Expat Guides · Food and Drink

An Expat’s Guide to Chinese Drinks

As a young Irishman I struggle daily with alcoholic urges. Whether that is the urge to go on a night-long binge and trawl through pubs and clubs, or merely the urge to crack open a couple of cans before bed.

In China, these tendencies of mine, and of my countrymen, are only exacerbated by the country’s very peculiar drinking culture. First and most important, to a young man just recently graduated from university, is the fact that alcohol in China is highly affordable for every caste and clan. A big pint bottle of Tsingtao, or Ha’erbin, will set you back just 5 rmb, the equivalent of about 85c.

While China exceeds expectations spectacularly in this area, the Middle Country is, however, highly lacking the sort of drinking culture that you and I, Western men and women, are used to.

There are much fewer night clubs, and the night clubs that there are, are quite shocking in comparison to our own dance floor-cum-outdoor garden template which caters accordingly for ravers, schmoozers, drinkers, smokers and conversationalists alike.

In China, the inside of a night club looks a little bit like a very chic restaurant. Inevitably there will be a stage, or a runway, in lieu of a dance floor. Tables and sofas surround the spindly runway, and our party people sit together at a table over a bottle of vodka and coke, or a 12-set of beers, playing card and dice games.

Not quite the party you expect on a Saturday night then. But don’t get me wrong, my experiences come largely from the rather conservative Southern city, Foshan. Nights that I have spent in Guangzhou have assured me that my generalities here are not set in stone throughout all of China.

What I mean to display, by use of hyperbole, is the strangeness of Chinese drinking culture, to an alien like myself.

And so, without further ado, let us delve together into the very heart of this culture, by dissecting and reviewing their various types of brew. I shall split the alcohol into two categories, since we’re speaking about Chinese alcohol specifically. First let us discuss the Beer.

The Beer:

You can’t go wrong with a beer. That’s what we say at home in Cavan, Ireland. You simply cannot miss the bullseye when you order a beer, unless that beer is Ha’erbin or Snow, of course. Both of these Chinese beers are criminally cheap, and come in varying sizes, from 250ml can to 500ml can, to 600ml bottle.

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Strangely the 600ml bottles of Ha’erbin are cheaper than the 500ml can, which I presume says something about the vast necessity to save metallic compounds for more important tasks than carrying beer.

Tsingtao is about the best of the cheap Chinese beers that I’ve tasted. Stay away from Pearl River beer if you value your taste buds, and your reserve of stomach acid.

tsingtao-beer-varities

Foreign beers such as Budweiser, Heineken, Carlsberg, Paulaner, 1664 and other pilsners are also available, but at a higher price. I’ve even caught wind of talk about Guinness on rare occasions, though the imported stuff does not fare well when compared to the Irish, of course.

The Spirits:

In the balmy twilight of a lazy weekend evening, there is nothing better than a nice cold drink to cool the insides. Beneath canopies that block out the rain and the glaring sun, barbecue grills burnish brown the soft skin of pig meat, chicken meat, and any meat under the sun.

On one table you may see a tower of beer, on another a bucket of bottles. One thing that you are most assured of seeing, however, is Baijiu.

The most important of all Chinese spirits is without a shadow of a doubt, Bai Jiu, or ’White Wine’ in English. BaiJiu in the South is usually made from rice, while in the North it is made using wheat, barley and millet.

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When you catch sight of a bottle of Baijiu on a night, that’s when you know that the party is about to start. Of all Asian spirits, Baijiu is one of the strongest, with alcohol content usually in the region of 40-70%. A few shots of this stuff may have you clawing at your throat, or kneeling in the corner throwing up, depending on your experience level.

Baijiu is, somewhat surprisingly, the heaviest consumed alcoholic spirit in the world, with 5 billion litres sold in 2016. There are reportedly more than 10,000 Baijiu distilleries in China, and although the name remains the same, the flavours can differ greatly.

A relative to Baijiu is Huangjiu, literally meaning ‘yellow wine’, which is more literally related to the wine we know from the West. Huangjiu usually hovers around the 20% mark, making it much easier to drink, and less likely to cause stomach rot.

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And of course, there are our Western Spirits, such as Absolut, Jack Daniels, Jameson etc.

Typically expats tend to believe that these spirits have been tampered with in some way or another, since the quality of hangovers in China tend to dwarf those known to man in the Western Hemisphere.

If you’re not out on the night for the long haul, it’s unlikely that you’ll be splurging on a bottle of one of these name brands, as they set you back anywhere between 100 and 200 rmb in your local 7/11, and from 400 rmb and onwards once you’ve reached the club.

My conclusion, based on these evaluations, is that one should avoid Baijiu like the plague that it inevitably wreaks upon your poor, unprepared body; settle for a bottle of Jack Daniels or Absolut on very spare occasions, and only when you have a wad of cash like the Sultan of Brunei in your wallet; and although the beer may taste like horse piss, there is, to reference a statement I made earlier, no way you can miss with a bottle of beer that sets you back a mere 85c.

So drink the beer.

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