Rice wine is as strong as other alcohol, but it's got a mild, sweet taste. It is now becoming an ideal drink among groups. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Every night before going to bed Lu Yu takes a sip from a glass at her bedside. It's a habit she got into seven years ago in her first year at university, when she felt she needed a bit of alcohol-induced drowsiness to send her to sleep.
I think rice wine has been well placed to represent China. I'm sure its light and sweet flavor would be favorably received everywhere
Fan Yu, Creator, Huatianxiangzi
In those days, almost without exception, her drink of choice was red wine, but that has changed, the color red giving way to a clear white.
"Rice wine is as strong as alcohol, but it's got a mild, sweet taste," the photographer, 25, says.
What led to this drinking epiphany was a Chinese rice wine house that opened in the Sanlitun area of Beijing last summer in which Lu soon became a regular, enjoying time there with friends.
"I'd go there with my best friends because it's such a great place to relax," she says. "For most friends it would be whiskey or beer, but for very close female friends it would be rice wine."
Rice wine, or mijiu, is made from fermented glutinous rice in which the sugars are transformed into alcohol by yeast. It is a sweet wine of low alcoholic content that by many accounts goes well with seafood and meat.
Rice wine is a common drink south of the Yangtze River, but in northern China one of its best known uses is as an aid to quick recovery after a woman gives birth.
Because all that is needed to brew rice wine is rice, water and yeast, those in the country's south who drink it usually make it themselves, and consequently there really has been little rice wine industry to speak of.
However, over the past two years that has begun to change, and all the signs are that no matter where you are in China, if you still have not seen bottles of white rice wine on the shelves of a supermarket or small grocery store near you, you soon will.
Three years ago, only a few rice wine brands were available on the online shopping platform Taobao, most of the vendors selling the homemade variety. Now a search for mijiu there brings up dozens of pages of results, most of them brands produced by large concerns.
One of the best-selling ones on Taobao is Huatianxiangzi, the value of whose sales on the platform was 5 million yuan (US$772,000) last year, the brand's creator, Fan Yu, says.
Fan, of Xi'an, Shaanxi province, says his aim is to introduce Chinese rice wine to the world.
"Like cigars and chocolate, which both represent the culture of their countries of origin, I think rice wine has been well placed to represent China. I'm sure its light and sweet flavor would be favorably received everywhere. We want to promote rice wine and the Chinese lifestyle, even though sales of it in China are far lower than those of baijiu."
In 2016, the revenue from commercial sales of the white spirit baijiu was 613 billion yuan, the National Bureau of Statistics says.
Manmi is a rice wine brand that has a creative design packaging. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Fan founded Huatianxiangzi in 2013 after spending several years trying to come up with an ideally flavored rice wine. One of his target markets is young people, he says, and of course he would be delighted if they made it their regular choice among wines and liquors.
Apart from selling Huatianxiangzi online, Fan says, he is selling it to outlets of the Metro chain all over China.
"We want to learn from the experience of red wine and sake, and compete with red wine in China, and see rice wine leap from the city to the country, and from wedding banquet tables to family dinner tables."
Soon after Fan set up his business he started trying other new rice wines, but now there are so many that it is impossible to taste them all, he says.
The Beijing photographer Lu says her favorite rice wine brand is Nuoyan, founded in 2014 by Huang Yu, a winemaker and designer. Lu says she enjoys both its original and sparkling versions.
After three years' development, Huang, 41, has created 13 rice wines and a boutique winery in Fujian province, together with two wine shops in Beijing.
His aim is to redefine Chinese rice wine, he says, and he has poured more than 10 million yuan into developing rice wine products, each taking him an average of three years.
"Chinese wine should have a new representative, and rice wine should be it," he says.
"For thousands of years, Chinese rice wine has been a homemade product, and there has been innovation that has helped it develop to suit peoples' tastes. This wine can be served with dinners, and we reckon it has earned a right to be part of wine tastings."
Nuoyan is the only Chinese rice wine on the 1,000-wine list of the chain TRB. The chain's owner, Ignace Lecleir, says he came across Nuoyan original rice wine two years ago and loved it instantly.
"The nose and flavor are very different. When I smell the wine, I feel acidity, but then, on the palate, it tastes like peaches and pears."
A week after his first encounter with Nuoyan, Lecleir had it on his wine list, which comes with a recommendation to pair it with chocolate dessert or foie gras.
"Every time we present our wine to Chinese and foreign customers, they are really surprised, because they don't think you could make wine with rice," Lecleir says.
"When you say that it is made of rice, you can see they are a little bit skeptical. They are not so sure, but most of the time they want a refill."
Lecleir has also had Nuoyan in a blind tasting list, when some tasters have guessed it comes from France, after which he delights in telling them that they have just tasted Chinese rice wine.
The Belgian, who has lived in China for 10 years, says Chinese tastes in wine have changed, the preference for heavy strong ones shifting to lighter, refined ones.
Wang Dajun, 29, of Beijing, and originally of Jilin province, says that neither wine nor beer held any attraction for him until he gained an appreciation of rice wine, so much so that in June he set up Manmi, a rice winemaker.
Rice wine is made from fermented glutinous rice in which the sugars are transformed into alcohol by yeast. It is a sweet wine of low alcoholic content that goes well with seafood and meat. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
As with Fan Yu and Huatianxiangzi, Wang sees great potential in young people as buyers.
"We are keen to show (them) that rice wine can be very fashionable, so our packaging draws on anime culture," he says.
Wang formed his team last April, with one partner focusing on anime culture and another on developing the product.
"My partner used to make rice wine at home, and her wines always sold out, so she wanted to bring them to commercial production, something I was also keen on," Wang says.
However, that is not a particularly easy task, the methods used to make a commercial product differing from those used in home brewing. For one thing, quality control is far easier when you are dealing with a single bottle of drink and quite another when you have to maintain quality standards in thousands of bottles.
"We've made a lot mistakes and wasted about 1 metric ton of rice, and it wasn't until a couple of months ago that we managed to gain some stability with our products."
Wang's team designed several cartoon images to help market the brand, and he says it sold 2,000 bottles by crowd funding on the e-commerce platform Suning and others.
"We're trying to make a rice wine that is fully in tune with the post-90s generation most."
Last June, Wang says, he received 1 million yuan in funding from Alumin Scarlett, a Beijing investment company, for his brand.
Those who own the rice wine brand Shiwudao (Poetry 15), have chosen to sell their product direct to restaurants rather than online.
Lyu Zongkun, founder of Shiwudao, grew up with homemade rice wine, his mother and grandmother being well-known for making rice wine in his hometown of Chenzhou, Hunan province.
Wine culture in China has changed from the days when how much you drank was more important than the quality of what you were drinking, he says. Rice wine now has the chance to become known for premium products, as has been the case in the past few years with craft beers.
"Wine is like a lube for connecting people, and because of rice wine's low alcohol content and sweet flavor, it's the best tool on hand," Lyu says.
"We're keen to make it natural for anyone eating hotpot or Hunan and Sichuan cuisine to pair it with rice wine."
Shiwudao has been sold in more than 200 restaurants in Beijing, most of them specializing in spicy food, and most of the drink's rivals in restaurants are not other wines, but Coca-Cola and plum syrup, he says.
"We want our rice wine to go abroad with Sichuan cuisine, and to present Chinese culture."