The history of wine/liquor brewing in Canton

BY :丝路云帆

UPDATED :March 17, 2021


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You may have heard of Cantonese people's love for soup, but their craze for brewed wine, although recorded frequently in history, is rarely known.

Today, we'll probe into the history to explore how ancient Cantonese brewed and enjoyed wine. 

It's said that wine emerged in as early as the late Neolithic Age when ancient people discovered alcohol-flavored seriflux in some "expired" fruits/cereals and found them tasteful. After constant attempts of fermentation and saccharification, they invented wine-making techniques eventually.

In Lingnan region, wine was usually brewed out of flowers or fruits, such as lychees, plum blossoms and roseleaf raspberries, instead of grapes. In the Han Dynasty, thick liquid of coconut flowers was one of the common raw materials for wine. The flowers would be mashed and a bamboo tube would be hung beneath to collect the juice. The wine would be ready-to-drink in three to five days after sealed for fermentation.

Brown glazed pottery vessel of Shang Dynasty, unearthed in Raoping County, Chaozhou, Guangdong province

Picture showing ancient people collecting dew for brewing liquor

Another raw material for wine making in Lingnan region was waxberry, whose plant seed remains were found at the Palace site of the Nanyue and Nanhan Kingdoms located in the west segment of Zhongshan Si Lu in Guangzhou. Dongfang Shuo, a famed thinker in the Western Han Dynasty, even compared waxberry wine to natural honey, regarding it as a drink to serve distinguished guests only.
People in Lingnan region had mastered the wine-brewing technique out of waxberry in no later than the Han Dynasty.

Jade Drinking Vessel in Rhinoceros Horn Shape, Western Han Dynasty, housed in the Museum of the Nanyue King of Western Han Dynasty
During the Tang Dynasty, with the unprecedented prosperity of economy and culture, alcohol nonabstainers sprang up in Lingnan region. Back then, shops selling wine lined Zhongshansi Lu (Road), a major road in Guangzhou, with young ladies greeting guests, recorded Lingbiao Luyi (《岭表录异》), a collection of geographic notes written by Liu Xun, commandant to the prefecture of Canton (Guangzhou) in the Tang Dynasty.

Thanks to the pleasant and warm climate in Guangzhou, brewing wine was not too much trouble for residents. Therefore, wine was sold at a small price and affordable to many people. Some even had a few more bowls and passed out by the wine jars. Some nimble vendors even came sell baked oysters at the streets, to offer drinkers some 'snacks'.

The wine culture at that time even spawned the nighttime economy in Guangzhou. At night, people would sit down to enjoy night snacks with bowls of good wine, plunging the city in hustle and bustle with wine aroma and feasts, according to Zhang Ji, a well-known poet in the Tang Dynasty.

Amongst all the varieties of wine, Lingxi (made in Lechang, a county located in today's Shaoguan city) and Boluo (made in Boluo, a county located in today's Huizhou city) were the quick-sellers. 

Su Shi, a renowned poet and official who was once demoted and sent to work in today's Huizhou of Guangdong province in the Northern Song Dynasty, highly praised Boluo wine in one of his articles. Both Lingxi and Boluo have profound influence on Guangdong's wine industry.

Green glazed kettle with double-fish patterns made in Shuiche Kiln of Meixian district, Meizhou city, Guangdong, Tang Dynasty

The Song and Yuan dynasties witnessed more frequent communications between China and foreign countries. Enlightened by the distillation method introduced from Middle Asia and Europe, baijiu, or arrack, a type of Chinese liquor distilled from whole grain materials such as sorghum, wheat, rice, glutinous rice and corn, emerged in Lingnan Region.

Chinese wine/liquor-brewing industry ushered in its heyday during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and the skills of making wine and liquor were well developed. According to New Comments on Guangdong (《广东新语》 ) written by Qu Dajun, a prestigious scholar in the Qing Dynasty, many places with high-quality sources of water in Guangdong were engaged in wine and liquor production.

 Brown colored prunus vase inscribed with a figure, Northern Song Dynasty, housed in Guangdong Museum

 The area also saw abundant varieties of arrack such as longjiangshao, a kind of popular brewed liquor that took three to four years to become drinkable. Cantonese, especially the poor, even used coarse cereals, like sugar residue and sweet potatoes, to make arrack at home, regardless of the bitterness and poor quality.

A scene of a laborer in Canton (Guangzhou) brewing wine, Qing Dynasty, housed in Museum of Modern Canton

A bunch of people paying respect to their ancestors with brewed wine depicted on a Chinese pith painting in the Qing Dynasty

During the late Qing Dynasty and Republic of China era, western wine, like champagne, became popular together with whisky and beer — mostly among politicians and military officials as well as tycoons because of its high price in Canton, a coastal city opening to the outside world.

In 1894, all kinds of exotic alcohol, along with assorted foreign food like sugar, biscuits, salad oil and canned milk, could be seen on shelves of shops in the city, according to a book on history of China's foreign trade published in the 1960s.

A printed ad of wine during the Republic of China era

The boom of wine culture as well as the prosperity of economy and trade in Guangzhou greatly promoted the development of the catering industry in the city, which earned Guangzhou the name "City of Gastronomy", a reputation well-known since the Republic of China era.