Challenges of Chinese Beer

The beer market is a fickle place. Tastes change with the season and fashion is as much a part of the selection process as flavor. But beer behavior is hooked intrinsically to tradition, culture, and myth. It likes its regular place at the bar and distrusts strangers. So even with the rise of craft brews and an increasing taste for experimentation, context and how we categorize the world shapes our behavior, beliefs, and choice of beer.

Regional brewers are connected to a sense of place and history. They’re an expression of the collective unconscious of a city, a state, and region. There is the mystique of exploring the coast of Maine through a regional ale and connecting with your home town through a microbrew IPA. But what about international brands? Can they evoke the same sense of drama? More accurately, can non-European beers make the leap? While there are a host of beers coming out of China, for example, they have had trouble gaining traction in the West.

When it comes to Chinese beer, the biggest hurdle by far is a cultural one. In the liquor store we may appear more clear headed and open minded, we may experiment a little, we may branch out from or patterns a bit. But even then, confronted with the array of brands before us we tend to balk at trying new beers. Get into a bar and the game changes further. Unless we are out of town and looking for a bit of local flavor, we fall back to the familiar. Walking up to the bar and spending five minutes deciding what to drink is as annoying as it is embarrassing. When you order a beer, it must be ordered with confidence. What the drinker doesn’t want  is to belly up to the bar and be confused by spelling they don’t understand and brands they find unfamiliar. To be sure there is a segment that loves to experiment, but most will not, at least not in this setting, unless the beer “fits” the context.

And that is sadly one reason why westerners still labor under the misconception that Chinese beers are only to be consumed with a Chinese meal (the same holds true for Indian and Thai beers). While Tsingtao is available around the world, it is rarely purchased anywhere but in Chinese restaurants – only a handful of people stock it in their refrigerators. Search the Web for mentions of Tsingtao and you’ll find thousands of pages describing how well it goes with kung pao chicken, dumplings or crab rangoon. Rarely do you find more.

If the statistics are anything to go by, foreign restaurants must account for a tiny share of the mainland’s beer sales. Chinese brewers produced over seven billion gallons of beer in 2018, making them the world’s biggest producer for the third year running. Snow is now the biggest selling brand in the world by consumption, but it is unknown outside China.  So what?  Here’s what.  That breaks down to 5.5 gallons a person for the entire country annually. That’s a lot of beer. And a lot of missed opportunity.

So why aren’t we drinking more of it?  Often, people talk about a rice flavor to Chinese beers, though they struggle to define what exactly that flavor is – rice, after all, is not the only grain used by Chinese brewers. And it’s used in the west as well. The truth is that the typical Chinese beer is mild-tasting, slightly hoppy, and light. These beers possess the same qualities as any lager or pilsner from any place on the planet. These brews have been brewed to ensure that even after several bottles and an eight course meal, you still have a bit of space left.

So it is more likely that cultural biases are the deterrent rather than flavor. We still question the quality of Chinese brands (even though half of any consumer goods we purchase are made in China). There are cultural and racial biases we are loathe to discuss, though truth be told they influence our interpretations. Equally, we view Germany, Belgium and the UK as the true masters of the craft and have a hard time looking to China for new brews. It isn’t flavor so much as it is cultural barriers to brand and product interpretation. And then there are the unfamiliar names and spelling conventions. It all adds up to pose a serious challenge for Chinese brands.

Beyond beer, all of this matters because it helps illustrate the difficulty in global marketing. If you plan to launch a brand in China, it serves you well to think not only about the people over there, but also the people over here – it serves you well to think about how cultural bias and worldview can influence our use and interpretations of a brand. Products and brands have a wide range of meanings and uses.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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