In the southern part of China you find rice in the beer. The barley varies and I imagine the water supply. Some of the beers have a chlorine taste. But when I asked if they had chlorine in the water, they said no." Chinese export beers, Weeres said, are brewed to satisfy international tastes and those such as Tsingtao are only "average imitations" of German beers. The beer that most closely resembles domestic Chinese beer is a Mexican brew called Pacifico, he said.

--Largely because of transportation and distribution problems, beer production is very much a local affair. Each city tends to have its own brewery. The breweries are relatively modern-looking, extremely clean and equipped with stainless-steel vats and copper tubing. Weeres said he expected to find some facilities that looked as if they were out of the 18th Century.

--A few breweries in China specialize in making herbal beers, usually by adding ginseng. Ginseng-flavored beers are touted as therapeutic for cardiovascular problems. However, Weeres said he was disappointed to learn that there is much less herbal beer-brewing than he expected. (To remedy this gap in his knowledge, Weeres plans to brew up his own herbal beers.)

--When it comes to drinking beer, the Chinese usually share a bottle among several people. They also will resort to mixing beer with an orange-flavored drink to stretch out the suds. Weeres said he declined to try this mixture.

Despite the shortcomings of Chinese brewing, Weeres said he "fell in love with the country" and is eager to return. But he conceded that paying his own way is a daunting prospect.

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