Notes from north China

“This one goes out to my pengyoumen in the north.” -Impromptu capri jeans clad American

North China’s Yellow River Valley is the cradle of Chinese civilization and the birthplace of traditional Chinese alcohols. The Neolithic Chinese Peiligang peoples currently claim the title of the world’s oldest known consumers of alcohol, with fossilized remains of their brews dating back over 6,000 years. Home of every major Chinese dynasty except the Southern Song and the early Ming, Chinese alcohol was perfected in the north and many of China’s drinking lore and poetry also comes from the north.

Today’s northern Chinese are firmly in the pro-baijiu camp. They like light-aroma, or qingxiang 清香, baijiu. Don’t let the name fool you, it still packs a wallop – some of it pushing 70+% (!!!) alcohol by volume. And so it was a return to the sweet sorghum delights of Chinese white lightning, my worst best friend, that marked the conclusion of my journey.

April 22-24 – Beijing: Got the Beijing ball rolling with a bottle of local favorite Hongxing (“Red Star”) Erguotou 红星二锅头, a light-aroma baijiu, over Peking duck. Followed things up with some beers at an impressively stocked Sanlitun liquor store that had the good sense to set up tables and chairs.

The next day, Todd, Joel and I had celebratory Yanjing beers after climbing a particularly steep section of the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall, though we didn’t get to continue on to Simatai, because … well nobody is quite sure why.

Day three. Faced my fears and met with a representative of Beijing Yongfeng 永丰 Erguotou. I could say that the Hunanese manager and I had a nice lunch together and maybe we did, but frankly my memory of the encounter gets a little foggy toward the end of the bottle. I distinctly remember waking up in the back of the driver’s car in Sanlitun – at least I had the good sense to direct him to friendly territory – and being nursed back to relative sobriety by Kadi at the Bookworm, saint that she is. Finished the day off with some inspired Erguotou cocktails at Flamme with bartender Paul Mathew before bidding farewell to my travel companions, boarding a train to Harbin and waiting for the inevitable raging hangover to set in.

April 25-27 – Harbin, Heilongjiang: First stop traveling by my lonesome. Cold, rainy and I was still reeling from my date with Erguotou. Food portions far too large for solo dining ­– I left about five pounds of food on the table at each meal. Didn’t drink as much as I’d planned, but I did get a chance to recuperate for the remaining destinations.

My efforts to visit the Harbin Beer Brewery, China’s oldest brewery and now a division by Anheuser-Busch InBev, came to naught. Nobody associated with AB Inbev ­– not in Shanghai, not in Beijing, not even working the national hotline ­­– seems to have a working contact number for Harbin Beer. Makes you wonder if they even have an office in Harbin.

Derek and team duanbei

April 28-29 – Xinxiang, Henan: Visited a former colleague’s aunt, uncle and grandparents, and had an absolute blast. Literally every waking moment, from the time they picked me up at the bus station until they walked me to my train – was spent in the company of Uncle Bin and Aunt Su. Drank some Henanese Du Kang 杜康 baijiu, as well as some Gui Bing 贵兵 label Langjiu 郎酒, which though a Sichuanese sauce-aroma baijiu, was far better than the cheap stuff I’d tried earlier.

I also learned about an evil, evil practice in these parts known: the duanbei. Unlike its slippery cousin, the ganbei, in which someone toasts someone else and both have to drain their glasses, the duanbei isn’t reciprocal: only the toastee has to drink, allowing the host to get his guest blasted without touching a drop himself. Though the Henanese will tell you this is an altruistic gesture, letting the guest drink more than the host, I say it’s the height of treachery.

Example: I was duanbeied twice in a row by a local official, and to show my appreciation I ganbeied them both. Then she filled both of our cups (teacups, mind you) to the brim and ganbeied me. Pure evil.

Before leaving, I schooled Uncle Bin, grandma and gramps at majiang despite only having a loose grasp on the rules. I suspect that everyone was letting me win.

Shanxi fenjiu: 65% alcohol and fresh from the hose. Any takers?

April 30-May 1 – Xinghuacun, Shanxi: The drive from Taiyuan to Xinghuacun revealed Shanxi to be the black lung, death-belching factory industrial wasteland part of China. It also has, oddly, a high concentration of churches, perhaps to aid the Shanxi folk in praying for blue skies. Xinghuacun, a town that was so small it might have to share its one horse with the next town over, is famous throughout China for a special kind of light-aroma baijiu called fenjiu 汾酒, named after nearby Fenyang. Though home to the famous state-owned Xinghuacun 杏花村 fenjiu company, I opted instead to visit a small mom and pop baijiu operation. It looked pretty much exactly what I would imagine a prohibition-era moonshine factory would look like – everything done by hand, baijiu put in bottles with a hose and a funnel. No indoor plumbing, but they drive around in a US$35,000 Audi SUV. Only in China.

At the Xinghuacun baijiu museum, where we received a VIP tour, I saw my first baijiu still in action and drank some 70+% alcohol by volume baijiu still warm from the still. Bonus: I could see afterwards. Sampled five unique fenjius, ranging from delicious to undrinkable, and became an unofficial ambassador of American culture for the rest of the day.

May 2-4 – Xi’an, Shaanxi: Stayed at the Wild Goose Scenic Hostel, visited the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and was sent on a – you guessed it – wild goose chase. I met with a series of representatives of Shaanxi’s best-known baijiu, Xifengjiu 西凤酒, whose factory is located a couple hours west of the Xi’an. Unfortunately, none of them actually worked for Xifengjiu.

I did, however, manage to get my hands on a sample of their high-end Hongxi 红西 label baijiu, which I ganbeied with a stranger at a noodle shop. Xifengjiu makes mixed-aroma baijius and they call this one a phoenix-aroma, feng xiang 凤香, whatever that means. I believe it was a blend of strong-aroma and light-aroma baijius – it tasted mostly like a good strong-aroma – though Xifengjiu also produces strong/sauce blends among others.

Xi’an also produces some interesting huangjiu. Choujiu 稠酒 is a local specialty rice wine flavored with osmanthus and just barely alcoholic. It’s milky in color, delicious and highly recommended. Avoid the sickeningly sweet black rice wine, though. 

After a long-slog of a journey drinking my way around many of China’s significant alcohol producing regions, I returned home to Chengdu last Saturday. After about a month’s worth of drinking that comprised about 160 shots of baijiu, and a host of other made-in-China imbibes, I am relieved to report that I still appear to have my health, sanity and all of my possessions sans one umbrella – forgotten not stolen.

These last few travel note posts have been brief synopses of my escapades, and though my English is getting a little rusty at this point, I plan on following these up with in-depth posts about the different baijiu regions visited in the weeks to follow.

31 shots to go.

Related posts:

Notes from south China

Notes from east China

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6 Responses to Notes from north China

  1. Highly entertaining post! Just wondering, any places you’d recommend to sample some choujiu in Xi’An?

    • Derek says:

      Absolutely. The great thing about choujiu is that it’s everywhere in Xi’an. You can buy it in most grocery stores, but any of the local restaurants should have it on the drinks menu.

      • Thanks so much for the response!
        I just had my first taste at Fan Ji La Zhi Rou Dian, and now I’m wondering: Were all of the versions of choujiu you tasted highly sweetened?

    • Derek says:

      I have to admit, I’m no expert on choujiu, so I’m not familiar with any of the particular brands. I don’t remember which ones I tried, but they were all somewhat sweet. If you have time to explore, I would ask around for a recommendation.

  2. Ron says:

    I share your fondness for both China and China’s entertaining sorghum spirits :-). Wonderful stuff.

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