Chinese Alcohol Broken Down: The Facts You Never Knew

Chinese Alcohol Broken Down: The Facts You Never Knew
Nov 27, 2010 By Andrea Scarlatelli ,

Alcohol is simply a part of life here in China. It plays a role in weddings, funerals, ceremonies, and friendships. It can jumpstart a relationship or seal a business deal. But how much do you really know about the alcohol you’re guzzling during your countless gambei toasts?

Chinese liquor production: the process

The word jiu (酒) in Mandarin is used to mean all alcohol, so the name of any alcoholic drink will always end in that sound. While China produces many different kinds of alcohol, the most common ones you’ve likely run into are baijiu (白酒) and huangjiu (黄酒). Both of these liquors have a distinct taste that cannot be found in any other alcoholic beverages. This is due to three main factors: the grains, the water, and the liquor starter.

The grains used in alcohol production can vary depending on the region in which it’s produced. For example, northern China typically uses barley, wheat, or sorghum, while southern China almost exclusively uses glutinous rice. The grains are then "acidified" to prevent any organisms from growing, which is a major step in giving Chinese liquor that unique burn.

Taste is also affected by the water used, with cleaner water obviously giving it a better flavour. The final step of Chinese alcohol production involves the liquor starter, which can be either a cake or a paste made of molds, bacteria, and yeasts (don’t worry; it’s not nearly as disgusting as it sounds). This then converts the starch in the grain to sugar, which eventually turns into ethanol.

There are three types of starters which can be used exclusively or in combination with one another to create different flavours. The only thing that differentiates the different liquor starters is the types of mold they use:

1) Small starters - Used mostly in the tropical areas of southern China.

2) Large starters - The most commonly used throughout the country.

3) Red starters - Tint the liquor a deep purplish red.

The different types of liquor

While almost all Chinese liquors have these three ingredients in common, it certainly does not mean that all alcohol is created equally. The most well-known Chinese liquor is baijiu, a powerful drink that has been the bane of many an expat’s existence. Baijiu literally means "white liquor" and is sometimes referred to as shāojiǔ(烧酒"hot liquor") – anyone who has actually tasted baijiu will surely know how it gained that nickname. There are eleven types of flavored baijiu and eight types of unflavoured, all of which usually contain more than 30% alcohol by volume. The grain used in baijiu is typically sorghum, although you can find a rice baijiu (米白酒mibaijiu) that uses rice as the main ingredient instead.

Baijiu is classified by its fragrance, of which there are six:

While it may be a bit difficult to taste the differences at first, with practice, baijiu can become as subtle and flavorful as different types of wine:

1)  Sauce fragrance (酱香jiàng xiāng) - Has a strong ammonia smell and is commonly served with pickled food. The ever popular Maotai (茅台) belongs to this classification and is considered the best of its kind (according to "Shanghai Finance," Maotai even won a gold medal at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in California, USA in 1915).

2)  Heavy fragrance (浓香nóng xiāng) - Sweet and mellow flavored.

3)  Light fragrance (清香qīng xiāng) - A bit drier and lighter.

4)  Rice fragrance" (米香mǐ xiāng) – A subtle rice aroma.

5)  Honey fragrance" (凤香fēng xiāng) – Lightly sweet and aromatic.

6)  Layered fragrance - A combination of "sauce," "heavy," and "light" fragrances.

Some popular baijiu brands include:
Moutai 茅台酒 (38-53 deg) - Price: 750 RMB and Up
Wuliangye 五粮液- Price: 800 RMB and Up
Fen Jiu 汾酒 - Price: 120 RMB and Up
Ergoutou 二锅头 - Price: 25 RMB and Up

Moutai 茅台酒

The other popular Chinese liquor is huangjiu (黄酒), which differs from baijiu in a couple of ways. First of all, the grains used to make it are typically rice or millet instead of sorghum or barley. Secondly, huangjiu is not distilled, which means it contains less than 20% alcohol per volume (hence giving it a somewhat milder taste than baijiu). While huangiu literally means "yellow liquor," the colour can actually vary from clear to a brownish red. 

Huangjiu is not categorized by smell but by flavour. Anyone who is somewhat knowledgeable about wine will find that these categorisations sound very familiar:

1) Dry (gan) - Contains less than 1% sugar, leaving the mouth feeling, well, dry.

2) Semi-dry (ban gan) - Has a sugar content of 1%-3%. This is the variety that can be stored the longest and is therefore the most popular huanjiu export from China.

3) Semi-sweet (ban tian) - Contains 3%-10% sugar and becomes darker the longer it’s stored. Huangjiu with a sugar content of 10%-20% is considered

4) Sweet (tian) – Has a sugar content of 10%-20% and can be manufactured all year long.

5) Extra sweet (nong tian) - Any huangjiu containing more than 20% sugar.

Some popular huangjiu brands include:
Guyuelongshan 古越龙山酒 - Price: 20 RMB and Up
Shikumen Shanghai Rice Wine  石库门上海老酒 - Price: 20 RMB and Up
Shaoxing Rice Wine  绍兴加饭酒- Price: 15 RMB and Up

Guyuelongshan 古越龙山酒

Like wine, the year in which the huangjiu is stored makes a large taste (and price) difference because of how long the ethanol is allowed to ferment. It can be drunk either hot or cold, although many Chinese like it between 60 and 70 degrees Celsius. While popular baijiu brands can be found from all over China, huangjiu production is mostly confined to Shaoxing. Shaoxing huangjiu actually won a gold medal in its division at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in California, USA, the same year Maotai won in its respective division.

There is also an offshoot of huangjiu called choujiu, which can be traced back all the way to the Tang Dynasty. Instead of being made from plain rice the way huangjiu is, choujiu is processes using glutinous rice. This gives it a milky, thick consistency that is often an acquired taste. If you've been to Xi'an, chances are you've seen or tasted it, as this city is known for its excellent choujiu.

With your newfound knowledge of Chinese alcohol, you'll be sure to impress your friends next time you ganbei! 

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Keywords: Chinese alcohol facts Chinese alcohol how Chinese liquor is made Chinese liquor


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