Sonntag, 20. März 2016

Financial Times: The peoples's tipple. Drinks: China wants to make BAIJIU, the national spirit, its next big global export - but there are obstacles

Traditionally drunk straight, and in great volume, baijiu is China's national spirit: the country gets through an estimated 10bn-17bn litres of the grain-based liquor every year. It is central to Chinese business deals, where the banquet table trums the board-room, and ubiquitious at formal dinners. It's sipped, according to toasting culture, whenever your superior asks. Calls of “Ganbei“ - literally, “Dry your glass“ - are common and hard to refuse.

 Growing up in Beijing, I learnt about the spirit from my stepfather's tales of endless toasting at business banquets - and the terrible hangovers that followed. Once, after an evening with an aviation fuel company, he described the host's expensive baijiu “as bearing a distinct resemblance to his own products“.

Now China wants to make baijiu global. State-owned producers, boutique brands and large drinks corporations are all interested in the spirit's export potential. If tequila can do it, so the reasonong goes, why not baijiu?

The push to sell baijiu abroad is part of a transition in the domestic market. Through the boom years, baijiu's role in business transactions saw sales surge with the economy. Managers of state-owned enterprises plied each other (and the relevant officials) with increasingly overpriced bottles - and billed it to the company.

But in 2012, President Xi Jinping launched a frugality campaign that banned lavish dinners and gift-giving, thus cancelling the stat's de facto subsidy of the industry and bringing soaring profits down to earth. Diversifying sales by moving into untapped western markets suddenly became an increasingly attractive idea.

However, with an industrial bouquet and a throat-choking 40-60 per cent alcohol content, baijiu is reviled by many foreigners who live in China. To popularise it outside of China requires imagination, not to say blind optimism.

Wuliangye, China's largest baijiu producer by volume, struck upon the novel approach of partnering with a London orchestra. About a year ago Liu Zong-guo, its chairman, signed a five-year sponsorship deal with the Philharmonia Orchestra as a way to “inspire people to enjoy the harmonious balance of drinking fabulous alcohol while listening to world-class classical music“. The £500,000 deal was signed at a Downing Street reception.

Jonathan Kuhles, who manages sponsorship for the Philharmonia, says: “Everyone, [at the concerts] is very interested to try it ... The longer we work with [Wuliangye], the more you get a taste for [baijiu] in a way you don't think you will originally.“

Patrons of the Philharmonia who came to hear Chines piano virtuoso Lang Lang at the Royal Festival Hall in London last November were offered a taste of the spirit, while VIP gift bags reinforced the message. Yet samples at a reception may be insufficient to overcome the problem of differing national palates. One theory of China-dwelling foreigners that it takes 300 shots to stop disliking baijiu. That's a lot of concerts.

Wuliangye's principal production facility is a 10 sq km park in Yibin city, Sichuan, which doubles a shrine to baijiu's history and culture. Banners with the slogan “Wuliangye from China to the world“ adorn the park. The architecture is a blend of modern, ancient and Soviet styles. The imposing entrance gate consists of two granite blocks topped by a 36m stainless-steel sculpture of the company emblem. Down the main avenue is a research centre comprising two triangular wings that reach into the sky from a central oval shaped like a “Q“ (for “quality“). Further along, Tang Dynasty (618-907) poetry is carved into a rock face beside a traditional pagoda. To top it off, there is a 75m building that Guiness World Records recognises as the tallest bottle-shaped building in existence.

Wuliangye's global ambitions are conveyed through a decorative pond where mosaic islands form a map of the world, signifying the “resolve to march on global markets“, according to the company's promotional materials. Near “South America“, a steel shark riss from the waters with a dying fish grasped in its mouth, reminding emplyees, “If a company makes no attempt to grow larger, it is doomed to become a small fish.“

Inside the distillery's warehouses, barefoot workers tread through steaming piles of the five grains - rice, glutinous rice, wheat, sorghum and corn - from which the company's name (wuliangye means “five-grain liquor“) derives. After heating, the grains are crushed into a paste called qu, which allows solid-state fermentation to take place. This is what it gives baijiu its unique favour - and is the source of a powerful rotting small in the air.


“Chinese people watch Hollywood [films]; they unconsciously become familiar with your culturexand yourcway of life, then they art to tey [western] alcohol ... Once China's national strength, culture and influence has grown greater, people will have a rwason to understand Chinese culture and to try baijiu.“

Even in popular Chinese culture, however, baijiu faces an image problem. The Chinese say, “Baijiu makes you courageous, but, often, this means “act rashly“.

In The Water Margin, a classic Chinese novel from the 14th century, drinking baijiu makes Wu Song , the main character, decide to takexa shortcut home through a tige's lair - fortunately, in his inebriated state, he has tge courage to kill it with his bare hands. Even when rhr rwsults of a baijiu drinking bout are less extreme, i rarely comes across a sophisticated activity.

In an effort to create a more stylish image, promotors of baijiu abroad are turning it into a bar drink. Baijiu-based coctails can now be found on bar menus from Paris to Perth. For mixologist Orson Salicetti, co-founder of Lumos, a Manhattan bar specialising in the spirit, its powerful taste can be a good thing - it is the high alcohol content that is a problem. “The advantages of baijiu are the sweetness, rotting fruit and nutty sherry - you need to respect these notes“, he says. His creationscuse baijiu in different ways, from baijiu-infused lemongrass in his “lychee martini“ to mixing it with spuced almond milk in an almond cocktail.

Brands are also working to westernise the way baijiu is consumed. Shui Jing Fang, a large Sichuan producer owned by Diageo, spinsorsca Baijiu Cocktail Week in London, which ran overvthis Chinese New Year for its third year.

“Such efforts work best when they are part of a broader strategy of educating consumers“, says Simon Dang, partner at Capital Spirits, a consultancy that advises Chinese brands on overseas expansion. He says that some companies have taken a naive approach, “spending boatloads of money on trying to promote their products before even building a brand abroad“.

According to Dang, the ideal market for baijiu is sophisticated young urban professionals, with high disposable income and attraction to brands that offer an interesting story - “sometimes, the more exotic the better“.

Matt Trusch, chief executive of ByeJoe, an American baijiu brand with its headquarters in Texas, is embracing this exotic and modern side. “The Chinese alwaysxwant to outdo themselves on tradition but it's the ultra modern that is so enticing about China today“, he says.

It's not just baijiu's image that Trusch wants to change; he's also tackling the taste itself. “The Chinese love chou doufu [stinky tofu] and pidan [preserved eggs] but these arectoo much for foreigners“, he believes. So instead of leaving those rotting notes in, ByeJoe uses filters to create something closer to a vodka.

Taste, understanding and access are likely to remain significant obstacles. But the belief that baijiu can - and will - becomexan internationally recognised spirit is growing within the industry. “It will take time“, says Simon Dang of Capital Spirits. “But we like to remind nay-sayers that vodka was a new category in the US in the 1959s and Tequila in the 1970s - and look where they are today.“

Fazit: Der Weg zum Erfolg exotischer Drinks fphrt über Hipster.