I returned a few weeks ago from my second of probably-annual treks to China on business. So obviously I need to post on the beer scene in China.
The intermediate stops don't really count, but I'll mention them anyway. The staggeringly expensive Business Class roundtrip from La Crosse to Minneapolis to Tokyo to Shanghai features as much as you care to drink of a great variety of beers, wines, and spirits. But you've got to be really careful about drinking very much when flying long-distance because it can end up as a serious double-whammy: the flight dehydrates you and the alcohol does as well, so you could come out on the other end pretty raisinesque and miserable if you're not careful. I was careful and the only beer that I had in transit was a glass of Sappora, a very crisp, dry Japanese lager served, appropriately enough, in the Tokyo airport on the way there, and a glass of Summit Extra Pale Ale in the Minneapolis airport on the way back.
In China itself there is frankly not much of a variety to choose from, at least in the normal vendors near my hotel in downtown Shanghai. Sure, at an upscale restaurant you can get pretty much anything you want. But there is nothing like the microbrew revolution taking place in China, so in the equivalent of our 7-Elevens the options are fairly limited. Heineken is the only Western import that is regularly available. But I don't care for that particular brew here and I'm even less likely to get it when it's almost certain not to be fresh.
There are a few very light, gassy Japanese beers like Suntory that are frequently available in China, but these lack any significant character. There was one dark Chinese beer I could find in just a few shops which was called, appropriately enough "Dark Beer". One dimensional, a slight molasses note, no malt character at all--it was like mediocre homebrew. There are three Chinese beers that I could get consistently: Harbin, Yanjing, and Tsingtao. All three are pilsner style lagers, very pale and highly effervescent. The Harbin is the least notable of the three--the hop bittering is subdued and there is not much malt character either. I had it once and didn't bother with it again. Yanjing, particularly popular in Beijing (that city's native brew, I understand), is better, but nothing really to write about.
Tsingtao distinguishes itself from the pack. This beer has a nice, upfront malt presence which melds nicely with an assertive, slightly spicy hop bittering. The carbonation level is high and, as with all lagers, this is much better drunk on the cold side. It goes extremely well with Chinese food and is readily available here in the U.S. as well. While I would probably never actually buy a six-pack of it here, I frequently order one in a Chinese restaurant. Tsingtao is available in both a regular and "draft" version. In Shanghai, at least, the draft version costs twice as much and is inferior, to my taste, so I stuck with the regular. The beer that I would really like to try but never saw there is Tsingtao Dark Beer. The next time I go back I'm going to keep my eyes peeled and perhaps even ask around for that one.
The only other beer experience I had was a liter of Paulaner München at the Paulaner Brauhaus in Shanghai on Xintiandi Street. I took my colleagues there for a traditional German meal, something as completely foreign to them as many of their indigenous dishes were to me.
Now I love Paulaner beers so I was rather excited about the prospects of this liter. But it was a disappointment. The menu said that the beer was "homebrewed", probably an awkward translation from Chinese which I took to mean brewed either on the premises (although I saw no evidence of such equipment) or at least in country. Whatever it meant, the result was disappointing. The beer did not taste fresh. The characteristic malt profile of a German beer was entirely missing and the hop character was out of balance, with a sort of "edge" to it that made the drink rather unpleasant. And it was darn expensive to boot.
Obviously, one doesn't go to China for the beer. Tsingtao is very good, but I was happy to get back to the incredible variety available here in the U.S.