4th Annual China “Master Cup” Homebrewing Competition 第四届“大师杯”中国家酿啤酒大奖赛

Qinhuangdao was an interesting city to visit, though I only got a small glimpse.  As with most of China’s second tier cities, you are quickly reminded just how populous the country is when even these “smaller” municipalities have more people than Chicago or Philadelphia.  That said, the drastically lower number of English-speaking foreign residents becomes evident when you see entire building facades in the middle of downtown graced with translations like this…


One “carbon roast beef teak” please!

Anyway, we arrived late afternoon on the 21st (the day before competition) after a 3-hour drive.  Upon settling into our humble accommodations, first on the agenda was obviously to grab a beer 😉  Turns out, there’s pretty much only one place in Qinhuangdao that could satisfy beergeeks like us…


Zing Beer 鲸酒馆 is tucked inside the northeast quadrant of the Qinhuangdao Olympic Center Stadium. The wall behind the bar is adorned with myriad beer bottles – and even six-pack holders – from around the world.  On this particular day, there was only one draft pouring, but it turned out to be quite a good one.  Scotland’s own Harviestoun Brewery somehow manages to get kegs of its Schiehallion Craft Lager into this resort town, little-known to foreigners. Crisp and flavorful, with quite a hop presence which really clings to your palate in the aftertaste, but leaves you craving yet another sip… or pint

(Speaking of wanting more... many of us returned the second night, when a China League One match between home team Hebei CFFC 河北华夏幸福 and Beijing BG was finishing in a 0-0 tie

(Speaking of wanting more… many of us returned to Zing on the final night, when a China League One match between home team Hebei CFFC 河北华夏幸福 and Beijing BG was finishing in a 0-0 tie)

But ok, onto the Master Cup

Woe upon us, the scarce fifteen judges...

Woe upon us, the scarce fifteen judges…

Firstly, one needs to recognize that there is still a relative paucity of qualified judges in China, so there were only fifteen of us and we had to taste approximately 80+ entries each.  There were eight categories and each judge would be assigned two of them: one flight for the morning session, and the other in the afternoon.  Many varying styles of beer had to be combined into a single grouping, including a single category for all lagers (except for those with specialty ingredients, which is its own category, zengwei 增味) and where English brown ales are grouped with Belgian dubbels in the same “Dark Ale 深色艾尔” category. This would likely face criticism in the West, but again, I believe the compromise comes about because there are only so many judges to go around and only so many prizes to give out.  At least this year stouts and porters get their own category instead of being squeezed into “Dark Ale” like they were last year, when there were only SIX categories. Baby steps, people.  Baby steps.  Let’s give them time – at the speed things are developing in China, I think we’ll get there sooner rather than later.

So anyway, I got porters and stouts for the first session and American-style pale ales and IPAs for the second. I must confess that some entries were difficult to put past my nose, let alone palate and throat.  Most were simply mediocre or significantly flawed, but there were a small handful of decent beers.  Among the stout/porter entries, I noticed a pattern of overly bitter brews, both from hops and/or roasted unmalted grains.  This left the beers quite one-dimensional as the bitterness overtook any other component in flavor.

With the IPA’s and PA’s, many of the entrants should probably have chosen the non-American IPA/PA category, which was also differentiated into its own group for the first time this year.  I quickly sensed that freshness of ingredients, and that of New World hop varieties in particular, were significant obstacles for many of them.  Temperature control probably factored in quite a bit as well, including during the physical transport and delivery to the competition venue.  Possibly some sanitation issues too, with several samples resembling band-aids and even one completely unpalatable entry that smelled and tasted like bleach.  But again, there were definitely a small handful of entrants that passed muster, and the likely top places actually being quite decent. [As judges, we only knew the beers by assigned numbers, thus tasting them “blind”.]

After the main evaluations, we were onto the selection of “best in show” or the winner of the Master Cup. Here, half the judges from each group were chosen to decide the champion from each of the category winners.  For me, this was a tough decision, and one that will never please everyone, since subjectivity really comes into play when judging across categories.  Both the American-style IPA and the lager were quite good, as was the specialty category winner, which was an obviously vanilla-infused stout.  I won’t reveal which beer I personally voted for, but this last one ended up as the champ.  We found out later at the award ceremony that the brewer, Geng Hongwei 耿宏炜, is from Xingtai, representing Hebei province.  Geng named the beer “夏洛特女王世涛” or “Queen Charlotte Stout”.

The award ceremony that evening almost didn’t happen, due to flash thunderstorms and heavy showers, as the venue was an open-air plaza along the sandy beach shore of Qinhuangdao.  But the Beer Gods eventually prevailed and the prizes were awarded in relatively little rain, with only quick bouts of misty drizzle by night’s end.  Finally getting to meet some of the other fellow beer geeks and enthusiasts was a great experience (Judges were working all day in a separate room from the conference hall, unable to mingle with entrants and attendees to the daytime presentations and lectures).  It was very encouraging to see Chinese homebrewers from around the country, striving to improve their skills and knowledge, with the number of participants increasing each year.

Here is the full list of winners (Chinese only).  The total score of each region’s entrants determines who gets to host the following year’s contest.  This time, Beijing beat out Hebei by just one point.

To sum up my experience, I do leave with a positive spirit.  Many of the winners and runners up will almost certainly be future commercial brewers, adding their personalities to the global phenomenon we know and love as craft beer.  Despite some of the undrinkable entries, ultimately it is through mistakes that people learn most effectively.  The judges’ comments for each entry are anonymously returned to each of the brewers, in the hopes that the feedback will assist in honing their craft.  I know I’m not the only one excited about China’s potential for craft beer.  Until next year – in Beijing!

[DISCLOSURE: All judges received a small honorarium for the day, and some of my food and lodging costs were paid for, courtesy of NBeer management and the competition organizers.]

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