China in the Beer Brackets

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After a couple weeks here of almost all Tibet, almost all the time, I’d like to take a moment to discuss some different subjects, basketball and beer. OK, mainly just beer. The occasion is the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Each March, 65 U.S. colleges participate in the single-elimination tournament that has a long tradition of office pools, buzzer beaters and famous chokes. To me it’s the most exciting event of the sports calendar. As the late Hunter S. Thompson put it in 2001, “A single missed free throw can be the difference between Life and Death.”

In other words, it hardly needs additional drama. But for several years some friends have paired the Big Dance with a single-elimination tournament of beer. Each year 16 or so lagers face off (a full 65 would be inviting disaster), with the winners decided by blind taste test. My distance from the U.S. usually keeps me from participating, but this year I decided to fly home, complete with a handful of Chinese entries.

Chinese beers could rightly expect to be treated like a 16 seed in this contest. But this year I thought I had a secret weapon. A few weeks ago I traveled to the northernmost part of Inner Mongolia for a story. Along the way I heard talk of a rare brew that was universally described as the best in China.

The nervous contestants await their fate

While waiting for a flight back to Beijing, I decided to give the beer a try. It’s called Hailaer, after the city where it’s brewed. Perhaps it was the side effects of sitting in a cramped back seat and breathing second-hand smoke for 15 of the previous 30 hours, but the beer was surprisingly good. It had a slightly sweet punch that I thought could cut through the clutter of the beer brackets. So I hopped in a cab and raced into central Hailaer to buy a case and get back before my flight left. The driver was so excited about my quest that he drove up on the sidewalk and escorted me into the grocery store to ensure I bought the right beer.

Along with Hailaer, I brought cans of Yanjing, Beijing Beer and Tsingtao Draft. Hailaer and Yanjing, as complete unknowns, were seeded low and had to participate in the two play-in games. (There were 18 beers in this year’s event). The pair was crushed. Hailaer lost to eventual finalist Pacifico because, on reflection, it’s a bit cloying; Yanjing lost Spaten because it’s Yanjing.

But it was not all gloom for the Chinese beers. Dark horse Beijing Beer made it to the Final Four. The judges voted 3-0 for Beijing Beer in its face-off with Asahi. Of course, Beijing Beer is brewed by Asahi, so the narrative is more student-defeats-master than Sino-Japanese struggle. The finals were a North American affair, with Pacifico facing Molson Canadian, and Molson Canadian was the champion.