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Know Your Booze: The China Edition

Continuing on in the Know Your Booze series, with the Chinese New Year fast approaching it seems only fitting that we here at knowmadic news offer up a look at what China has on offer in the way of alcoholic beverages.

Booze in China has a lot to do with extremes—from the “rocket fuel” strength of Baijiu to the tepid “more-water-than-beer” lagers that are widely available.

nixon-and-zhou

Baijiu (白酒)
China’s drink of choice in any setting, from high-profile heads-of-state affairs to casual get-togethers with friends, it is by far the most widely consumed spirit in China.

As it has only recently begun to make inroads into western markets, it is fairly safe to say that most people outside of China have probably never even heard of it, and yet (by volume) it is the most consumed spirit in the world.

So what exactly is this mysterious drink? Baijiu (literally, “white liquor”) is an extremely potent distilled spirit that is generally around 50–56% alcohol. It can be distilled from a variety of ingredients—depending mostly on the region in which it is brewed—but it is most commonly made from sorghum. Often noted for its strong smell, it definitely takes some getting used to. The aroma and harsh taste vary by brand, but to try and provide you with at least some sort of idea, many have described it as smelling like industrial-grade solvents mixed with the sickly-sweet aroma of burnt, half-rotten pineapples.

Interestingly enough, official Baijiu classification is all about these “distinct” aromas that many find so repellent:

  • “Sauce” aroma:  To many readers, “sauce” may seem a vague and unconventional description of a liquor, but it is a standard description for this one. Be extremely careful about taking a big whiff of this upon opening a bottle as it may well knock you on your ass. China’s flagship variety of Baijiu, Moutai, falls in this category.
  • Strong aroma:  A fruity, sweet variety with a lingering smell. This is the variety of choice in China’s Sichuan Province.
  • Light aroma:  As the name of the classification itself states, it has a lighter aroma, and so is often described as being smoother to drink. Most popular in Northern China.
  • Rice aroma:  This rice-based version is found more in Southern China, and is described as being sweet to the taste with a mild sweet fragrance.
  • Mixed aroma:  As can probably be guessed, these are combinations of several kinds of Baijiu, so both smell and taste can vary greatly.

Moutai and Er Guo Tou are perhaps the two most well-known producers of the spirit. The former being considered more high-end and the latter being a very affordable “blue collar” version.

Moutai: Named after the city of Maotai, where it is produced. Do not let the packaging and label fool you. Despite looking like a bottle of brake fluid (below; could you tell them apart after a few too many?), it is actually a distinguished drink, with pricing that can run well into the hundreds of dollars per bottle.

Er Guo Tou (literally, “second pot head”): Hold off on the laughter, all you “wacky tobacky” connoisseurs. The name refers to the longer process of distillation in the “pot.” Extremely cheap—starting at approximately US$1.50 per bottle—it is widely consumed, especially in northeast China.

Some trendy American bars are attempting to introduce Baijiu to the American palate by making cocktails with a westernized brand of this spirit. Packaged in a sleek bottle, it comes in fruit flavor-infused varieties and is less lethal at a more standard 80 proof (40% alcohol).

How to drink: Traditionally taken straight up—either out of a small glass or ceramic cup—accompanying a meal. Diluting with water is acceptable, but is also viewed as much less macho.

Huangjiu (黄酒)
Translated as “yellow wine,” this ancient beverage differs from Baijiu in that it is not distilled and only contains about 12–20% alcohol. Huangjiu is made from any variety of grains (mostly wheat or rice), and is clear to yellow or even reddish-brown in color. Overall, it has a rather mellow taste, perhaps even a little on the sweet side. There are also “dry” versions available.

So if you find yourself in China, and don’t want to punish yourself with Baijiu, Huangjiu could be a great alternative.

shao xing wine

What sets Huangjiu even further apart from Baijiu is that it varies a lot more from region to region (in terms of color, taste, and ingredients). Some types are known more for their medicinal purposes, while others are extremely popular in cooking.

Mijiu (rice wine): Probably the most well-known variety of Huangjiu, it is generally clear in color, and is rather similar to sake. It also contains several amino acids and as such is commonly used in cooking.

Fujian glutinous rice wine: As the name suggests, it is made from glutinous rice, along with numerous medicinal herbs. Orange-red in color, it comes in around at 18% alcohol.

Huadiao wine: Originated on China’s east coast, it too is made from glutinous rice with the addition of wheat. Often referred to as “Nu erhong” (literally, “daughter red”), it is traditionally buried underground when a daughter is born and then dug up on her wedding day.

Shaoxing wine: A “high grade” version that is often aged for years and is used for both drinking and cooking. Its reddish color is due to the use of red yeast rice in the production process.

Further information on classification (for those interested), can be found here.

How to drink: Traditionally served in rice bowls or ceramic cups, it can be either room temperature or heated. Warm Shaoxing wine is especially popular for some as a winter cold remedy.

Beer (啤)
Beer is a relative newcomer in China, at least on a commercially produced scale. Harbin is China’s oldest commercial beer, first brewed in the city of the same name in 1900. Soon after was Tsingtao Beer (pronounced “ching dow”), which is also named after the city Qingdao, where it is headquartered, on the northeast coast of China.

And while Baijiu is the Chinese booze of note, beer is more popular than ever these days. China is now (surprise, surprise) the world’s largest consumer of beer. The most popular brews, in no particular order are: Tsingtao, Snow, Harbin, Yanjing, and Reeb (“Hey, let’s spell beer backwards”).

tsingtao

As much as it pains me to say this, despite numerous choices, the majority (if not all) of these brews are more or less the same thing. With few exceptions, they are light pale lagers which usually top out near 3.5% alcohol, but can even come in at a startingly low 2.5%.

Domestically, these beers almost always have a lower than average % of alcohol, while the exported versions of Tsingtao and Harbin tend to be a bit stronger. Tsingtao and Harbin also tend to fare slightly better in reviews, being generally described as having a somewhat fuller flavor (relative to Snow, Yanjing, or Reeb, that is). Those three beers can be considered, at best, watery and forgettable lagers. And at worst, chemical-laden, belly-bloating swill.

Overall, we are definitely looking at a case of quantity over quality when taking a closer look at the beer industry in China. China’s well-known lack of food safety regulation has led to questionable ingredients in certain beers. In 2005, there was a scandal surrounding the inclusion of formaldehyde in beer. Initially reported by China’s own Global Times, it was claimed that some 95% of commercially brewed beer in China contained excessive levels of formaldehyde. This practice is, thankfully, now illegal. Enforcement of this is anyone’s guess, though.

But what about craft beer in China, you might be asking. Well, there are a few brewpubs in large cities around the country, but it is nothing like the presence that craft beer has in Japan now. It is a growing scene, so perhaps it is an issue best revisited some 5–10 years from now.

Putaojiu (葡萄)
Translated as “grape wine,” this refers to the standard European varieties of either white or red. Wine production and consumption has been on the rise for years now in China, which is (also no surprise) now one of the world’s largest markets for wine. However, it has taken more than 20 years to reach this point after the first joint venture—between Remy Martin and Dynasty Fine Wines Group Ltd. in 1980. At that time, the local populace didn’t have the taste for, nor the income to afford, wine, and as such Dynasty’s wines were made only for export. Since then, numerous joint ventures and vineyards have been established in key wine-producing regions around China.

So there you have it, hopefully something for everyone to enjoy (and to drink). If you decide on being adventurous and try Baijiu on for size, well, you’ve been warned.

Ganbei!