Rice wine is the oldest alcoholic beverage in China and therefore probably one of the oldest in history. Chinese records mention a gift of rice wine to an emperor as early as 4000 years ago, and up to the 15th Century, rice wine was still the main alcoholic drink in China.
The traditional production process was cumbersome. The yield of wine from raw materials was relatively low and it was difficult to obtain a clear liquid. Until far in the 20th Century, rice wine was known as a sweet brownish red turbid liquid, hence the Chinese name huangjiu, ‘brown wine’. It was consumed like the Japanese sake: heated au bain marie.
It was brewed and sold in ceramic pots, even long after glass bottles had been introduced in China. Such packaging hides the turbidity. A glass bottle with a turbid liquid, or with a layer of sediment at the bottom, is does not look good on the shelves of a wine shop.
Here is a video introducing the production process. It is part of a course in Chinese, so it teaches you a number of relevant expressions while enjoying the brewing process.
Rice wine is used as an ingredient in various traditional foods, like fermented beancurd or furu.
In the course of the past century, traditional Chinese distilled liquor, baijiu, started to lure away a considerable part of the traditional consumers of rice wine. On the other hand, foreign beverages like beer and wine started to be produced in China as well. These initiatives were first made by foreign investors for the expatriate community, but the more affluent Chinese consumers started drinking them too, to show that they were adopting a Western life style.
Rice wine remained an important drink only in the Yangtze River Delta, roughly the triangle formed by the three major cities in that region: Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou. It has been made famous by the writer Lu Xun (1881 – 1936) in his short story Kong Yiji. That story positions rice wine as the drink for workers and elderly men.
Our blog on China’s top food brands of 2014 shows that those brands include a number of distillers brewers and wineries, but no rice wine brands.
While rice wine had been almost completely written off by the Chinese alcoholic beverage industry, the product suddenly started a revival in the late 1990s. A number of the traditional brands began modernising the production process to make rice wine that appealed more to the modern consumers: a clear wine that was more thoroughly fermented and therefore had a fresher taste. This fresher product could also be drunk at room temperature.
New producers sprung up in various parts of China. One even launched a ‘dry rice wine’.
Sanyou Group (Heyuan, Guangdong) has started the construction of a new rice wine plant with an official ceremony early December 2014. Heyuan is located in the heartland of the Hakka people and Sanyou intends to embed this new plant in the traditional Hakka culture to create a unique image for its rice wine.
Today, rice wine is still struggling for its proper position in the alcoholic beverage market, but no longer fledgling.
The next challenge for Chinese producers of rice wine is the international market. Sake may not be a major drink outside Japan, but it is at least known. The modernised versions of Chinese rice wine should be more attractive to the Western palate than the rather bland sake.
This would mean that after the improvements on the technological side, the companies must also learn more about marketing to position their products properly. An interesting challenge indeed.
The China Institute of Food Science & Technology has established a special branch for rice wine on March 18, 2014. This should be seen as an important step further in the modernisation of this traditional beverage.
Eurasia Consult Consulting can help you embed your business in Chinese society.
Peter Peverelli is active in and with China since 1975.