Beer in Shanghai, part 2: challenge

In the last few months, in a dozen cities in mainland China plus Hong Kong, Macau, and various sites through Vietnam, I've had a chance to try a large range of Asian beers. The local mainstays around Shanghai: Tsingtao, Snow, REEB, plus the Chinese-brewed (ie, watery) versions of Carlsberg, Tiger, Heineken, Bud, Foster's, San Miguel, Asahi, Kirin, and Suntory. In the north, Harbin and some other beers I now forget. In the south, Haizhu, Kingway, and Pearl River beers. Beijing Beer and Yanjing Beer in the capital. Exotic variants like REEB DARK (ugh) and Tsingtao Light (UGH!!). In Vietnam, BGI, 333, Saigon, and Bia Larue.

Yeah, there are differences.

BGI comes in a bigger bottle than the others for the same price, which makes me think its name is a typo for BIG. Haizhu seemed, for a minute, to taste of something resembling hops. Xinjiang Black beer is darker than others and has a taste. Discount Suntory is hands-down the worst, the only beer I've ever spit out. ("Premium" Suntory is not as bad.) Some people whose food knowledge I respect think that Tsingtao is actually better than the rest.

But the differences are nothing compared with the similarity: I defy the most sophisticated beer taster to tell any of these beers apart from any others in a blind taste test. It would be like picking up a slice of Wonder Bread and guessing whether it came from Orlando or Dubuque. Here is my challenge: someone disprove my theory that these beers all come from one big, mediocre vat. The only proof I will accept is success in telling which is, say, Tiger and which Carlsberg -- or Tsingtao or San Miguel or REEB -- on the blind taste-test. I'll buy beers for the test, as long as testers buy the beers they can't tell apart.

If the U.S. and Europe want to up their exports to China, how about pushing on the Chinese to buy some of their hops? Or their actual beers?

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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