Alcohol has been known to exist in China for over 5,000 years. In 1928, archaeologists discovered bronze vessels for wine in the Shandong province which dated back to the Shang dynasty. In 2003, an ancient tomb was discovered from the Shaanxi Province which also had wine vessels. And again, this past May, another wine vessel in a tomb was discovered. Archaeologists have also discovered written instructions from 4,000 years ago on the various methods for making alcohol.
China has two forms of alcohol to enjoy: Huangjiu or yellow alcohol and baijiu or clear alcohol.
The yellow alcohol is a fermented beverage, usually made from wheat or rice, though sometimes with broomcorn millet as well. The alcohol content ranges, but is generally under 20%. Huangjiu is a general term used for all of the yellow alcohol in China. The Huangjiu are broken down into classifications based on the production method, the type of started used and the dryness of the beverage.
Production Methods of Huangjiu
Hot rice method: Rice straight from the cooker is set outside to cool. Once it is warm, but not too cool, the processing will begin.
Cool rice method: Rice straight from the cooker is soaked with cold water in order to cool it. Then it is ready for processing.
Feeding rice method: Rice straight from the cooker is put into the fermenting mixture three times to make a sweeter wine.
Fortified method: This method makes the sweetest variety of wine because it used distilled wine to stop the fermenting process.
Types of Starters
Small: This method is mostly used in the humid, tropical region because it produces the least amount of heat out of all the starters.
Large: This method is the most popular.
Red: This method is where the flavored and colored beverages fall into.
Dryness and Sweetness
Gan (dry): low heat and almost no sugar
Ban Gan (semi-dry): this version is the one that is the most exported. It has between 1% – 3% of sugar.
Ban Tian (semi-sweet): The difference in this one is that instead of water, it uses some dry wine for liquid instead of water. It has anywhere from 3%-10% of sugar.
Tian (sweet): It is possible to make this wine all year long.
Nong Tian (extra sweet): Has more than 20% of sugar.
While still in the huangjiu category, there are two more wines that are also fermented, but not part of this category. They are choujiu, which distinguishes itself because it is made from glutinous rice, and Qingke jiu, which is made from the highland barley of Tibet.
Moving on to the baijiu, or distilled category, the most famous one is known as Mao-tai. This is known as China’s national drink, just as sake is Japan’s drink. This drink is served at all diplomatic and state dinners and is saved for those special occasions, such as holidays. It is extremely expensive to acquire. Not only are the ingredients special – quality sorghum, a specific kind of yeast, and water from a specific spring – as this is what gives it that unique flavor. The production process is also lengthy: after going through over 5 distillations and fermentations, each, it is then aged for 3 years. But, supposedly, the wait and the expense are worth it. The beverage is as clear as water and goes down just as smooth.
Baijiu are classified based on fragrance. The fragrance categories are pretty self-explanatory, except for a few of them. The heaviest is the sauce fragrance, which has been said to be unappealing for the untrained nostril. For connoisseurs, however, the fragrance is quite lovely. The sauce category is followed by heavy, light, rice, honey, and layered.
There are also many different types of baijiu, falling into either the flavored or unflavored category. The unflavored range from the cheapest variety which is great for the common man to those that have been double- or triple-distilled.
The flavored variety incorporates many different types of flowers, herbs, medicinal herbs, tea leaves and crystal sugars.
Whatever your taste variety, whatever your wallet will allow, there is certainly a Chinese beverage or two for you to try. Cheers!
1. Wine in China
2. Learn about Wine: China | Regions | Berry Bros. & Rudd