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China in Five Drinks

China has long been associated with tea, "the China drink" as europeans once dubbed it. Indeed, cha remains the most popular beverage, served with food or between meals as ritualized, social practise. But China is big, its culture rich, and thus it logically produces all manner of means to wet-your-whistle. Here are some of the thirst-quenchers popular in the Middle Kingdom today.


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Think China and you think tea. It was one of ancient China’s key exports. Along with silk and porcelain, tea took the taste of China to the world and eventually lured the world to China’s shores as “cha” emerged as world’s most popular beverage. It is in many ways a remarkable product. Humans for at least three millennia have cultivated the leaves of the evergreen shrub Camellia Sinensis. The origins, are, like so many things Chinese, enshrouded in myth. So the story goes Shen Nong, the Chinese god of agriculture, discovered the benefits of tea consumption. In all likelihood tea was first cultivated in Yunnan during the Shang Dynasty, but it wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty that tea emerged as a popular drink with an associated culture. Each subsequent epoch added some kind of advance to tea cultivation and consumption. Today in China, tea is loosely divided into six categories, dark, black, green, white, yellow and oolong. It is also widely consumed with fragrant flowers, though milk and sugar – popular additives in the wider world – are seldom used. There are a host of regional and specialty teas on the market all boasting medicinal benefits. Check out Anhua Dark Tea from Hunan and Yingde Red Tea from Guangdong if, like me, you enjoy a rich brew.       

Arctic Ocean

The USA might dominate the global soft drink market but guess what, China bottles fizz too. That’s right; Beibingyang or Arctic Ocean (as it’s known in English) is Beijing’s very own soda. And you know what, it’s not half bad. Since its 2011 re-launch it has enjoyed something of Renaissance in Beijing, with sentimental locals taking in the taste of their childhood. But the beverage has a chequered past. The drink was first produced in an old ice-making factory in Beijing the 1930s. By the 1980s it was the premier summer refreshment, as any Beijinger over the age of 30 will recount. But a joint venture with PepsiCo Inc in 1994 quickly turned sour. Production was halted and the popular fizzy drink disappeared off the shelves. The partnership was dissolved in 2011 and the company staged a triumphant return to the soda pop stage. Cashing in on local pride and professing to be made with real fruit and less sugar than its competitors, sales have soared. In 2014 the company claims to have sold more bottled beverages than Coco-Cola in the capital. Nowadays, Beibingyang is finding new ways to reach consumers, at cinemas, shopping malls and trendy bars. Mixologists have even incorporated it into new cocktails. For our money, try the Beibingyang mixed with Tequila.  


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The Russians have vodka, the Americans have bourbon, the Celts have whisky and the Chinese, well the Chinese have baijiu. Also known as sorghum wine (or paint stripper by many seasoned expats) this is serious stuff and if you’re invited to a Chinese banquet you’re likely to be necking it. So it’s best you prepare yourself. Typically drank neat, there are numerous brands and styles of baijiu. Fragrant baijiu will usually be coloured by an additional ingredient while unflavoured baijiu is a characteristically clear liquid. Ranging from the gut-gurgling Er Guo Tou to the notable brand Maotai from Guizhou there’s a plethora of brands helping the good people of Cathay get wasted. When you consider that at the low end baijiu can cost RMB8 a bottle, whereas plenty of bottles cost RMB300 and above, there’s a shocking disparity in quality. So the best advice is to stick with the pricy stuff, it tastes sweeter and the hangover is significantly less bone shattering.  


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Though there is evidence of some ancient Chinese brewing techniques, beer, as we know it today, was introduced by the Russians in the northern city of Harbin in the nineteenth century. The Germans, Czechs, Brits and Japanese quickly followed suit, establishing breweries throughout the country. Perhaps the most recognisable Chinese brand is Tsingtao, which is widely exported to Chinese restaurants overseas. An English-German joint stock company founded the Tsingtao Brewery in 1903. Since 1991 the city of Qingdao has sought to promote its beer heritage and plays host to an international beer festival. Snow Beer is actually the biggest selling beer in China, however, with over 90 breweries across the country, while China’s oldest beer Harbin remains a major player. Most mass-produced beers in China are pale lagers with relatively low alcohol content. However, the Western craft beer Renaissance has led to the emergence of craft breweries in most major cities, particularly in Beijing. As people’s tastes grow more sophisticated, and with the increasing spending power of the general population, the market for imported and homebrew beers is likely to grow exponentially.        


Coffee and China. Do these two words even belong in the same sentence? Well, oui monsieur, they do. Coffee first made its appearance in China when French missionaries planted beans throughout Yunnan Province in the 1890s. However, it failed to capture the attention of the masses, still fanatical about tea. But over the last two decades Starbucks and their kin have been gradually infiltrating the culture. China’s coffee market has grown by an estimated 10-15 percent annually in comparison to the worldwide average of just two percent over the past decade as marketing, westernization and well, addiction to caffeine, are winning more and more converts. But it doesn’t end there. In the South, where terroir is similar to many fine coffee-growing locales, made-in-China coffee is making a stand. Yunnan already has several notable plantations whereas, Hainan Island has two coffee producing counties. The business may still be in its infancy, but as always, where China is concerned, the potential is brewing. 

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