Thirst Come, Thirst Served

4 minute read
Mike Meyer

How do you get to our factory?” the voice on the line repeated my question with a laugh. “Just show the cabby a bottle of YANJING and say, ‘Take me.'”

And so it was, down Twin Rivers Road beneath the bellies of incoming planes, where the billboards all urged yanjing and the air reeked of roasted barley. In Dublin, Guinness anchors a working neighborhood; Milwaukee’s Miller shoulders freeways and a ballpark; and in Beijing I expected industriousness to spill from Yanjing’s kegs into the streets. Our cab would follow ant lines of tricycles, one rolling in empty, one clinking out full, past packed restaurants; and there would be Germans, lots of jolly Germans, licking foam from facial hair and shouting for another round. But the empty boulevard carried us in efficient quietness to the gates of Yanjing’s Mansion of Science and Technology. The guard saluted the car around the fountain and under a granite colonnade. Clocks told the time in Paris, London and New York City. A man in a suit waited with his namecard. I wished I had worn a tie.

In the Beer Exhibition Hall, sweeping his arm over a model of the factory, the grandly titled “general manager work vice director,” Zhang Erjing, narrated Yanjing’s success. Founded in 1980 by the Beijing municipal government with $770,000, the brewery today boasts assets of $761 million. Its ubiquitous bottles of beer account for 85% of the Beijing market and 10% of the nation’s. The secret to its triumphs? WINNING CREDIT FROM THE PEOPLE WITH ITS EXCELLENT QUALITY, read a display. PLEASING THE PEOPLE WITH ITS UNIQUE FLAVOR, AND SERVING THE PEOPLE WITH ITS SINCERE ATTITUDE.

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It’s cheap, too. “Our signature brand is affordable,” allowed Zhang, leading me to shelves of Yanjing’s 15 varieties. The stuff from a local xiaomaibu costing two yuan (about 25) is the Refreshing brand, weighing in at 4% alcohol by volume. Other varieties range from Low Alcohol (2.8%) to Style Draft (3.1%), to King (4.3%) for nights when you need something stronger. And there’s Yanjing Alcohol Free for when you don’t.

According to Zhang, each Beijinger annually quaffs 50 liters of beer. (“Some far more,” he added, glancing at the bulge above my belt.) His job is to increase that, both by introducing new products and acquiring regional breweries. Besides its new premium Golden Rose beer (“rich in fragrance and beautiful in shape”), Yanjing also produces soft drinks, mineral water, soy sauce and vinegar, and will introduce a line of tea this spring.

Zhang led me upstairs to the Production Dispatching Center, where a worker straightened at his console and began pushing buttons. “We have 18,000 workers,” Zhang said. I strained my eyes at the surveillance screens scanning the factory, and counted six. “But mostly we are automated using modern, German equipment.”

As we walked above the assembly line, Zhang reeled off stats as quickly as the robots were fastening caps on newborn beers. But after an hour of admiring shiny tanks and blinking switchboards, we made for the Yanjing Bar. EACH GUEST IS ENTITLED TO ONE GLASS, warned a sign. Zhang signaled for a pitcher and recounted the day he drank here with boxing promoter Don King. “Big hair,” he remembered. We tapped our steins and savored a malty freshness that forever spoiled my appreciation of the bike-transported local stuff. Zhang lit a Hongtashan Gold and wanted to talk about Yanjing’s business plan, “about strict control over rate of charges on assets,” but I had some nagging questions: Favorite Yanjing? (“Draft brand”); Brown bottle or green? (“Doesn’t matter”); Pineapple beerwhy? (“It’s refreshing”); The growing wine market? (“No problem! Wine’s not as good for you as beer”). Then Zhang pointed to his cheeks and mine, declared them pink, and ordered tea. The tour was over. He had to get back to work.

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