Over the many millennia of its recorded history, the Chinese viewed seven groceries as “essential” items. Every household required firewood, rice, cooking oil, salt, soy sauce, tea and vinegar.
Vinegar’s inclusion in the list points to its importance to local cuisine – from dipping of dumplings to seasoning for sweet and sour pork.
But thanks to a recent shift in government policy, vinegar is making new inroads: as a beverage of choice, no less.
Go to a restaurant or karaoke lounge these days and the odds are the waitress will offer you a choice of beer, tea or fruit vinegar. The fruit vinegar option – most typically made from apples – comes in wine-like bottles.
Traditionally, Chinese have chosen fruit vinegar for its perceived health benefits. But this year sales have surged for another reason: the government’s crackdown on drunk driving.
As reported in WiC28, driving under the influence of alcohol used to be viewed as a minor misdemeanour. Traffic police hardly ever breathalysed anyone. But this summer Beijing ordered the cops to bring drunk drivers to book. Penalties were made more onerous too: in August a court in Henan jailed a drunk driver for six and half years after he ran over pedestrians. In random breath tests as many as four out of 10 drivers were found to be over the limit.
A media campaign, the increase in arrests and the stricter penalties all led motorists to think more about what they were about to drink. And the evidence is that many are supping non-alcoholic fruit vinegar rather than booze with their meal (or karaoke session) .
According to New Express Daily, the hospitality industry has reported a near 30% drop in sales of alcohol in some venues. Fruit vinegar sales are filling the gap.
One of the more popular brands is Tiandi No 1. Its chairman, Chen Sheng says that when the crackdown on drink driving began, his sales doubled.
China Investment Consulting recently published a report on the beverage’s prospects. It forecasts that fruit vinegar sales will hit Rmb2 billion next year, but will grow to Rmb5 billion ($730 million) by 2012. Currently, 70% of sales are generated by the five top brands, including Tiandi No 1.
However, the boom has a darker side. Fruit vinegar is cheap to make and has low barriers to entry. Keen to cash in on rising demand, around 20 new brands appeared in Guangdong within 60 days of the drink driving crackdown, says the New Express Daily. And the established brands worry that new entrants are cutting corners on the six month fermentation process and rely on industrial acetic acid instead.
Nanfang Daily reckons that these fast-track vinegars contain “excessive heavy metals and other hazardous substances”.
Who knows: perhaps consuming these beverages could even end up being a lot more dangerous than drink driving itself.
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