Although Chinese alcohol may not be world-renowned, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to choose from. Whether you’re out at a local bar, doing business over a banquet meal or just perusing the local Chinese grocery store, you’ll find that there are various types of Chinese alcohol to choose from. This guide to Chinese baijiu, Chinese beer and Chinese wine will help you understand what’s available and what’s worth drinking.
China’s drinking culture is one that goes back well over a thousand years.
With that kind of history, it’s surprising that Chinese alcohol hasn’t made a deeper impact internationally.
There’s lots to learn about all the different types of alcohol to try and enjoy in China. Below I share a basic rundown on how to drink like a local in China and which alcoholic beverages you should be on the watch for.
Oh, and I’ll also share a few you should stay away from.
You’re welcome 🙂
The Culture of Drinking in China
Before going directly into the menu of available Chinese liquor, let’s go over some basics on how alcohol is generally enjoyed within China.
There’s a “culture of drinking” in China that applies whether you attend a wedding, a business dinner or just visit a friend at their home.
The Chinese Custom of “Toasting”
It doesn’t matter if you’re attending a wedding or joining in on a banquet, the Chinese custom of toasting with alcohol is unavoidable.
Sometimes the toasts come as a group after somebody gives a formal speech whereas other times a toast is a very intimate affair between two individuals.
Whatever the case, there are a few things you need to know as a foreigner coming into this culture of toasting in China:
- Pace Yourself: If you watch a Chinese person at a banquet, wedding, or other drinking occasion, you’ll notice that they only sip on their Chinese alcohol. This is because they know that China’s toasting culture is a marathon and not a sprint. Don’t consume more alcohol than you need to.
- Save Your Drinks for Toasts: While it may be tempting to drink your Chinese wine or Chinese liquor as part of your meal (and the Chinese generally won’t care if you do), you’ll earn lots of respect from your Chinese drinking partners if you save your drinks for toasts or a casual clink of the glass.
- Lower the Cup for Toasts: If you’re approached for a toast, the culturally appropriate way to respect your toasting partner is to toast the rim of your glass lower than theirs. This is a symbolic way of honoring their position or showing humility.
- Respect the “Ganbei!!”: In Chinese, the word ganbei or 干杯 literally translate to “dry glass”. If you see your drinking partner empty their glass of alcohol, the culturally appropriate response is to do the same. I’m not saying is smart…but that’s what you’re supposed to do.
The sad reality is that it’s an unwritten rule, especially when doing business in China, that you can’t really trust the person you’re meeting or doing business with unless you’ve been drunk with them.
That’s one reason why alcohol is one of the best gifts for business colleagues in China.
I prefer not to get drunk during these occasions, even though that’s a difficult task to accomplish. Sip carefully and only drink when absolutely required.
Chinese Drinking Culture for Those Who Don’t Drink
I realize that this is an article all about the most popular Chinese alcohol, but I think it’s worth acknowledging that not everybody will want to participate in the Chinese drinking culture.
Even the avid drinker needs a break every now and then.
Thankfully, as a foreigner, we are often given more grace when it comes to a desire to be sober. If you want to avoid alcohol, simply ask that you be given Sprite (雪碧) or some other alternative.
Beware: your hosts will put extensive pressure on you to drink even after you’ve made it clear that you don’t want to. You must hold your ground and realize that at the end of the day, they’ll be so drunk they probably won’t even remember you didn’t have alcohol as long as you participate in the toasts.
Chinese Alcohol | Types of Liquor, Beer & Wine
If you have a chance (and you enjoy alcohol), it’s definitely worth trying Chinese baijiu, Chinese beer and even a glass of wine should you come across a good one on your trip to China.
The hard part is knowing exactly what is a “good one”.
That’s where I hope this list of the best Chinese alcohol can be of help. Below you’ll find a listing of the best kinds of Chinese liquor, Chinese beer and Chinese wines as well as the most popular brands you should try.
Chinese Baijiu | Most Popular Liquor in China
When it comes to alcohol, China is most famous for baijiu.
If I were to compare it to something you would consume in Western countries, strong vodka and other high proof alcohols come to mind.
There are so many varieties of baijiu in China and all are typically high proof, so expect a heavy burn when drinking it and be sure to drink this one responsibly.
Baijiu translates directly as “white liquor” and is made from sorghum, white rice, sticky rice, wheat, corn, or a blend of these ingredients.
It’s also not fermented from yeast, but from an agent called Qu, which has been used in Chinese alcohol production since the Han Dynasty.
Here are the top brands of baijiu I suggest trying in China. You can find these in any small to large liquor store in China. I’d also be careful when buying the more expensive brands and verify they are real by having a local point you to a legit store where they are sold.
Máotái 茅台酒 Baijiu
Maotai is China’s premium brand of baijiu and is the drink of choice for China’s top government officials and business elites.
It’s also among the most expensive you can buy, so it also makes for a good gift for any business associates with whom you want to make a good impression.
Wǔliángyè 五粮液 Baijiu
Wuliangye baijiu is a blend of the sacred “5 grains” in China.
Not only do the 5 grains make this baijiu really popular among Chinese, but it also gives the alcohol an abundance of flavor.
This Chinese baijiu is also slightly less expensive than the Maotai brand above.
Lúzhōulǎojiào 泸州老窖 Baijiu
Luzhou Laojiao is one of the four oldest distilleries in China and originated way back during the Ming Dynasty.
Apart from its flavor, the Chinese value the tradition behind how this baijiu is made.
If you’re on a tight budget but you still want to try Chinese baijiu, the Erguōtóu (二锅头) brand of baijiu is the Chinese equivalent of a cheap vodka you used to stock up on in college.
It’s easily available at any Chinese convenience store for cheap.
You can learn more about how Chinese baijiu is made, consumed, and even purchase it on Baijiu America. It’s not a casual drink, though, so in China you should only expect to drink baijiu during formal occasions, weddings, or during Chinese New Year.
For older Chinese as well as serious business types, baijiu tends to be the drink of choice. Rule of thumb when drinking baijiu is to also drain your glass like you would when taking a shot at home.
And good luck with the burn. Chinese don’t tend to drink baijiu with chasers.
Chinese Beer | Most Consumed Chinese Alcohol
Although baijiu has been the traditional drink of choice in China, beer (written 啤酒 or “pi jiu” in Chinese) is by far the most-consumed Chinese alcohol.
While it’s primarily been considered a drink of the millennial generation, it has slowly caught on with all age groups in China.
For many people, the typical place to drink a beer would be in a bar. However, Chinese prefer to have a beer with their food and as such, most restaurants offer beer as a drink.
Since much of China’s cuisine is incredibly spicy, most Chinese beers tend to be lagers to complement the country’s spicy food.
So whenever you’re enjoying some of China’s most popular foods, including spicy cuisine like hotpot or Chinese barbeque at a lively night market, having a beer is a refreshing addition to your meal.
While most beers in China, in my opinion, are similar in taste, there are so many different kinds you can try, and many are regional. Here is a list of the most popular Chinese beers out there:
Tsingtao 青岛啤酒 | Chinese Beer
You have likely seen Qingdao Beer in your local liquor store branded as Tsingtao.
Named after where it’s brewed, Qingdao beer is arguably the most popular beer in China and can be purchased all over the country.
Snow Beer 雪花啤酒
You may be surprised to learn that this is the world’s top-selling beer by volume despite the fact that you’ve probably never heard of it.
Although its status as #1 on the sales charts is helped by China’s large population, it’s actually a tasty beverage and good for folks looking for a light beer.
Wusu Beer 乌苏啤酒 (Xinjiang)
It is said that some of the best hops in China come from the western region of Xinjiang, in a town known as Wusu.
This beer is popular as a pairing with some of Xinjiang’s delicious lamb kebabs.
Yanjing Beer 燕京啤酒
Yanjing beer is a local favorite for Chinese in Beijing and you’ll find it everywhere if your trip to China leads you there.
This Chinese beer was also a sponsor of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Harbin Beer 哈尔滨啤酒
Harbin Beer is another popular brand you will find all over northern China.
It has a mix of European and Chinese hops giving it a unique taste over the other Chinese lagers.
Kingstar Beer 金星啤酒
This beer comes from central China’s Henan province and I’ve commonly found it throughout central and southern China.
It has a yellow color and has a light taste.
While in China, you’ll be able to buy beer in almost every restaurant and convenience store. I’d also act like locals and drink beer out of a glass as Chinese often say the bottles aren’t particularly clean enough to drink from.
Chinese Wine | The Lesser-Known Chinese Alcohol
Although China is technically one of the top wine markets in the world, this has more to do with population than popularity.
Unless you take time looking for them, you won’t find too many wine lovers on your trip to China.
A deep dive China wine report tells us that there are 48 million regular wine drinkers in China out of a country that has 1.4 billion people.
These folks are also upper-middle class that prefer expensive imported wines from Europe.
Generally speaking, the Chinese wine industry has a lot of catching up to do before it can compete against foreign brands.
With that said, China has some rapidly growing wine brands emerging from vineyards in Hebei, Ningxia, Liaoning, and Xinjiang. Speaking from experience, you can also likely find some great wine bars in any major city in China.
Should you want to get your taste buds wet with some Chinese wine, I’d try the following wines that have been featured in Bloomberg and Decanter:
- Great Wall Centenary Old Vine
- Yin Guang-xia Premium Selection Chardonnay
- Tiansai Vineyards Skyline of Gobi Cabernet Franc
- Xixia King Envoy of Merlot
- Changyu Dionysus Drunken Cabernet Sauvignon
- Changyu Golden Icewine Valley Vidal
While most of these you’d have to get at a wine bar, some brands like Great Wall you can even buy while taking trains in China. But if you’re looking for a more classy experience, I’d flock to a quality wine bar.
Most likely you’ll also be able to have some interesting conversations with locals about Chinese wine and brands from back home, known as a 红酒吧 or Hóng jiǔbā in Chinese.
Final Thoughts | Discover Chinese Alcohol
If you’re looking to try some Chinese alcohol on your trip to China, as you can see, there are plenty of different options for you to discover.
Die-hard drinkers looking to enjoy some firewater will be plenty satisfied with Chinese baijiu. If visiting a local family during Chinese New Year and you know they consume alcohol, baijiu can make a good gift to bring for Chinese.
I’m personally a fan of beer and luckily in China, there are so many different beers to try from (albeit they all taste similar to me) and they really complement any meal you can have in the country.
For wine lovers, I can’t say that China is anything like Napa Valley, but there is small enough of a wine culture to enjoy in the major cities.
Just remember to have fun and drink responsibly!
Anytime I can enjoy a Tsingtao white beer I am very happy. I have tried most all the beers you mention but the white beer is my favorite. However, it is difficult to find even In Qingdao!
Josh Summers says
Thanks for the feedback, Ron! I personally haven’t tried the white beer, but I’ll definitely have to now 🙂
Steve Osgood says
I’ve had way too many Snow Beers in my year in China. What’s the deal with the malt liquor type beers like Dragon Blood Dance Party?
I like the qingdao beer too but as the previous comment it is difficult to find and you have to ask for it cold or it will come out warm with a tiny shot glass. this i assume is for toasting and when one drinks you all drink whether you like it or not. it is more of a social event as is eating and the chinese like to take their time unlike in the west where we seem to rush our food and binge drink.
Josh Summers says
Very true…although it is becoming more and more common for beer to be drunk cold. If it comes out room temperature, you can ask if they have a cold one.