Always in Best Spirits
How Asia brews some of the most popular alcohol beveragesby Liani MK
The Asian flush is a dreaded nemesis of drinkers in our region. Slipping into the night for booze, many find the blotchy red patches on their faces nothing short of flustering. Research even shows that a majority of East Asians take a longer time to process alcohol’s harmful by-product acetaldehyde—which causes the flush.
But are Asians and alcohol really estranged?
Historical accounts reveal otherwise. Ninth-century bas reliefs on Indonesia’s Borobudur Temple depict vendors and locals guzzling down drinks. In 1521, Raja Humabon of Cebu addressed the Philippines’s first colonists with a feast washed down with tuba palm wine from earthen jars. To celebrate age-old Lunar New Year traditions, Koreans imbibe “ear-quickening wine” to maintain healthy hearing, so that positive news is heard throughout the year.
Alcohol is clearly not an anomaly in Asia’s rich social and cultural history—and the region’s alcohol comes with various flavours, ingredients, functions, and practices. We look at ten countries to tap into just how deeply embedded alcohol is in Asian cultures and what makes Asia’s alcoholic beverages highly coveted worldwide.
While Asia boasts an array of ingredients in its liquor, there seems to be one integral component found in many alcohol types across Asia: rice. This makes sense, considering rice is a staple in Asia. Around 90 percent of the world’s rice is produced and consumed in the Asia-Pacific region alone.
Sophisticated centuries-old irrigation systems and glorious rice terraces are commonly found across Asia. In fact, for many Asian cultures, the phrase “to have rice” is generally synonymous with “to eat”. For this reason, rice has become ingrained in various cultural practices. Rice goddesses such as Dewi Sri (Indonesia) and Mae Po Sop (Thailand) are revered across Asia, with shrines in paddy fields dedicated to them.
It is unsurprising, then, that rice is often a key ingredient for wine in Asia, with both its edible and alcoholic forms associated with many rich Asian traditions. Rice wine is also commonly used in cooking, and it represents an important cultural element as a welcome or ritual drink.
Across Asia, alcoholic concoctions of rice are distilled, fermented, diluted, sweetened, or combined with fruit juice or spices, creating an endless list of varieties. The creative use of this main and vital ingredient in alcohol preparations, whether through infused spices, or even their uses in cooking or special occasions, makes Asian alcohols unique. All of these represent the region’s important and rich cultural elements.
To understand why liquor in Asia packs a punch, we can get a taste of its allure through Asia’s alcohol varieties and the stories associated with them.
Wine involves the fermentation of crushed fruits—often grapes with strains of yeast. The resulting liquid goes through a basic fermentation process (called vinification, or winemaking) before bottling. Unlike beer, wine is largely uncarbonated. While fruit wine is generally popular in Asia and largely influenced by foreign European wine (e.g., the first foreign wine in China was French), many local and indigenous wines come from locally produced grains such as rice.
Spirits are alcoholic beverages distilled from another already fermented alcoholic beverage, such as wine. The six main distilled spirits are brandy, tequila, gin, vodka, rum, and whiskey. In Asia, a wide variety of spirits have been produced locally for centuries.
Beer involves the yeast fermentation of cereal grains—through a brewing process, the sugar in the grains is converted into alcohol and carbonation. Beer as we know it today mostly found its way into Asia through European colonial settlements in the 19th century. Modelled after North American and European breweries, Asian breweries like China’s Tsingtao emerged during Germany's brief colonial period in Qingdao (1898–1914). Today, Asia’s own beer brands are gaining momentum in the global market. The top beer brands in Asia generally use just five key ingredients: water, malt, rice, hops, and some yeast.
With its incredible variety and tastes, Asian alcohol has gained ranks and cheers in both domestic and international arenas. While we may not be the most inebriated drinkers in the world, Asia’s alcohol market is undeniably rising fast.
For countries with fast economic growth, rising wages translate to higher spending factor for alcohol and more and more alcohol drinkers. In expensive cities like Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore, a higher alcohol tax and currency rate also make their alcohol some of the most expensive, and this might seem like a huge deterrent for the merry. At the same time, countries with religious restrictions appear to indulge in alcohol less based on per capita consumption, even as others with higher spending power may have less sobriety than others in Asia.
However, local alcohol beverages in many Asian countries, especially in Southeast Asia, are affordable. For example, when comparing 11.2 oz beer prices (in US dollars) across the world, prices average at $0.61 in Manila, $0.99 in Ho Chi Minh City, and $1.10 in Bangkok, making it attractive to both international travelers and domestic drinkers. Asia’s big population and growing domestic demands also play a role in these statistics, with an increasing number of domestic drinkers packing into bars for happy hours.
Staggering global counts of the region’s alcohol consumption, production, breweries, and vineyards indicate how alcohol popularity and potential in Asia are making waves worldwide, leaving many thirsty for more. In recent years, Asian beverages and local brands have steadily risen to the top in terms of sales, production, and consumption. In fact, Asia’s economic powerhouse, China, has been the world’s largest beer producer since 2001. By 2016, there were a total of 178 breweries in China, and today this number exceeds 1000.
With many hectares of land dedicated to vineyards, China is also presently the world’s sixth-largest producer and fifth-largest consumer of wine. India, too, makes it into the list of top 20 vineyards in the world.
Concerns of alcohol abuse and unhealthy drinking behaviour have led to increasing laws to restrict its use throughout Asia. While some worry that these concerns may impact alcohol’s significance in the region, increasing online beverage sales, beverage production, and worldwide access to traditional drinks such as sake indicate that alcohol remains strong in Asia.
As China tops the beer consumption market in size, international companies are trickling in, hoping to expand their breweries there and in other parts of Asia. This inflow of foreign breweries will further diversify and enrich Asia’s alcohol market.
New and innovative varieties of alcoholic beverages are also flourishing. Craft beer, low-calorie beer for more health-conscious millennials, and low- and no- alcohol (LNA) beverages are also on the rise. Creative concoctions using local ingredients (such as Szechuan pepper and jackfruit) are also in the making. These unique and diverse innovations are what makes Asian alcohol so appealing to study and taste.
A glass of alcohol contains stories of ritual and worship, business deals and gossip—even colonial remnants and historical narratives. With some consumed daily while others reserved for special occasions, Asia’s alcoholic beverages show just how much significance a drink can hold.
Liani is a freelance writer/scriptwriter whose works span areas of culture, history and language. When she is not wrestling with words, she enjoys wandering into nature, and the equally hypnotic worlds of art, film, gamelan and capoeira.