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?