An Introduction to Chinese Alcohol

  • 01 of 05

    Introduction - Alcohol in China

    ningxia wine
    ••• Some of the beautiful wine labels of Leirenshou Winery in Ningxia. Photo by Sara Naumann. All rights reserved.

    The drinking landscape is slowly changing in China. As income rises, Chinese consumers are becoming more sophisticated about their choices and the days of adding Coca-Cola to expensive red wine might be soon a thing of the past.

    In the next few pages, you'll find the kinds of alcohol traditionally made and consumed in China.

     

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  • 02 of 05

    Chinese Beer

    ••• A vendor sells take-away Tsingtao beer in a plastic bag. Cancan Chu / Getty Images

    Beer in Mandarin Chinese is pijiu, 啤酒, (pronounced pee joh).

    The beer in China that is most internationally recognized is, of course, Tsingtao Beer. Tsingtao's home and namesake is Qingdao in Shandong Province. The area was a German foreign concession from 1898 to 1914. The Germans opened the brewery there in 1903.

    There are many local beers available across China and most are available only in their own vicinity. Recently in Yunnan Province, I found two local brews I hadn't seen for sale anywhere else: Dali Beer and Feng Hua Xue Yue. Some beers that are available nationally, aside from Tsingtao are

    • Harbin
    • Reeb (get it? "Beer" spelled backwards?)
    • Snow

    In big cities, beer is becoming fashionable and microbreweries are beginning to open. In Shanghai, we've got three or four and you can find them elsewhere.

    Some notes about Chinese beer from our Beer Guide:
    Tasting Notes and Review of Tsingtao Lager Beer
    Tasting Notes and Review of Tsingtao Pure Draft Beer
    Tasting Notes and...MORE Review of Harbin Lager Beer

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  • 03 of 05

    Chinese Grape-Based Wines

    ••• Dynasty wine bottles. Image from Wiki Commons / Enrique Dans

    Grape-based wines are called putaojiu, 葡萄酒, (pronounced puh taoh joh).

    The word wine covers a lot of territory in China and even the fire-water that is produced from sorghum (see Spirits later in this article) is sometimes referred to as wine. But most visitors to China will imagine red or white grape varieties of wine when the word is mentioned and this is what is under discussion here.

    Chinese disposable incomes have only recently (in the last thirty years) allowed anywhere near mass-consumption of wine. Therefore the industry (in the modern sense - Chinese have been drinking grape wine since the Tang Dynasty) is relatively new.

    Chinese vineyards are mostly located in the north including Shandong Province and Shanxi Province. Well-known Chinese vineyards include

    • Great Wall
    • Dynasty
    • Grace
    • Dragon Seal

    Many wine snobs turn up their noses at Chinese wine and much prefer imported brands. But I am happy to report that I've bought and enjoyed many bottles of these wines over my years in China....MORE Chinese wines can be much less expensive than imported wines, as imports still receive a high import duty.

    Recently I went on a wine tour to the developing wine-growing region outside of Yinchuan city in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Read all about my wine tour in Ningxia. 

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  • 04 of 05

    Chinese Rice Wine and Shaoxing Wine

    ••• Shaoxing cooking wine. © 2011 Sara Naumann, licensed to About.com.

    Chinese rice wine is generally referred to by its color, yellow. Thus its name huangjiu, 黄酒, (pronounced hwahng joh).The most famous of these comes from Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province. Huangjiu from Shaoxing (绍兴) is therefore referred to as Shaoxing Wine.

    Huangjiu is produced from a process of fermenting grains, usually rice. Depending on its quality and intended use, some varieties are consumed and some are used in Chinese Food. You can presume that when the menu has the word "drunken" in the description of the dish, huangjiu or Shaoxing wine was used in the creation of the dish.

    Huangjiu varies in flavor and color. The Shaoxing wines I have tried are usually golden in color, somewhat thick and on the sweet side. Some visitors like to drink Shaoxing wine with their meals as an alternative to beer or other alcohol.

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  • 05 of 05

    Baijiu - Chinese Distilled Spirits

    ••• Erguotou brand baijiu. Wiki Commons Images / Anna Frodesiak
    Chinese spirits usually take the form of baijiu, 白酒, (pronounced by joh).

    Baijiu literally translates to "white liquor". It is distilled from grain alcohol making it very potent - 40-60% alcohol by volume. Baijiu is usually distilled from sorghum and has a distinctive smell and taste - if you can get past the fire that consumes your mouth and throat after swallowing. People who enjoy baijiu refer to the "fragrance" of the stuff. It is served in mini-wine glasses and is usually thrown back, not sipped.

    Ask any business person who has been at a Chinese banquet and she or he will probably have a story or two to tell about baijiu. There are various brands and types but famous varieties include:

    • Maotai
    • Erguotou