Slow Start for Bavarian Beer Fest in Beijing

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The steins clink and laughter flows up and down the tables. Blonde German girls shuttle between them. But one feature is different from this German-style beer fest: Nearly all the customers are Chinese.

By By Zhang Xi

This is the first Beijing International Beer Festival and organizers have gone to great lengths to make it a success. Despite an enormous budget, numbers are much lower than expected, but organizers have vowed to continue the festival and believe it has long-term potential.

The Xiedao (Crab Island) Holiday Resort says it spent 800 million yuan (87 million euros) to stage the 31-day festival, which started in mid July. To ensure Bavarian authenticity, the resort cooperates with German catering company, Schottenhamel GmbH & Co KG, which stages one of the most famous and largest tents at the real Oktoberfest.

Michael Schottenhamel, president and a fifth generation member of the family business, says although there are 3,000 activities outside Germany called "Oktoberfest" he was not aware of any such German beer festival as big as the one in Beijing.

The festival area covers 400,000 square meters and can handle 84,000 beer-drinking customers at the same time. Although all Oktoberfests around the world are held in October, Beijing's incarnation was scheduled for July and August because of the capital's sweltering summer. "And because a lot of people, especially students, are on holidays," he says.

To make everything authentic, Schottenhamel brought expert staff from Germany. He also imported the very best beer and food. The German professionals showed their Chinese counterparts how to serve real German beers and cook meat and bread.

The food was also tested by more than 400 German waiting staff in an effort to improve quality control. The young men and women, who work from 10 am to 11 pm daily, bring a variety of experience to the event. Some have worked at Oktoberfest while most are college students who were trained especially before coming to Beijing.

"The facilities here are quite good, with booths selling souvenirs and snacks. There is a medical center and a medium-sized amusement park," says Katinka Zach, a beer waitress and university student from Munich. "All of these facilities are quite similar to Oktoberfest. We sometimes show German dances for patrons to help them understand more about Europe."

Her colleague, Silke Kohl, who is also a Munich student, agrees. "The atmosphere is quite good here. But maybe the organizer needs to run more advertisements to attract more people. After all, comparing with Oktoberfest, there are much fewer customers."

According to Munich Tourist Office, Oktoberfest last year attracted about 6.5 million visitors who collectively downed approximately 7 million liters of special Oktoberfest brew. They also consumed 119 spit-roasted oxen, 505,901 roasted chickens, 119,405 special sausages, 70,000 pork knuckles and 40,000 kilograms of fish.

Revenue from the world's largest folk festival is expected to reach 500 million euros this year. Organizers of the Beijing event say it will take time before the festival gains a foothold.

"Beijing residents need time to become aware of our beer festival and come to join us," says Fu Xiuping, chairman of Xiedao Group. "Our eight tents can produce 150 tons of beers every day. But based on the actual number of 10,000 daily visitors, we only open four tents right now.

"Although the popularity of our beer festival does not meet our expectations, we will hold it again next year to make it a brand of our enterprise. "Even the Qingdao Beer Festival did not receive much attention when it first began."

The Qingdao Beer Festival, together with those in Dalian and Harbin, are the top three annual beer festivals in China. The one in Qingdao, a coastal city in East China's Shandong province, is the oldest beginning in 1991.

In 2010, the 16-day Qingdao Beer Festival attracted about 3.4 million customers who consumed 2.1 billion yuan worth of beer, food and accommodation. But another obstacle for Beijing organizers is the capital's existing beer drinking culture. Beijing beer is cheap, selling for about 3 yuan a bottle, and expensive German beer poses a challenge.

"Beijing people like to enjoy a beer and feel the breeze in the open air in summer evenings to escape from the heat. It is quite common to sit around tables with friends to chat and drink outside small restaurants on the street. And it's really cheap," says Li Rong'an, who is in charge of beer brewing at Xiedao Holiday Resort. "People in Beijing still need time to accept the German-style beer festival because of the relatively high cost."

A stein of beer costs 60 yuan and a plate of roasted chicken, pork, beef or sausages costs 50 yuan. Even a piece of bread will set you back 20 yuan.

So, a beer and meal package costs more than 100 yuan, which is about one day's pay for an ordinary white-collar worker in Beijing. For some young people, money is not a barrier and they are willing to pay the price to taste European culture.

"We have tried red, black and yellow beers and they all taste good," says Zhu Junjie, a Beijinger in his 20s, who was enjoying the festival with friends. "I have been to other beer festivals in China that offer branded beers made by factories. But here, they brew beers on site and I can witness the process."

The only disadvantage, according Zhu, is the festival's inconvenient location near Beijing International Airport on the outskirts of the city. The resort provides free shuttle buses for customers but some Beijingers could be reluctant to venture so far from home after a hard day in the office.

Despite the growing pains, the beer festival is good news for China's alcoholic beverage industry, according to He Yong, secretary-general of the Beer Committee of China Alcoholic Drinks Industry Association.

"Beer is a kind of low-valued fast moving consumer goods. Its consumption is based on common consumers. There is demand for beer in China so beer festivals could receive certain popularity here," he says. "Besides, beer manufacturers can promote themselves better at these festivals."

According to the association, Chinese beer consumption reached 30.2 liters per person in 2009, up 1.2 liters compared with 2008. In 2009 Beijing locals consumed 139.83 liters per person.

He says it is hard to predict if Beijingers will adopt the festival platform because everybody was different. "People who like merriment can have fun in beer festivals, while those like quiet atmosphere can enjoy beer at home."

China Daily European Weekly

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