It’s always fun to look at how food and drink differ depending on the culture you choose. Even with the world becoming more connected now than ever before, many places still have their own traditional choices, along with new ones that are taking the population by storm. So, with this post, we’re focusing on Chinese drinks.
These drinks are fun because many of them are very different than what Westerners drink regularly. Some also have unexpected flavors or ingredients. You mightn’t enjoy all of the drinks, but most will be an experience that isn’t soon forgotten.
China isn’t the only place to find these drinks either. Many are popular enough that they can be found in Asian food stores in the United States and other locations. You may even occasionally see some in a local grocery store. Don’t forget about restaurants either. These can be a fantastic place to try out new food and drink.
If you’re looking for food instead, check out our list of Chinese breakfast foods. We’ve also talked about Chinese food and wine pairing. Either list is perfect for anyone who wants to bring their experience up a level.
- Bubble Tea
- Sour Prune Juice
- Xinjiang Black Beer
- Tsingtao Beer
- Soy Milk
- Cassia Wine
Baijiu is easily one of the most famous drinks in China. It’s a type of clear liquor where the alcohol by volume (ABV) ends up between 35% and 60%. Many versions have a 50% ABV, making this stronger than most other spirits.
Baijiu is often distilled from fermented sorghum, but other grains can be used as well. For example, you’ll see some products that rely on rice, while wheat, millet, or barley can also be used.
The flavor of baijiu can differ dramatically, although quality products aim for a complex and rich flavor profile. Baijiu can be broken down into categories, which include sauce, strong, light, and rice. These are a rough indication of the flavor profile.
In fact, baijiu can be compared to whiskey in terms of the variation in flavor and styles. Just like with whiskey, you can’t just try one product and get a sense of what baijiu has to offer. You’ll need to experiment.
Erguotou is a particularly famous type of baijiu. It’s popular as a social drink, partly because it isn’t overly expensive and tends to have around 60% ABV. Red Star is one well-known brand, although there are plenty of others too.
While the high alcohol content makes baijiu appealing, you’ll need to be careful. It’s easy to overdo it with the spirit, especially if you haven’t tried it much in the past.
Jiuniang is another alcoholic option, one that isn’t nearly as intense as baijiu. This time, the alcohol content is often around 1% to 2% ABV.
The drink itself is basically unfiltered rice wine. However, the texture can vary dramatically. Some versions have a consistency that’s similar to soup, giving you the chance to drink it through a straw or straight from the cup. In other cases, the dish is much thicker and contains partially digested rice grains. When the grains are present, you end up with something that’s similar to soup, rather than a drink.
While the soup style might sound strange, jiuniang is clearly popular. So, it’s worth trying for yourself.
It’s common to see sweet Osmanthus flowers as part of jiuniang. These flowers add to the flavor, making the drink more interesting.
When we talk about tea in China, green tea is probably the first thing you think of. It’s true. Green tea is prevalent in China. You’ll find it served at almost every social occasion, even if no other drinks are offered.
Still, the story doesn’t stop with green tea. Chinese people enjoy all types of tea, along with plenty of herbal teas. Chrysanthemum is one popular type, which is a floral tea with a light flavor. Like many types of herbal teas, chrysanthemum tea is thought to offer various health benefits.
Another interesting tea is tieguanyin, which is a type of oolong tea. It has a slight yellow color and a floral scent. The sweet aftertaste of the tea makes it easy to enjoy.
Let’s not forget pu-erh either. This is a type of fermented tea that comes from the Yunnan province. The tea is often promoted for its health benefits, as it’s thought to promote brain function, along with managing blood sugar levels and helping to fight high cholesterol.
While such benefits haven’t been rigorously studied, there’s enough interest in the tea to make it worth trying. The distinct earthy flavor from the fermentation helps the tea to stand out too.
There are even teahouses that are dedicated to tea, giving people the chance to fully savor tea and try new types for themselves. Complex tea ceremonies are a part of Chines culture too, which highlights the importance of tea.
Looking for something unusual? Bubble tea should fit the bill.
The bubbles in the tea are made from tapioca, which makes them chewy and a bit strange. The drink, on the other hand, is a type of sweet milky tea. It comes in a variety of flavors and colors.
Bubble tea is normally served with a large plastic straw. The size of the straw means that drinkers can suck up the beads along with the milk tea. There’s no shortage of places to buy the tea throughout China. It has even made its way into the United States.
Sour Prune Juice
This traditional Chinese drink relies on smoked sour plums, sugar, and a selection of other ingredients. It also goes by the name Suanmeitang. The sourness of the plums means that the beverage has a sweet and sour combination of flavors. There is a little saltiness present too.
The drink is famous not just for its potential health benefits, but also for being refreshing. As such, it’s an ideal drink in the heat of summer.
Suanmeitang can be a carbonated drink, so it has a refreshing fizzy nature. It’s a popular choice in summer, especially when you’re looking for something that isn’t too sweet.
Xinjiang Black Beer
While there are many types of beer in China, Xinjiang black beer is one of the most well-known (it also goes by the name Sinkiang black beer). The beer is a popular choice at mealtimes, especially when paired with spicy food.
The American equivalent of this beer is dark lager. Both options have a sweetness that’s reminiscent of brown sugar.
This is another type of beer that you’ll often see in China. It can be found in other countries too, as it has been exported throughout the world.
Tsingtao beer is notably different from the previous example. It is a hopped pale lager, with an ABV of around 4.7%. It’s thought to be one of the most drinkable beers in the world, as rice is blended to mellow out some of the bitter taste that comes from the hops.
Mijiu is a broad term that simply refers to Chinese rice wine. The wine may have been the starting point for countless rice wine varieties now found throughout China and the rest of Asia.
The wine tends to be clear with a slight sweetness. Some products are salted so that they can be easily used as a cooking wine.
Regardless of the type, mijiu tends to be clear and is made from the fermentation of glutinous rice. The ABV is generally between 12% and 20%.
Soy milk is a common ingredient in Chinese cooking and it features as a drink too. But, don’t expect the same product that you find in the United States. The American version of soy milk tends to be thickened and flavored. It often contains a selection of preservatives and stabilizers, with many products using extra sugar too.
The soy milk you find in China, on the other hand, is often made just with soybeans and water. The beans may be soaked and ground, then the resulting liquid is strained and boiled. This gives you a slightly grainy milk with a notable soybean flavor.
The differences between Chinese and Western versions of soy milk mightn’t be a big deal if you’re planning to cook with the milk. If you want to drink it instead, the variation in taste and texture would be much more noticeable.
There is also soybean milk. This involves extra processing steps and can give you something that’s more similar to the soy milk that you’re familiar with.
However, it’s important to be cautious with soy milk and soybean milk in China, as some brands add real milk to provide extra nutrients and texture. This approach could be problematic if you’re trying to avoid dairy products.
Kombucha is now popular in many parts of the world, including China. There’s even a theory that kombucha originated in China, although there are many debates about the drink's origin.
Kombucha itself is a fermented drink that uses sweetened tea as a base. The sugar acts as food for the bacteria and the final drink is often low in sugar. The Chinese version often goes by the name Hong Cha Jun, which is sometimes translated as ‘black tea mushroom’ or ‘red tea bacteria’.
Regardless of the drink’s name and origin, kombucha can be delicious. It’s also a source of probiotics. This can make it a powerful way to promote gut health.
This drink goes by a few names, including osmanthus wine, Kuei Hua Chen Chiew, and cassia wine. It’s an alcoholic drink that uses baijiu as a base. Not surprisingly, osmanthus flowers are used to flavor the spirit.
Don’t be fooled by the use of cassia in this drink’s name. The term is typically used for a type of cinnamon, but here it’s a reference to osmanthus instead.
The wine is often served as a traditional choice during the Mooncake Festival, partly due to when osmanthus flowers bloom.
While baijiu acts as the base for this drink, the ABV of cassia wine is less than 20%.