Sweet Suzhou Osmanthus

Suzhou may be known for its canals and gardens, but there are other things that make the city unique. The food there is typically sweet, and for the red pepper munchers of Sichuan or Hunan, that’s just a non starter. That is also a frequent complaint about the cuisine found in Changzhou and Wuxi as well. Also, the city has had a long history of producing alcoholic beverages.

Osmanthus wine would be one of those signature drinks. This flower comes with a naturally sweet flavor that lends itself to baking and being included tea blends. As floral wine, Suzhouqiao is perhaps one of the biggest brands. I don’t know if its a regional thing, but it’s one of the most easily found in Changzhou — where I live. I recently tried to versions of this.

Here we have Suzhouqiao’s 桂花酿 guihuaniang and 桂花酒金桂 guihuajiu jingui. Both bottles retailed at around 38 RMB. Both are also 6% ABV. That’s weak as wine goes, and is closer to actual beer potency. So, how are these?

You can see a slight difference in color between the two. The glass contains wine from the white labeled bottle. The flavor is light, crisp, refreshing, and sweet. I drank that bottle after it chilled in my fridge. The wine from bottle with the colorful label was a little thicker and heavier in taste, but not by much. Also, this one doesn’t show up as much in supermarkets. I ran into it in only one store.  Both take soda well and morph into pretty good spritzers. When it comes to food, I was told that this pairs very well with hairy crabs — another Suzhou delicacy. If I had to complain about something, it would be the narrow bottles. You are likely only going to get two glasses out of one of them. All in all, both versions are quite pleasant drinking experiences.  Although, I’ll give a nod to the regular guihuaniang as the better of the two, but that edge is slight.

Wuhan’s Dragon Honey Lager

Unfortunately in the eyes of the world, Wuhan is the city where the Covid-19 corona virus began in a wild animal market. To say that’s a stain on the city’s history would be putting it mildly. That is also a shame. Culturally speaking the city has a lot to offer — that was before the outbreak, and it will likely be again once the city recovers. Wuhan is also one of the centers of the growing craft beer movement in mainland China. Part of this is spread of micro brew pubs.

No. 18 Brewing was one of the first to open. The beer has grown popular enough that it’s now distributed out of Wuhan and sold around China. However, this isn’t something you can find at the grocery store. Fortunately for me, I live next to a bottle shop called 29 Minute Beer Delivery, and they carry it.

As of this writing, they only carried the No. 18’s Dragon Honey Lager. How is it? It clocks in at 5.6 ABV. There is some of the sweetness a word like honey would imply. But the flavor seems more of a place between tart and sour. At times it feel a little too tart, but at least the sourness feels a bit more subtle. All in all, a decent beer. However, this is one of those drinks — for me — that after one or two, you’ve had enough. Some people do enjoy beer with varying degrees of sourness, but it simply isn’t my thing. This is especially true for Dragon Honey as that taste stays in your mouth for a bit.

A Cheap Gift Box of Baijiu

The liquor aisles of Chinese supermarkets usually splits into two categories: simple bottles and gift boxes. This is because giving gifts is a huge part of the culture here. So, why give somebody a bottle of booze when you can give that person that bottle in fancy packaging? So, the above is a gift pack of Yanghe’s 38% ABV daqujiu 大曲酒. More on what this is will come later. I bought this for 10 RMB. At the current exchange rate, that’s $1.44 retail. However, I think I bought this off of a discount shelf, to be honest. The real price might be higher. Honestly, not by much.

The reverse of the package looks like this.  This makes the product look bilingual, and it is. The promotional copy on the not-seen sides of the box are in both English and Chinese. For a 10 RMB cheap drink, that may seem weird. However, Yanghe is one of the larger baijiu distillers in China, and they do export. So, what’s inside the box?

A fancy-shaped bottle. This is the reverse side with a bas relief-like version of the label’s topless woman. Gift box versions of Chinese booze can sometimes get highly extravagant. Regular versions of this sort of thing look like this.


Okay, so what does this taste like?

Admittedly, baijiu really is an acquired taste for many foreigners in China. One also has realize that this a category of Chinese spirits and not a singular thing. Yanghe predominately ferments a sorghum-based mash of grains and peas. Here is where the qu 曲 in “da qu” comes in. The character 曲 refers the active cultures used to start the fermentation process.  There are many different types of qu 曲 used to make baijiu. Arguably, daqu 大曲 and erqu 二曲 are not the same fermenting cultures. This can greatly effect the resulting flavor.

Out of all the types of Baijiu there are to be had daqujiu is not one of my favorites, but it’s also not intolerable. When it comes to Yanghe’s entry into this category, there are actually three alcohol by volume versions you can try. This gift box contained the 38% variety — which is the weakest. Once the ABV starts going up, the more it becomes undrinkable for me. As you can see in the above picture, this is something I absolutely can’t drink neat. This stuff actually burns when it hits your stomach, but that quickly fades. For me, this stuff has to be on the rocks, and if I can add some water to hasten dilution, I will. This time around, I didn’t try any mixers.

So, would this be something I’d recommend to the curious at heart wondering what the world of Chinese grain alcohol is about? No. Would I buy this gift box and give it to a Chinese friend? Absolutely not. Is it a passable drink? Well, okay, but only if you know baijiu. I have had worse.

Tsingtao vs Goose Island

When it comes to considering a Chinese IPA against an American one, this pair popped into mind as a no brainer. Frankly, it goes far beyond both names having island references. Tsingtao is made in in the city Qingdao 青岛 — 岛 dao meaning island. Tsingtao is actually the older name for Qingdao; this was before Pinyin became the mainland standard. Both are mass-market corporate beer companies. Wait you might ask? I thought Goose Island is craft beer? Yes, it is. It’s a mass market craft beer, because AB-inBev (Budweiser) bought it back in 2011. It’s the same thing, basically, that happened with Shanghai’s Boxing Cat. Tsingtao, on the other hand, is now completely Chinese owned. At one point, Bud had a stake, as did Asahi, but those got sold off. Now it’s just a private partnership with a state owned industry. Enough about that, let’s get to drinking!

By the way, this is what the bottle looks like as an outside-of-china export. Honestly, I haven’t tried that version. So, I can’t say if there is a difference in taste with the domestic, which I bought at Metro.

Some IPAs can be brutal in their bitterness, and this is so not that. When I poured it and the other I just had, there is not much of head. It is also not at all watery, which is something I feel can be problematic with a lot of Chinese beer. This is also 5.2% ABV, which is a lot better than some of the 2.5% travesties you can find in Mainland China. It’s decently carbonated without overdoing it. While there is some complexity to the flavor, I would say this is a middle of the road thing. It tastes like “craft” without being overtly “crafty” — which is something you might expect from a giant corporate brand. OK, so now it’s time to refresh my memory with Goose Island.

But, before we consider it as a beverage, let’s take a look at the back label. There is something telling here, and it’s highly important. Notice that it’s completely in Chinese. This means that, technically, Goose Island is not in import in China. When you import food and drink, there has to be a white Chinese back label slapped over the original. That’s the law. Essentially, this bottle of Goose Island came from a batch domestically brewed on the mainland. This is another way you can see the finger prints of AB-inBev on this particular IPA. It’s also why Goose Island is so easy to find in China. Now, onto the beer itself.

Again, you can see Chinese on the label, so this is technically a “domestic import.” Lot’s of “foreign” beers are — Pabst Blue Ribbon, for example. You can almost tell immediately from the color that Goose Island is a lighter beer. The bitterness is there, but seems to a very slightly lesser degree than Tsingtao.  It’s odd it feels that way when the 5.9% ABV is actually higher than Tsingtao.

So which one wins? This is quite close, actually, but I’m inclined to go with Tsingtao’s IPA on this one. Goose Island doesn’t seem watery, and the flavor is there. However Tsingtao has more of a bitter, hoppy vibe. Don’t get me wrong; both are middle of the road. It just seems Tsingtao’s IPA is better at being “decent.”

I Will Never Drink This

In the earlier days of the Covid-19 coronavirus epidemic, nearly everything in Changzhou but supermarkets were closed. You couldn’t go out to eat, and you couldn’t sit in a bar and chat with your friends over a beer. Life was rather boring, and that is not a complaint, either. Watching the news coming out of Hubei was highly depressing, and I always said, “If boredom is your biggest complaint, than you have nothing to complain about.”  There is only so much TV you can binge watch. Looking at social media was tantamount to witnessing the collective mental breakdowns of multiple people.I just couldn’t stay at home all day. Besides, I am a travel writer, and traveling in a time of an epidemic is a bad idea. I spent a lot of time in local supermarkets, though. By the way, “Fuked Mart” in the above picture may look like Chinglish, but it’s actually just misspelled Pinyin for the name 福客多 fu ke duo. There, I looked at nearly every label and product as if I were in a lending library.

I never go hunting for Chinglish, but as an native speaking English teacher in China, it always seems to find me. Yet, in what felt like endless days milling around supermarkets, I spent a lot of time in the alcohol aisles. I discovered that smaller, less corporate grocery stores sometimes carry lesser known baijiu and rice wines that their larger competitors lacked. For example, at Fuked, they have a very good variety of ginseng liquor, which is something I actually like quite a bit. And, then, to my surprise, I found this.

Somebody with absolutely no knowledge of Chinese wouldn’t be disturbed by this. The characters 三鞭酒 sanbianjiu translates as “Three Penis Liquor” or “Three Penis Wine.” It is a drink that that is infused with the reproductive units of three different male animals: usually a dog, a seal, and a deer. As a foreigner, it’s easy to get offended or horrified by some Chinese food and drink traditions. But, hey — I chose to live and work in this country, so it’s not my place to judge. Teaching English here is a privilege and not a right. There is a history here, though, with what seems like an obscene beverage to an American mind. Traditional Chinese Medicine has treated phallic organs as natural remedies for male vitality and virility. Essentially, drinking this stuff is supposed to raise a man’s libido, so it’s intended to be the TCM version of Viagra.

But, this also reminds me of something I often tell my university students. They often like to ask whether or not I like Chinese food. My response is always, “I’m willing to try 90% of it. However, there are some places I just can’t go — animal heads or faces, for example. Worms.” To that end, a drink with three different types of dick in it is one of those places I just can’t go. Ever. And to anybody who is curious: no, I did not find three penis wine at Fuked Mart.

Two from Gwei Lo

Chinese is filled with terms for foreigners. Here on the mainland, you have 老外 laowai and 外国人 waiguoren. In theory, waiguoren is the more polite word for “foriegner.” I have been told that laowai is supposed to be more offensive. Yet, for all of my years living in China, I have never felt offended by laowai. Additionally, I have never felt that a Chinese person was being derogatory with me personally when they used that word. I could be wrong, but the thing with language is that it is only offensive if you let it be. Half the time I walk around oblivious to what Chinese people may or may not think of me. I simply do not care. I have more important things to think about.

Like beer! I was thinking about this recently while sipping on some Hong Kong craft brew. The term 鬼佬 gwei lo in Cantonese is supposed to be  a nasty word for foreigner. So, what did a group of Brits in Hong Kong do? They co-opted the name for their brand of craft. If you take a word away from somebody, you can both own and neuter it. It’s the same thing as naming this blog Liquor Laowai. Am I a liqour laowai? Yes, I am! Anyway. Enough of the self reference, there. I tried two of their offerings. First up was this…

Gwei Lo offer a number of drinks, and what they call their “core range” is the basic line of products that doesn’t change. This is their “hoppy wheat” variety. It has a little bit of a citrus smell and taste, but it hasn’t the bitterness the word “hoppy” can imply. Some wheat beer can also be harsh, and by that, I mean the Belgian and German ones that I have had. This is extremely mild in comparison, and that’s actually fine by me. I have never been a fan of hardcore wheat beers. Interestingly enough, this has a 4.2% alcohol level, but it actually felt like a lighter beer than that. Next up is this…

This is Gwei Lo’s Citrus Crusher. Again, it’s in their core line of products. At 3.5%, it’s actually lower in potency then the Hoppy Wheat. It’s also a little bit more bitter, despite what the IBU numbers say on either label. The citrus taste is definitely more pronounced here. If I had to pick a winner between these two, I would go with the Citrus Crusher. The flavor there is stronger and more pronounced.

Danyang’s Green Plum Liqueurs

Sometimes, a few westerners forget that “foreigner in China” does not exactly mean “westerner.” The word is more general than that. Typically, if I am tasked to describe the foreign experience in the Middle Kingdom, I divide all expats into two groups at first: Asian and non-Asian. Simply put, the Japanese, Koreans, Malaysians, and more also do a lot of business here, too. Those cultures actually have a lot more in common than one might think.

Take, for example, plum wine — it’s a huge deal in both Korea and Japan.  Some Americans — like myself — like to go on and on about the steady growth of Chinese craft beer. However, beer isn’t the only non-traditional alcohol the Chinese are trying to make domestic versions of. A good example of this would be 芳歌青梅酒 aka Fang Ge Green Plum Liqueur.

Fang Ge is made in Danyang, Jiangsu province. Personally speaking, it’s a small county-level city to the west of Changzhou — where I live — that is part of the Zhenjiang. The Danyang Yihe Food Company makes this, and they also do Chinese domestic versions of sake. Roasted sesame seed salad dressings too! But, who really cares about the tasty gloop you put on lettuce and raw vegetables? What does this plum booze taste like?

Well, it’s extremely sweet to point you can feel it in the corners of your mouth. However, it never gets overbearing. Some highly sweet liqueurs  have you not wanting more after a glass or two. So,at least, Fang Ge is not too rich. This is about 15%, and while you can’t taste the alcohol, you can feel it hitting your stomach. As drinks go, this is a sipper. Yihe’s website mentions that this can be diluted with warm water, or you can do a spritzer. Both cold, room temperature, and hotter servings are also okay. When you’re drinking it straight, though, it’s best to just be slow. There is another version available.

This looks very much like Japanese umeshu like Choya. Umeshu is a type of liqueur where unripened fruit is steeped into alcohol with some added sugar. The packaging confused me at first. The pull-tab top had me wondering if was supposed to sample it directly from the jar. I poured it into a glass anyway.

It’s lighter in flavor than its counterpart. You might be able to notice in the above photo — it’s lighter in color as well. It’s still sweet, but sipping this doesn’t have that corners of your mouth intensity. Also, this tends to have a raw, unfinished bite to it. I would assume that would be from the unripened plums the alcohol has been marinating. And oh, about that those …

You can eat them! As for which Fang Ge plum liqueur is better, I have to lean towards jar with actual plums. It doesn’t feel as thick in your mouth, and it feels less intense when it comes to its sugar levels.

On a closing note, fruity liqueurs are not my thing. I tend to be more of a beer, whiskey, or baijiu sort of guy. However, I enjoyed slowly drinking both of these enough to want to seek out the other products in Yihe Foods line of alcohol. They have something pomelo based that I am now actively curious about.



A Cautionary Tsingtao Tale

I both like and absolutely loathe Tsingtao. There only seems to be one or two varieties exported out of China, and in the picture above, it would be the one on the right. That one is fine. It’s okay. It’s not the greatest beer in the world, but depending on what you’re eating and what the occasion is, it does its job. The one on the left, however, I hate to the point where I’m actually afraid of it. Yes, I fear a beer. That one sports the characters 冰醇 bingchun. Basically, the one on the left claims to be Tsingtao Ice. Only, the word “ice” here doesn’t have the same connotation and higher alcohol content as when that word is slapped onto American beers and malt liquors.  It’s just 3.1%, which is average for Chinese mass market beer. Also,this variety of Tsingtao is never exported, as I have never seen it in America.

So why do I hate this particular Tsingtao so much? The answer is quite personal, and it involves a bit of body horror I have recently gone through. Currently both China and the rest of the world is dealing with the Covid-19 epidemic. It’s related to why I started this blog. Why write about travel on Real Changzhou or Real Jiangsu when the Chinese government has told everybody to stay home as much as possible? At the beginning of the outbreak, I used to buy Tsingtao Bingchun alot, but it was for this reason.

Local supermarkets sell it in “buy four, get two free” shrink wrapped bundles. This retails at 20 RMB. That’s pretty much a six pack for under four American dollars. Yes, I was being a cheapskate and trying to stretch my money. An epidemic was happening,and I was disaster buying and hoarding.  Once I started drinking it excessively, physical problems started presenting themselves. To be honest, this was linked to an extremely poor diet that included an over abundance of carbs, beans, vegetables like onions that produce gas in your body, and fatty meats like sausage, salami, and chorizo. When the Convid-19 outbreak broke, I really hadn’t planned for it. Who could? So, I was eating a lot of highly unhealthy food while drinking this terrible beer.

My stomach and intestines bloated to painful proportions. I felt like a balloon filled with hot gas. It was like if you pricked my skin with a needle, I would positively hiss and float away..Not really, I just wished that would happen. That would have been a relief.  A couple of days were spent on the sofa feeling absolutely miserable. I actually thought of calling a doctor, but when the rest of the country is dealing with a viral outbreak nobody had seen before, going to the hospital with complaints of a bloated stomach seemed like a embarrassing waste of valuable time and resources.

But hey I got to catch up on Star Trek: Discovery. That’s a good thing, right? .Anytime you binge a Star Trek program, you start to believe that the future of humanity has a higher purpose. That does bring some level of comfort. Yet, when I wasn’t watching TV, I was on my phone trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with me.

Self diagnosis via the Internet is always a bad idea. When you Google your symptoms, it always leads to the assumptions of things like cancer.This lead me to another profound truth: people who diagnose themselves with the Internet have fucking idiotic imbeciles as doctors. That became a depressing double whammy.So, there I was in China, reading gloomy news about how Covid-19 was skyrocketing in Hubei, and everyday brought reports of creeping infections in Jiangsu province. I had developed this crazy idea that something other than Covid-19 was going to kill me. Yet, it would be absurd to seek a doctor’s attention because the health care system was already taxed to its limit. Why add to that?

Into my second day of feeling like a human helium balloon,I started reading lists of foods that produce gas in the stomach. It was like a summary of everything in my fridge. Those lists basically also said soda and beer are no brainers. Those drinks are filled with bubbles. For Tsingtao Ice I deduced, it was also not only high levels of carbonation, but how alcohol could interact with certain foods.

So, no. I didn’t have cancer. I wasn’t going to die at that particular moment. All of this was self inflicted via poor dietary choices and drinking too much fizzy alcohol to psychologically cope with what was a truly frightening time. I threw the beer out, put on a surgical mask, went to the grocery store, and started buying some healthy vegetables. I drank more water, and the painful bloating went away two days later.

All of this is a cautionary tale, but it needs to be told, especially when you are starting a blog about alcohol. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a hard beverage, but too much of anything is always a bad thing. Besides, blaming the Covid-19 corona virus for your heavy drinking is beyond moronic. Trust me. I have been there.That being said, Tsingtao Bingchun (Ice), is an awful beer. It is over carbonated and tasteless. I will never, ever buy it again.

Jiang Xiaobai and the Spirit of Youth

For some foreigners, there is a misconception about baijiu. Just the word summons the image of crusty old Chinese men chain smoking cigarettes and yelling at each other while drinking and playing either cards or mahjong.  Some of these geezers may or may not sport epic comb-overs. This, of course, is absolutely wrong to levels of absurdity. A more common perception is that of the “Chinese business lunch,” where vast amounts of this sorgum-based grain alcohol is consumed. Well, actually, that does happen a lot. However, the simple reality is that baijiu is just a pervasive part of Chinese culture at all levels and age groups.

Take, for instance, Jiang Xiaobai 江小白. This particular Chongqing brand has had a consistent and heavy marketing strategy aimed at the younger generation. To many respects, Jiang Xiaobai has tried to take on a hip, trendy air. This is especially true with it’s S100. The company has sponsored hip-hop music festivals, street dance competitions, and street art  exhibitions. They also have a separate line of alco-pops and weakened / diluted variations. This drive to be “youthfully contemporary and cool” is evident even in the spirit’s packaging.

The text next to the young woman might be summed up as “not everything important is what you want.” However, it should be noted that this is a hasty and inexact translation on my part. My Chinese is pretty terrible. So, I’m more than likely wrong. Other bits of packaging look like this…

The packaging — in terms of quotes and images — on this 20 RMB small glass  flask changes per bottle are all decidedly emo. But enough about that. What does this taste like? Well, let me slip off one of the cardboard sleeves.

Jiang Xiaobai S100 comes in at 40% alcohol. It goes down pretty smooth and cleanly if you’re drinking it neat. Baijiu notoriously can burn your mouth, throat, and stomach, but the extent of that stems more from quality of each brand and variety. Besides, it’s not uncommon for some baijius to be be much stronger and upwards of 50%. This is not that; it’s relatively mellow.

Giving this the one ice-cube whiskey treatment — or just doing on the rocks — makes it even smoother. However, Chinese people tend to drink their grain alcohols at room temperature, and I would guess” the rocks” treatment is more of an western imposition of loving cold drinks. Quick and dirty mixtures, in my opinion, fare well here.  Sprite Zero goes down easy. So does Coke Zero. It didn’t try fruit juices because I am not a fruity sort of guy. Some people would claim that doing stuff like this is polluting a timehonored Chinese tradition when it comes to their spirits. To them, I would readily remind them that number of the larger Chinese baijiu distillers are encouraging drinkers to find ways to turn their spirits into cocktails. Jiang Xiaobai is no different on their English language website. 

All in all, Jiang Xiaobai is a very decent, cheap, and easily accessible baijiu. I wouldn’t say it’s excellent, but there are forms this particular Chinese spirit that do make you want to vomit up both your stomach and intestines. This is definitely not one of those, and I would definitely buy it again.


Two Punches from a Boxing Cat

To people outside China, Tsingtao tends to be the most well known Chinese beer export. However, that may slowly change. AB-InBev has been expanding it’s global empire to include craft beer — this would be the parent company of Budweiser. This is how, for example, a Chicago beer like Goose Island has been showing up in Chinese bars. Budweiser owns it, now. Three years ago, AB-InBev also bought up Shanghai’s Boxing Cat Brewery. In this regard, Boxing Cat may be one of the first Chinese craft beers that could get exported on a large scale.  As for me in China, I recently noticed Boxing Cat had two of their drinks for sale at Metro — a large German supermarket where many expats do their grocery shopping. Needless to say, getting into Metro is just another indication of AB-InBev’s clout. So, I decided to give both a try.

This first one is 第一血 diyixue, aka First Blood. It’s an amber lager that boasts a 4.5% alcohol level.

As amber lagers go, I found this light and relatively smooth. While there is some carbonation, it wasn’t as fizzy or gassy as some varieties of Tsingtao can be.  My first impression was that it tasted a little watery, but not in a way I would outright complain about. Would I drink another bottle or two of this sometime? Yeah, why not. Moving on…

This one is 搏击者 bojizhe, aka Contender. It’s an extra pale ale clocking in at 4.9%.

It has a small bit of dry bite with a slight bitter hint.  As extra pale ales go, this one is also a little light, and to my taste a bit watery. Again, not complaining. Some good tasting beers that are watery are actually easier to chug — if you’re into that sort of thing. My college student days are long in the rear view mirror, though. Again, this one felt a little more carbonated that Boxing Cat’s amber ale. Would I drink this again? Yes.

After drinking both of these, I was left wondering about one thing. Is this Budweiser’s version of Boxing Cat, or is these two actually representative of the Shanghai brew pub? As of this writing, I wouldn’t know. I haven’t visited Boxing Cat the last few times I was in Shanghai. However, these two have me intrigued, though. Draft beer is usually better than bottled. So, I have something new on my Shanghai to do list.