Beer is not the first thing people associate with China, but Tsingtao is probably the country's best known brand. It's a product of the vicissitudes of history, a direct result of the foreign domination of Qingdao in the 20th century.
The Beer Museum in Qingdao, which opened in 2003, the brewery's centennial year, is as much about the town as about the product.
Germany was a latecomer to territorial acquisition in China. After two German missionaries were killed in China in the late 19th century, Kaiser Wilhelm II forced the Qing government into ceding Qingdao in 1897 for 99 years. The city was then little more than a fishing village, but the Germans had grand plans.
One of their first steps was to open the brewery in 1903. It is at this point that the museum takes up the story. The 'A building' charts the history of Tsingtao Beer. Production initially centred on a pilsner and a dark beer for consumption in Qingdao and by foreigners across China. At that time the beer was brewed in accordance with the German Reinheitsgebot purity law of 1516, using spring water from nearby Laoshan and imported barley and hops.
Japanese troops took control of Qingdao during the first world war. Ownership of the brewery passed to the Dai Nippon Brewery which ran it up to 1945. With the defeat of the Japanese, the brewery came under Chinese control. Since 1979, the brewery has expanded rapidly with growth in the home market and rising exports.
The 'B building' looks at the brewing process. A tour takes in the old copper kettles from the original factory, followed by a mock-up of the brewing lab. A series of displays tout the brewery's green credentials and then it's a quick explanation of traditional fermentation techniques before moving on to the storage cellar. Another section is devoted to the history of beer.
Unlike many brewery tours, this is not a quick talk followed by an hour of drinking. However, a brief tasting awaits in a small bar. What follows is a contrast of new and old as the tour takes in the filter plant and packaging department. Antiquated machines used in the early years overlook the modern plant.
Finally, visitors get to sample a jug of Qingdao's finest. Sadly, the bar only serves standard Tsingtao draft beer rather than other varieties such as the dark or the new bottled pure draft. Nonetheless, the museum and tour affords a good understanding of the brewery's history and the brewing process.
Qingdao will host the sailing events at the 2008 Olympics, Aug 9-23. Tsingtao Beer Museum, 56 Dengzhou Rd, Qingdao, 50 yuan (HK$57), tel: 86 532 8382 1169