There’s a protective green army blanket covering the door. Its edges are black with the grease and the dirt from cracked hands of migrant construction workers inside.
The winter air blows in, mixing with the warm smoky den, creating an eye-stinging cyclone. The restaurant is full tonight. Tables of booze-red Chinese men with weather-worn faces are hazy through the smoke.
This noodle shop seems a haven for these men. They’re recouping from bone-chilling 14-hour shifts of construction work, their guts full of spicy beef noodle bowls and distilled grain wine, or baijiu, they are happy and thankful to be warm—happiness shown through loud voices, wet slurps, and chain-smoked ashes on the floor.
The temperature is below freezing, and a sockless man, dusted in the white chalk of concrete, conspicuously eyes my knock-off Dr. Martens boots. I’m lucky to have a warm bed. He, one of any number of migrant workers in Beijing tonight, probably bunks with eight or more men, all shivering under their own green army blankets, in some half-built construction site nearby. He’s thankful for the warmth of his noodle bowl, and I am thankful for the reminder.
A loud cry of “Fuwuyuan!” or “waitress,” rings out, and another round of small green bottles are laid out before the table of construction workers. These 100ml bottles are all adorned with red stars on their metal caps, a mark of the revolutionary history of this brand. Red Star was China’s first state-run winery. It’s a national icon.
Just as Jack Daniel’s makes whiskey, Red Star makes erguotou, the worker’s baijiu. These two to three kuai, or less than half an American dollar, bottles can be found in every convenience store, any blue-collar restaurant, almost anywhere in the capital city.
Beijing’s choice alcohol is so popular that it even comes in squirt bottle form. To put it in perspective, nearly three hundred thousand liters of Red Star is drunk every day, and the vast majority comes from these tiny green bottles.
Hungry, I mimic the warm drunks, and yell for the waitress. I, too, order a beef bowl. She stares at me, and leaves without a word. Her dirty apron, worn over a puffy zipped jacket, fit in. I definitely don’t.
“Hey, you! Come over!” A group of loud, belligerent men demand I join their table. I avert my eyes, try to ignore them, but I know what’s coming. Too many nights ganbei-ing strangers, too many nights giving face while I am made fun of, causes me to hesitate. Ganbei means, literally, “drain the cup,” and it quickly leads to nights you won’t remember.
Against my better judgment, I join their table. The man who plays himself as the leader silently offers two cigarettes. I don’t smoke, but not taking one is considered bad manners. Accepting one instantly makes me a friend.
Someone hands me a shot-glass with a grunt, and against my better judgment, I instinctively smell it. My nostrils reel. Erguotou has such a distinctive fragrance that it can’t help but send one’s brain instantly to another world, a world of fuzzy memories. Those memories have the uncanny ability to make one’s stomach churn. Cups are raised and an audience of very imperfect teeth smiles, all at me. One hefty swig of the historic 112 proof erguotou, and all living creatures in my esophagus are dead…
The taste is tough to get used to, for sure. It’s hard enough to get past the smell. But most lao Beijing ren, the born-and-raised Beijingers, can handle and even enjoy all 300 elusive flavors said to be in a single glass of erguotou. The guarded recipe, it is claimed, has an 800-year history. And much like stinky tofu and durian, it’s definitely an acquired taste.
The real story of erguotou begins at the gates of Beijing’s Qianmen, just south of the Forbidden City. Three brothers there ran a successful grain company out of a hutong workshop, and began to study brewing and distilling. In 1860, they took an ancient recipe for sorghum-based baijiu, and competed to clean up the taste.
The 800-year-old recipe is actually fairly straightforward. By fermenting the husks of the grains for weeks, an alcoholic sludge is made. This flavorful goo is then boiled in the bottom chamber of a large vat. As the alcoholic vapor rises, it condenses on the bottom of the top chamber, and pours from a spout on the side of the vat. The fire was kept burning, and the ooze kept boiling, so that when this top chamber was filled and re-filled with cool water, the process was kept going. It was boiled three times, in three separate pots, ending with a 158 proof liquor. This recipe had been passed down for generations.
The brothers’ first batch of wine surely resembled the bootleg baijiu that can still be found in the countryside today: amateurish, with the kick of a mule. The brewing masters of the day saw no competition from this weak trio.
But a breakthrough came when the second brother, relying on his unique middle-child perspective, eliminated the first and third pots. With only the middle pot remaining, the taste was fuller and more aromatic. Thus the name still used today: erguotou, “the head of the second pot.”
The new baijiu was an instant success, and it became the Imperial choice almost overnight. It quickly sold out, and the lines of hutong customers were forced to buy tickets, reserving unmade jugs months in advance.
It’s claimed that the recipe hasn’t changed much since that day, and the current Head of Production boasts about his direct lineage to the three founders. He’ll show you the family tree, pointing out each generation, to prove it.
But this isn’t what makes this century-old brand of wine so special. What is special is that it was the country’s first state-run winery. erguotou was chosen as the people’s baijiu, and the revolutionary name of Red Star was bestowed upon it.
“The earliest memory I have is of my dad drinking Red Star erguotou,” said Liu. Liu is a farmer, like his father before him. “I started drinking it when I was 20. After a hard day’s work in the fields, we’d drink. When we were eating dinner, we’d drink. We drank it to feel stronger, so we could work more. Like the kids drink Coca-Cola today, we drank erguotou then.”
He went on, “It was made in the government factory, and sold in the xiaomaibu in town. We would walk to town to buy it, but we could only afford a little bit. A big bottle was only one yuan, but we didn’t earn money. Every six months we got tickets, and we could trade the tickets for money. Hard work meant more tickets, and more tickets meant more baijiu. So, needless to say, we worked hard. Most of our salary went to necessities, but with all of the leftover tickets, we bought Red Star.”
Mr. Liu still drinks erguotou, from a four-liter plastic jug, with every meal. His mother, 97 years old, does the same. It keeps her body healthy, and her blood running smoothly, she insists.
“But why Red Star?” I asked.
“Red Star is the best quality for the lowest price. And the company has tradition behind it. It’s a symbol of Beijing. When people think of erguotou they think of Red Star.”
At the Red Star factory, Zhang Yumin confirmed Liu’s tale. “Every year,” the company representative recollected, “the government gave minor workers tickets for one bottle of Red Star wine and one kilogram of meat. In fact, it was the last price-controlled baijiu in China. Our prices were kept low so the common people could enjoy our brand.”
It’s strong. It’s difficult. But it’s just as good. The Olympic committee chose Red Star erguotou, Zhang reminded me, as one of only two official alcoholic drinks. And, of course, bootlegs abound.
“You can tell a fake erguotou,” he hinted, “by the color and smell. A fake will be cloudy and reek when left to sit in open air. To tell a true bottle, remember the famous saying.” The famous saying?
“Overnight, it retains its fragrance.”
Gé Yè Liú Xiāng
On my way home, the sun has already set below the gray Beijing sky. Stopping for a bamboo tray of baozi, steamed buns, at a food stand, I watch a group of eight off-duty security guards as they crack open a green, one-liter bottle. Its contents: Red Star, again. Of course. Baijiu is popular all across China, but in Beijing, erguotou is king. And Red Star? Well, let’s just call it emperor.
- One bottle of erguotou please.
- That stinks. This bottle is fake.