When the autumn winds begin to blow and the nights get cold, it can only mean one thing: It’s time to break out the huangjiu. Literally meaning “yellow wine,” huangjiu is an alcoholic drink that is traditionally served warm, sometimes with a sprinkling of osmanthus or a dried plum, making it the perfect companion for cold fall and winter nights.
But while it might be our peak sales season, huangjiu merchants, myself included, have little to celebrate these days. There was a time when huangjiu was China’s equivalent to French wine: Generals toasted it in victory and poets used it to warm their bellies and loosen their tongues. But that’s in the past. The embarrassing truth is, huangjiu — once the most popular and sought-after alcohol in China — is increasingly irrelevant to contemporary consumers.
Over the past 70 years, huangjiu has largely been replaced as China’s national drink by the stronger, fierier baijiu, which has relegated its milder cousin to the status of regional drink — and a seasonal one at that — primarily limited to markets in East China like Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang, as well as a few scattered parts of Fujian, Shaanxi, and Shanxi provinces. According to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, huangjiu sales amounted to just 13.5 billion yuan ($2.1 billion) in 2020, or roughly 1.5% of the country’s total liquor market. That’s just a fraction of the 584-billion-yuan baijiu market and barely ahead of red wine.
That’s a remarkable fall from grace for one of the oldest alcoholic beverages in the world. The earliest evidence of huangjiu production in China dates to roughly 3,000 years ago, when brewers first invented compound fermentation. The traditional brewing process for huangjiu begins with soaking and steaming rice, drying it, and then fermenting it in a tank. Water is then mixed in and the fermentation process allowed to continue, before the final product is bottled and consumed. The entire process takes between three and four months.
A Yuan Dynasty painting shows poets drinking “huangjiu,” attributed to Wang Meng. 500px/People Visual
Although the contents and taste of huangjiu can differ by region — in the south it is usually brewed from glutinous rice, while northern huangjiu is made from millet or corn — the alcohol content is generally low, between 14% and 20% by volume. That made it particularly well suited to the drinking habits of China’s literati and other members of the upper classes, who composed poems and traded jokes during marathon drinking sessions.
All that changed starting in the middle of the last century. As late as the Republican period (1912-1949), huangjiu was still the drink of choice among China’s elite, while baiju remained the preference of those less fortunate. The status quo shifted after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, however, as new leaders — many of them from less privileged backgrounds who were born or spent significant time in baijiu strongholds like Sichuan and Guizhou in Southwest China — brought their preference for the stronger liquor with them to the halls of power.
Soon, baijiu displaced huangjiu on official banquet tables and in unofficial but no less influential gatherings of the country’s elite. The dominance of baijiu only grew more entrenched in the 1980s, as China’s economy recovered from the turmoil of the previous two decades and consumer demand for alcoholic beverages boomed again. At the time, business deals were often sealed at the banquet table, and baijiu benefitted from its status as China’s unofficial national drink to become the preferred beverage for banquets nationwide. Baijiu brands played this association up in their marketing campaigns, upgrading their packaging and buying high-profile advertising slots on prime-time television.
The rising status of baijiu wasn’t the only challenge China’s huangjiu industry faced. As the country re-opened its doors to the world, imported products such as beer and wine became symbols of urban cosmopolitanism and Western culture. Just as importantly, each drink quickly carved out a well-defined niche for itself. Beer sellers, for example, played up the drink’s relatively low alcohol content and price, marketing it as a beverage suitable for modern, active young people.
Wine, on the other hand, chose another path, one focused on its association with sophisticated, bourgeois Western lifestyles. Red wine, for example, was poured on romantic dates, paired with newly available Western foods like steak, and even marketed for its supposed health benefits.
In the face of rising competition from sellers both domestic and foreign, the huangjiu industry struggled to define its own place on Chinese tables. People drank baijiu at banquets, beer at hot pot restaurants or sporting events, and red wine on dates, but no one had particularly strong opinions about huangjiu. The one exception was in East China, where the drink was strongly associated with the late fall harvest of hairy crabs.
This wasn’t the industry’s only problem. Relative to the baijiu industry, which was relatively concentrated in the hands of a few major companies like the prestigious Kewichou Moutai, no equivalent huangjiu brands emerged to champion the drink — or even standardize what it should look or taste like.
But not all is lost. I may be biased, but I believe that, as Chinese born in the 1990s and 2000s become increasingly influential drivers of consumption, there’s still a chance for huangjiu to revive its fortunes. First, many young Chinese are losing interest in the country’s heavy drinking banquet culture, a trend that is already forcing baijiu brands to rethink their marketing strategies.
Young people in particular are more inclined toward low-impact drinking. Rather than feeling obligated to drink to excess with their bosses or business associates, they’re more concerned with making drinking an enjoyable activity again. This has led to rising demand for low-alcohol content drinks like breezers, coolers, and other alcopop drinks. This “low-effect culture” could be an opportunity for huangjiu to regain lost ground from harder spirits.
Another potential selling point is the drink’s rich cultural history. At a time when Chinese consumers are increasingly interested in “national chic” — products made proudly in China and according to Chinese tastes — huangjiu’s past as the drink of choice for China’s greatest literati, poets, and warriors could prove a powerful advantage, if properly deployed.
Of course, this is all still theoretical. Whether the industry behind China’s oldest alcoholic drink can engineer a renaissance remains to be seen.
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: 500px/People Visual)