Call me an optimist, but I like to think a beer festival is a pretty hard thing to screw up. Everybody likes festivals and everybody likes beer. Putting them together just makes sense.
And when my last visit to Qingdao proved to be a culinary delight accompanied by some of the Tsingtao Brewery’s fantastic dark beer, I went back to Qingdao with the false impression that the Qingdao International Beer Festival would be amazing. And if not amazing – it would still be a beer festival.
I was wrong.
The Posse Comes to Qingdao
Of late; myself, Byron (of Byron & His Backpacks fame), and my co-worker James have made a habit of taking a fortnightly holiday away from the sweaty, anti-social squalor of Nanjing. I’ve yet to share the tale of our visit to Hangzhou to take in West Lake’s majesty – but suffice to say, it’s a damn fun little posse to be a part of.
After wrapping up our working weeks and filling the five hour train ride to Qingdao with old Wrestlemania, Civilization Revolution on iPad, and a bit of Patrick Rothfuss’ infuriatingly unfinished Kingkiller Chronicles; it was time to check into our room at the Kaiyun Youth Hostel and hit the town.
Well… gently carress it.
You see, after a five hour train ride and a ‘long’ working week (I’m not sure my 8 hours or Byron’s 4 hours really count) we were more hungry and tired than ready to party. But at 11pm in Qingdao, apparently your options are rather limited.
We opted to be underwhelmed by China’s impersonation of KFC and a couple of sneaky Vodka Cruisers. We’re classy lads. Bellies full and visions of a boozy day’s festivities ahead of us, we turned in early.
The first difference between what I’d read and the reality of the festival was its location. Where the Qingdao International Beer Festival had previously been held at the aptly named Beer Street; it was now held some twenty five minutes cab ride away in an industrial estate.
Far removed from the city of Qingdao, the famous Tsing Tao Brewery, and a street full of fresh seafood – the festival instead featured a bunch of tents set up in what is usually some kind of entertainment centre.
Streets choked with cars alerted us to our imminent arrival, and soon we were handing over 10RMB ($1.50) to get into the festival. Our hearts were racing and our faces wore the kind of grins usually reserved for children on Christmas morning. We were going to get drink, drank, drunk.
Tent #1 – Paulaner
Our first port of call happened to be the one closest to the entrance. Fancy that. The Paulaner brand is fairly well known to use due to its brew-restaurants in Nanjing and Shanghai (among other places) and seemed as good a place as any to start. It was only 11.30, so we weren’t particularly surprised by the small crowd. The smell of German sausage and sizzling seafood reached our nostrils. We were in heaven.
A pretty young bar-maid skipped up to us and asked us what we’d like.
“We’ll take three dark beers”.
“Large or small?”
Was this girl for real?
Soon we were nursing comically large steins of pretty good dunkel style German beer. The cost? A princely 120RMB ($20) for a litre. A far cry from the usual price of beer in China.
But the beer was cold and hearty and pretty bloody good. We were in a happy place. Unfortunately, from a festival perspective, this would be as good as it got.
Tent #2 – Tsingtao
An hour and a litre of fine dunkel later, we made our way next door to the Tsingtao tent. We were surprised to see it was almost identical to the first tent: a stage with a karaoke level performance, lots of trestle tables, a bar at the front, and tired looking servers carrying around plates of food they’d pester you to buy.
But this one happened to have girls in bikinis dancing around on stage too, so we thought it’d do.
It also had some bloody watery beer (even by Chinese standards) and luke warm crab that tasted like it had soaked in brine for a day.
The crab was a real warning of things to come. Across the day we’d try food at several different locations and all to the same general outcome: stale fries, cold shao kao (BBQ), and bland churros. For the prices we were paying, we would have liked something remotely palatable.
You’d think two litres of beer into our day, we’d be in high spirits. But as we moved to our third and fourth tents, we began to realize something: they were all the same.
Heineken, Tsingtao, Carlsberg, Tiger, Paulaner… every tent was essentially the same. Trestle tables, a stage, over-priced beer, and awful food. In three separate tents the only entertainment was a rerun of China’s interpretation of The Voice. It was as we drank another nondescript, watery jug of beer that we began to realise that the ‘international’ part of the Qingdao International Beer Festival was a crock of shit.
I’ll be stunned if Carlsberg, Tiger, or Heineken had any input at all into their ‘participation’ in the festival. It felt more like the local Chamber of Commerce had just erected tents for every awful beer that could be purchased in bulk.
Making Our Own Fun
I won’t say that we had a miserable time, because that would be a lie. We aren’t forcing smiles for these photos.
We had a hell of a good time winning cheap stuffed toys throwing darts on the Midway.
Byron and I subjected ourselves to the abject awfulness of starfish.
We rode a ride for $15 and posed for photos with all and sundry.
I had a bloody fantastic weekend away, but it had almost nothing to do with the Qingdao International Beer Festival. It was a combination of good mates and alcohol, and I could have had that in Nanjing for a fraction of the price and effort.
The alcohol, however awful in taste, certainly helped. But the entire day felt like a colossal missed opportunity and a waste of money.
Rather than drinking beers from around the world and enjoying a unique experience, we were basically moving from identical tent to identical tent being underwhelmed by the just how awful Chinese beer is.
If it had been the Qingdao Chinese Beer Festival, I’d have gone in expecting that. But the Qingdao International Beer Festival should have something a little more exotic from the Carlsberg, Heineken, or Tiger we could have picked up for 1/8th of the price in any corner store or bar worth a damn.
Don’t even get me started on the ridiculously expensive carnival rides, either. $15 for two minutes is criminal even by Australian standards. I doubt the poor bastards labouring in the 32C heat were getting any extra money for their work, so it was just another cash grab from the people behind the festival.
Should you go to the Qingdao International Beer Festival? Almost certainly not.
Even if you’re in Qingdao, it’s just not worth the time or money. You could celebrate beer from around the world far more easily at any respectable bar and actually sample something decent.
The festival is out of the way, poorly organised, overpriced, and is less international than my own meager dating history. A complete and utter disappointment.
Maybe in the past the festival was actually something worthwhile. In its current form, it’s infinitely missable.
For Your Viewing Pleasure
Byron and I try to eat a starfish. It doesn’t go well.