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Chinese food is famous throughout the world, especially wherever there’s a Chinatown. Chinese drinks, on the other hand, less so. However, China does indeed have a rich beverage culture of its own, with all the color, variety and flavor you find in Chinese cooking. Here’s a list of some of the best Chinese drinks that you’ll find as mainstays in bars and fridges all across China. Some of them may seem surprising, but check them all out and you might be surprised how many of them tickle your palette.
Chivas and Green Tea
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This drink is popular with night owls who like nothing better than belting back with late night concoction while providing karaoke renditions of their favorite pop hits for the regulars’ entertainment (or torture). The drink fuses sweet green tea with the immensely popular Chivas Regal scotch, making for a smooth libation with just the right amount of sweetness, and a nice caffeine kick from the tea to keep the party going into the small hours. A regular at any glitzy late night establishment you’ll come across.
Pearl Milk Tea
One of the drinks from China that actually has broken through to other markets across the globe, pearl milk (often known as “bubble”) tea is hugely popular among young people. It’s a combination of herbal and/ or fruit infused juice full of tiny, chewy “bubbles” that are in fact made from tapioca. There’s a huge range of possible flavor combinations, that you’ll find available from dedicated bubble tea bars and elsewhere.
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This is the Chinese equivalent of electrolyte water like Gatorade that you’ll find elsewhere. There’s a big range of flavors including lemon and grapefruit, and the drink also benefits from an infusion of vitamins and nutrients. It possesses a sweet, tangy flavor and a sharpness to its taste, and remains a hugely popular beverage.
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Tea is a very big deal in China, and tieguanyin, also known under the slightly intimidating moniker of the “Iron Goddess of Mercy”, is one of the most popular oolong tea varieties. Flavor-wise, it lies between black and green tea, with a deep yellow color. It possesses a refreshingly floral aroma blended with a sweet, almost berry-like taste, making for a welcome beverage any time of day. It’s available across the country, but is principally associated with Anxi in the Fujian province, where it’s grown and harvested in autumn and spring.
Salt Soda Water
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Before Coca Cola arrived on China’s shore and inevitably became the most ubiquitous soft drink in the country, salt soda water was the fizzy refreshment of choice for the Chinese, especially in Shanghai. It’s still available pretty much everywhere, letting you enjoy the notes of mint and lemon that help balance out the sugary carbonation.
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This is the most popular beer in China, and readily available from any chinatown in the world. It’s a lager beer modeled on the German style, with a malty flavor profile and hoppy notes. It’s goes down famously easily, so you may find yourself getting from one end of a six pack to another without even noticing. It hails from the city of Qingdao by the sea, and uses spring water from the mountainous Laoshan area of the Shandong province where the water is famed for its purity. The yeast, barley and hops are imported from Canada and Australia, making for a truly global beer.
This fearsome spirit packs a hefty punch, ranging from 40% to as high as 60% in alcohol. It’s a grain alcohol variously deriving from corn, wheat or rice. It’s the country’s national spirit and can be found pretty much anywhere, and is often enjoyed with food. Just as well, since you wouldn’t want to drink too much of the stuff on an empty stomach.
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This amber colored beverage came to northern China courtesy of the Russians in the 19th Century. It’s a sweet, low-alcohol drink (usually around the 1% mark) that tastes a little like a lager and lemonade shandy. The beer is self is derived from black bread or rye, then often flavored with a variety of berries or herbs later on in the brewing process. You’re most likely to find this drink in northern territories like Harbin and Xinjiang, and especially along the country’s border with Russia.
A popular hot drink frequently sold homemade from stalls in the country’s south, “cooling tea” nonetheless has two mass manufactured brands that vie for the drink’s top spot, Jia Duo Bao and Wang Lao Ji. The drink goes as far back as the Qing dynasty, and it’s notes of honey and mint help explain its popularity as a source of relief for dry or sore throats.
Cocoa, Cheese & Rock Salt
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Okay, bear with us. Admittedly this might not be anyone’s first idea of a delicious drink, but the combination is evidence of Chinese creativity at work. It’s a national equivalent of chocolate milk, whereby the cocoa, cheese and rock salted are blended together along with a health amount of milk. The result is a rich concoction where the rich sweetness of the cocoa weaves among the tang of salt, offset by the shouldn’t-work but-somehow-it-does flavor of cheese. Try it for yourself to decide.
Unsurprisingly, there’s lots more liqueurs, wines, beers and soft drinks available varying from region to region, but these are some of the most striking, unique and refreshing worth chasing down to give you an idea of the creativity at play in China’s beverage culture. While imported alcohol and Western carbonated drinks continue to rise in popularity, when in Rome it’s always a better idea to sample the locally made hooch, and you may be able to enjoy some of these outside the country at your local Chinese restaurant as well. Ganbei!
William Benetton is a writer, traveler, photographer, and a fan of sport. William loves webdesign and around six months ago he has created his first project. William cannot live without sweet coffee every morning.
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