What to drink in China
The Chinese love a tipple and the all-purpose word jiǔ covers a range of alcoholic drinks.
Chinese toast with the word gānbēi. Traditionally one is expected to drain the glass in one swig. During a meal, the visitor is generally expected to drink at least one glass with each person present; sometimes there may be considerable pressure to do this. And it can be considered rude, at least early during the meal, if you do not make a toast every time you take a drink.
Exercise caution. Fortunately, the glasses are usually small — even beer is often drunk from an oversized shot glass. The Chinese liquor, baijiu, is definitely potent (up to 65% alcohol). Baijiu is often drunk in small shot glasses for a good reason. US president Nixon practiced drinking before his first trip to China to be ready to drink with Mao Zedong. Unless you are used to imbibing heavily, be careful when drinking with Chinese.
If you want to take it easy but still be sociable, say suíbiàn before you make the toast, then drink only part of the glass. It may also be possible to have three toasts (traditionally signifying friendship) with the entire company, rather than one separate toast for every individual present.
The legal drinking/purchasing age in China is 18, except in Macau where there is no legal drinking/purchasing age. Note, alcohol regulations of Hong Kong and Macau are different from mainland China’s.
Beer is common in China and is served in nearly every restaurant. The most famous brand is Tsingtao from Qingdao, which was once a German concession. Other brands abound and are generally light beers in a pilsner or lager style with 3-4% alcohol. In addition to national brands, most cities will have one or more cheap local beers. Some companies (Tsingtao, Yanjing) also make a dark beer. In some regions, beers from other parts of Asia are fairly common and tend to be popular with travellers — Filipino San Miguel in Guangdong, Singaporean Tiger in Hainan, and Laotian Beer Lao in Yunnan.
Most places outside of major cities serve beer at room temperature, regardless of season, though places that cater to American and Canadian tourists have it cold.
Locally made grape wine is common. The Chinese like their wines red and sweet, and they’re typically served over ice or mixed with Sprite. Great Wall and Dynasty are large brands with a number of wines at various prices offerings are generally not impressive. Chang Yu is another large brand; some of their low-end wines are better. If you’re looking for a Chinese-made, Western-style wine, search for these labels:
- Suntime, with a passable Cabernet Sauvignon
- Yizhu, located in Yili and specializing in ice wine
- Les Champs D’or, French-owned and probably the best overall winery in China.
- Imperial Horse and Xixia, from Ningxia
- Mogao Ice Wine, Gansu
- Castle Estates, Shandong
- Shangrila Estates, from Zhongdian, Yunnan
There are also several brands and types of rice wine. Most of these resemble a watery rice pudding; they are usually sweet and have only a small amount of alcohol for taste. These do not generally much resemble Japanese sake, the only rice wine well-known in the West.
Báijiǔ is distilled liquor, generally 80 to 120 proof, made from sorghum and sometimes other grains depending on the region. As the word “jiǔ” is often loosely translated as “wine” by Chinese beverage firms and English speakers, baijiu is frequently referred to as “white wine” in conversation. Baijiu will typically be served at banquets and festivals in tiny shot glasses. Toasts are ubiquitous at banquets or dinners on special occasions. Most foreigners find baijiu tastes like diesel fuel, while a liquor connoisseur may find high-quality, expensive baijiu quite good. Baijiu is definitely an acquired taste, but once the taste is acquired, it’s quite fun to “ganbei” a glass or two at a banquet.
The cheapest baijiu is the Beijing-brewed èrguōtóu. It comes in two variants: 53% and 56% alcohol by volume. Ordering “xiǎo èr” (Erguotou’s diminutive nickname) will likely raise a few eyebrows and a chuckle from working-class Chinese.
Máotái, made in Guizhou Province, is China’s most famous brand of baijiu and China’s national liquor. Made from sorghum, Maotai and its expensive cousins (such as Kaoliang in Taiwan) are well-known for their strong fragrance and are actually sweeter than western clear liquors as the sorghum taste is preserved – in a way.
Chinese brandy is an excellent value, about the same price as grape wine or baijiu, and generally far more palatable than either. Expats debate the relative merits of brandies from French-owned Louis Wann, Chinese brand Changyu, and several others. All are drinkable.
The Chinese are also great fans of various supposedly medicinal liquors, which usually contain exotic herbs and/or animal parts. Some of these have prices in the normal range and include ingredients like ginseng. These can be palatable enough, if tending toward sweetness. Others, with unusual ingredients (snakes, turtles, bees, etc.) and steep price tags, are probably best left to those who enjoy them.
Bars, discos and karaoke
Western-style pubs are popular across the country. Especially in the affluent urban centers such as Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Hangzhou one can find painstakingly recreated replicas of traditional Irish or English pubs. Like their Western counterparts most will have a selection of foreign beers on tap as well as provide pub food (of varying quality) and often feature live cover bands. Most of these pubs cater to and are frequented by the expatriate communities so you should not expect to find many Chinese in there. Be aware that imported beer costs more than local brew.
To just go out for a few drinks with friends, pick a local restaurant and drink. It will be Chinese lager, around 3% alcohol, with a limited choice of brand and may be served warm. Most mid- to high- range restaurants will have small private suites for gatherings (usually offered free if there are more than around five people), and the staff will generally not try to hustle you out even if you decide to stay until closing time. Many residents frequent outdoor restaurants or roadside stalls and barbecues for a nice and inexpensive evening.
Other drinks are sold only by the bottle, not by the glass. Red wine (served with ice and Sprite) and mediocre imported whiskeys (Chivas, Johnny Walker, Jim Beam, Jack Daniels; rarely single malts) and cognacs. Both are often mixed with sweet bottled green or red tea. Vodka, tequila and rum are less common, but sometimes available. Bogus “brand-name” products are fairly common and may ruin your next day.
These places often have bar girls, young women who drink a lot and want to play drinking games to get you to consume more. They get a commission on whatever you buy. In general, these girls will not leave the bar with you; they are professional flirts, not prostitutes.
Karaoke is huge in China and can be broadly split into two categories. More common is the no-frills karaoke box or KTV, where you rent a room; bring your friends and the house gives you a mike and sells you booze. Much-favored by students, these are cheap and fun with the right crowd, although you need at least a few people for a memorable night. Bringing your own booze on the sly can keep the price tag down, but many places have windows in the door so the staff can make sure you only drink liquor they sold to you.
Rather different is the distinctly dodgier special KTV lounge, more oriented to businessmen entertaining clients or letting their hair down, where the house provides anything and everything at a price. At these often opulent establishments — over-the-top Roman and Egyptian themes are standard — you’ll be joined by short-skirted professional karaoke girls, who charge by the hour for the pleasure of their company and whose services may not be limited to just singing badly and pouring your drinks. It’s highly advisable not to venture into these unless you’re absolutely sure somebody else is footing the bill, which can easily run into hundreds of dollars even if you keep your pants on.
As elsewhere, never accept an invitation to a restaurant or bar from an available-looking woman who just picked you up in the street sometime after sundown. At best, suggest a different place. If she refuses, drop her on the spot. More than likely, she will steer you into a quiet little place with too many doormen and you will find yourself saddled with a modest meal and beer that will cost you. And the doormen won’t let you leave till you pay up. This is somewhat rare. But it does happen.
China is the birthplace of tea, and at the risk of stating the obvious, there’s a lot of tea in China. Green tea is served up for free in some restaurants (depending on region) or for a small fee. The most common types served are:
- gunpowder tea: a green tea so-named not after the taste but after the appearance of the bunched-up leaves used to brew it (the Chinese name “pearl tea” is rather more poetic)
- jasmine tea: green-tea scented with jasmine flowers
- oolong: a half-fermented mountain tea.
However, specialist tea houses serve a vast variety of brews, ranging from the pale, delicate white tea to the powerful, fermented and aged pu’er tea. Tea in Chinese culture is akin to wine in Western culture, and even the same type of tea will come in many different grades. Always check prices carefully before ordering as some of the best varieties can be pricey indeed.
Various areas of China have famous teas. Hangzhou, near Shanghai, is famed for its “Dragon Well” green tea. Fujian has the most famous oolong teas, “Big Red Robe» from Mount Wuyi and “Iron Goddess of Mercy” from Anxi. Pǔ’ěr in Yunnan has the most famous fully fermented tea, pǔ’ěrchá. This comes compressed into hard cakes, originally a packing method for transport by horse caravan to Burma and Tibet. The cakes are embossed with patterns; some people hang them as wall decorations.
Most tea shops allow customers to sit and sample various teas. “Ten Fu Tea” is a national chain and in Beijing “Wu Yu Tai” is favored by the locals.
Black tea, the type of tea most common in the West, is known in China as “red tea”. Many Chinese teas, including the famed Pǔ’ěr also fall into the “black tea” category.
Normal Chinese teas are always drunk neat, with the use of sugar or milk unknown. However, in some areas you will find Hong Kong-style “milk tea” or Tibetan “butter tea”. Taiwanese bubble tea is also popular and widely available.
Coffee is becoming quite popular in urban China, though it is nearly impossible to find in smaller towns.
Several chains of coffee shops have branches in many cities, including Starbucks, UBC Coffee, Ming Tien Coffee Language and SPR . All offer coffee, tea and both Chinese and Western food, generally with good air conditioning, wireless internet, and nice decor.
There are also many independent coffee shops and local chains.
For cheap coffee just to stave off withdrawal symptoms, there are several options. Go to a Western fast-food chain (KFC, McDonalds, etc.). Additionally, almost any supermarket or convenience store will have both canned cold coffee and instant Nescafé (black or pre-mixed with whitener and sugar) – just add hot water.
Many drinks that are usually served chilled or with ice in the West are served at room temperature in China. Ask for beer or soda in a restaurant, and it may arrive at room temperature, though beer is more commonly served cold, at least in the summer. Water will generally be served hot. That is actually good, because only boiled (or bottled) water is safe to drink, but it’s not pleasant to drink hot water in the summer.
Cold drinks are available at small “convenience” stores and restaurants, just look for the cooler (even though it might not actually be cool). You can try bringing a cold beverage into a restaurant. Most small restaurants won’t mind–if they even notice–and there is no such thing as a “cork” charge in China (there actually is cork charge in most high-end restaurants, but generally it does not apply to foreigners due to the language barrier). Remember that most people drink tea, which is usually free anyway, so the restaurant probably does not expect to profit on your beverage consumption (again, it’s actually a matter of language barrier because most foreigners simply do not know what to order to drink in China; in fact most restaurants make huge profit on beverage consumption).
Asking for ice is best avoided. Many, perhaps most, places just don’t have it. The ice they do have may well be made from unfiltered tap water and arguably unsafe for travelers sweating bullets about diarrhea.