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Drinking in China: Everything You Need to Know From Baijiu to Beer

Article by Lost Plate Food Tours

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Drinking in China is a big deal, only Tajikistan and Russia have a higher alcohol consumption per capita. In fact, the best-selling beer in the world is Chinese – Snow. And to top it off, you’ve probably never heard of the most sold alcohol in the world – Baijiu (which is a Chinese wine, learn more here).

Baijiu (aka White Wine)

This strong, clear alcohol distilled from sorghum is typically around 45% alcohol and is a staple at any social function in China. Baiju has a historic culture tracing back to the 13th century. No social setting or business meeting is complete without a bottle of baijiu and a table full of small glasses to fill. The drink is so popular in China that it is the number one selling booze in the world (in volume) with over 5 billion liters sold per year. That’s like all of Singapore’s water consumption in 5 days but in super strong liquor. 

Baijiu literally translates to “white” or clear (bai) wine/alcohol (jiu). While it’s clear like soju, it is much stronger and the taste is more akin to a whiskey (or “liquid razor blades,” according to CBS News Anchor Dan Rather.) Baijiu can be infused with different flavor undertones – most common are fruit or herbal essences that will often smell sweet or medicinal. Also like beer or wine, it can range from very cheap (10RMB per bottle) to very expensive (over 1000RMB per bottle).

Baijiu is typically enjoyed at room temperature, neat, and in a small glass. It is usually served with a meal or side dishes and is also a common sight on tables after dinner where older Chinese men are huddled with a smoke in one hand, a glass of baijiu in the other, and a card or dice game on the table. Baijiu cocktails have risen in popularity though mainly for expat or tourist markets as they make the alcohol a bit more familiar to outsiders. The cocktails will usually take a flavor-infused baijiu and pair it with complementary alcohol, syrups, or juices.

Try it on our Beijing Evening Food Tour.

Huangjiu (aka Yellow Wine)

This is the specialty of Shanghai, and one of the few places in China where huangjiu is more common than baijiu. Huang (yellow) jiu (wine/alcohol) is fermented from rice or wheat and has a definite yellow-ish color ranging from light yellow to dark brown. It is used in cooking just as much as it’s enjoyed in a glass at dinner. In fact, you will find its distinct flavor in many of Shanghai’s most common dishes, like Red Braised Pork on our Shanghai Evening Food Tour (we’ll also try a bit of Huangjiu as well). It’s also sometimes prescribed as traditional Chinese medicine.

Beer

As mentioned, the top-selling beer in the world hails from China. Additionally, the craft beer industry is growing at an incredible rate – and they aren’t only owned by foreigners. Beijing specifically has a thriving craft beer scene and the craze is catching on with all parts of society. It’s come a long way since 2010 which is when expat breweries started popping up. Now you’ll find both local and expat brewers using local ingredients and flavors to appeal to local tastes. These tastes are typically sweeter and prefer less alcohol content, but you’ll still find all styles including IPAs and sours. There is a huge price gap between the mass-consumed lagers which start around 3RMB per can (and are approx 2.5% ABV) and a pint of local craft beer that can easily cost 50RMB (and ABV’s that you’d expect back home too).

One important note is that cheap beer is often served at room temperature in local restaurants, which is how the locals like it. Don’t be afraid to ask for it cold (pronounced “bing de” in Chinese) as there is almost always some in the fridge.

Hop on our Beijing Craft Beer Tour where you’ll try over 10 kinds of local craft beer from 4 different Beijing breweries. We’ve also put together a list of our favorite Chinese breweries.

Whisky, Gin, & Cocktails

You won’t find any shortage of western influenced cocktail bars in any major Chinese city, and many of them will rival any of your favorite bars back home for both ambience and drinks.

Beijing’s Sanlitun and Guomao areas, along with Shanghai’s French Concession and Bund, are all packed with great little bars where you’ll never run out of cool places to grab a fancy drink.

Drinking Etiquette in China

Is it time to meet your partner’s Chinese parents? Or maybe join a business meeting with your Chinese colleagues? If you find yourself in a formal dinner setting, there are a few formalities you should be aware of:

Don’t Drink From the Bottle

If you find yourself sitting around a large round table with many people, it will always be set with small glasses for drinks. Whether you brought your own baijiu or order beer from the restaurant, it should all be poured into these glasses before drinking. It’s common to place partially drunk bottles on the table or on the floor beside your chair.

Drink When Everyone Else Drinks

In a typical dining situation, everyone will drink together. The easiest way to do this is to never pick up your glass until everyone else does. If you get thirsty, just wait…it never takes too long. In a similar fashion, you should keep pace with everyone else. It’s not great if you need to get a new bottle before everyone else because they will feel like they aren’t keeping up.

Use Two Hands When Toasting

And you thought toasts were only for weddings! Giving a toast and a cheer is very common. Actually, in formal situations, someone will give a toast every time anyone takes a sip. The toast giver will rotate around the table person-by-person so make sure you’re ready when it’s your turn. If you find yourself in a toast frenzy, there are two things to keep in mind. 1. Use both hands when clinking your glasses and 2. make sure the rim of your glass is below whoever you’re toasting. If you aren’t sure, the boss and/or the oldest people should have the highest glasses.

Cheers vs Ganbei

There isn’t really a word for “cheers” in Chinese. Instead, we just say “bottoms up” (pronounced ganbei, which means dry cup). In reality, ganbei can mean either cheers or bottoms up, so be careful with the word and just follow what everyone else does. Everyone also knows the word “Cheers” so that’s a safe bet if you’re not sure what to say.

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