An Introduction to Chinese Alcohol

Ningxia wine

TripSavvy / Sara Naumann

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.

Below, you'll find the kinds of alcohol traditionally made and consumed in China.

01 of 04

Chinese Beer

Tsingtao beer street, China
Lucas Schifres / Contributor / 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.

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02 of 04

Chinese Grape-Based Wines

Bottles of Chinese wine, 'Great Wall' and 'Rose Manor' sit beside a California wine on a shelf at a convenience store in Shanghai.
James Leynse / Contributor / Getty Images

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 some Chinese wines can be very drinkable. Chinese wines can also be much less expensive than imported wines, as imports still receive a high import duty.

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03 of 04

Chinese Rice Wine and Shaoxing Wine

a glass of rice wine served with preserved duck
xia yuan / Getty Images

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 cooking. 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. They are often golden in color, somewhat thick and on the sweet side. Some people like to drink Shaoxing wine with their meals as an alternative to beer or other alcohol. In the fall and winter, it's sometimes served warm.

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04 of 04

Baijiu - Chinese Distilled Spirits

Chinese alcohol stored in traditional jars
Ivan / Getty Images

Chinese spirits usually take the form of

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
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