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Suanmeitang, Cool and Refreshing, Like a Summer Breeze

2008/07/01 13:00:00 US/Central
text by Rocky Li

Pleasantly sweet and delightfully different from run-of-the-mill soft drinks suanmeitang (sweet-sour plum juice) is a treasured traditional beverage in China. During a hot summer day, drinking some cold suanmeitang provides refreshment quite unlike other treats found at drink stands in the country.

In China, suanmeitang trails only tea as a summer beverage of choice, and the coming of modern times has done nothing to tarnish its image in the minds of those who revel in its sweet/sour taste. Yet, with the intense competition and thirst for new things in the youth-oriented beverage market, this old standard finds itself battling for shelf space with competing brands and new tastes.

Suanmeitang is considered very good for the people’s health. It is rich in organic acids, such as malic and citric acids, the latter of which can efficiently inhibit the growth of lactic acid in the body which leads to human fatigue. Drinking suanmeitang is an effective counter to fatigue and is quite refreshing in a real way.

Suanmeitang is made mainly from smoked plums, hawthorn, sweet-scented osmanthus flowers, liquorice and brown sugar. Although suanmeitang is sour, it is alkaline drink. It can balance acidity that results from eating too much acidic food such as meat. While soothing the temper, suanmeitang can also aid digestion.

In Beijing, suanmeitang is called the “special treasure of the Imperial Palace of the Qing Dynasty.” While suanmeitang has a history of more than 1,000 years, it was improved on suggestion of Emperor Qianlong (1711–99) of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) after a trip to Jiangsu Province. So suanmeitang is also called “emperor-made suanmeitang.” For its good taste and health functions, the officials and imperial family of the Qing were fond of this beverage. The method for making suanmeitang was leaked by chance, and before long, it became everybody's favourite.

From that point on, suanmeitang’s fame was cemented, and it only grew after a man from Hebei got a recipe for the drink from a relative and created the suanmeitang brand Xinyuanzhai. For 260 years, since 1740, Xinyuanzhai Suanmeitang was a brand and taste that lingers on the people’s lips, soothing their palates.

Early in 1910, the sweet-scented osmanthus flower suanmeitang and sweet-scented osmanthus flower suanmeijing (solid suanmeitang product) made by Xinyuanzhai won a silver medal in the South Asian Fair, and in 1919, the two products of Xinyuanzhai won gold medals in the Panama International Fair.

Over the centuries, Xinyuanzhai won solid fame within society. In 1986, the Beijing Xinyuanzhai Beverage Company Limited was established, becoming a Zhonghua Laozihao (China Time Honoured Brand). It opened a new age for the industrialized production of suanmeitang. Some modern equipment was introduced to the product line. Bacteria-free production and vacuum packaging added to the safety of the product.

But, despite the transformation from traditional manual production to industrialized production, Xinyuanzhai never lost or relaxed its standards for ingredients and products. According to the traditional recipe, smoked plums are the major ingredient of suanmeitang. Xinyuanzhai still closely follows this scheme.

Every year, suppliers ship smoked plums from the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and Sichuan Province to Xinyuanzhai in Beijing as they have since 1986. In antiquity, plums came from Jiangsu Province. For the collection of sweet-scented osmanthus flowers, Xinyuanzhai has special requirements. The sweet-scented osmanthus flowers are mainly gathered from around Taihu Lake area in Jiangsu Province and in Guilin in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

The requirements of Xinyuanzhai for collecting osmanthus flowers are special. The flowers should not come into contact with the air. While this may sound strange, and it is, it’s necessary because oxygen in the air results in oxidization of the flowers, ruining them. So when gathering their flowers workers keep a basin of water on hand to receive the fallen flowers. After their gathering, the flowers are placed in a mixture of sugar and acid to steep and dry. These procedures help retain the fresh and fragrant flavour of the flowers.

It is the same with other ingredients used to make suanmeitang: all are required to observe restrictions as to their origin and quality, such as with the hawthorn used. Only hawthorn grown in the northwestern mountains of Beijing and Hebei Province are used. There are even standards for the shapes of the hawthorn.

“Different materials will generate different tastes for our products, and the customers can tell the difference,” said Chang Jianqiu, president of the Beijing Xinyuanzhai Beverage Company Limited.

“We seldom change the origin of our materials. As our suppliers are also fixed, they know our requirements very clearly. We don’t even need to send our staff to participate in gathering these ingredients; the suppliers know what we need and what our standards are. This is very usual.”

Unusual? Yes, but it reflects the confidence of this Zhonghua Laozihao in its suppliers.

Chang, about 60, is said to be the only person who knows the prescriptions of Xinyuanzhai products, including the suanmeitang, suanmeijing and the company's antitussive pear cream. As for the skills for making other products of Xinyuanzhai, such as the preserved fruit, which are among other famous products of Xinyuanzhai, Chang said he is anxious, because demand is outstripping the company’s ability to meet it. It’s also becoming more difficult to find people who want to learn this business.

But at present, people should distinguish the trademark carefully when they buy the products of Xinyuanzhai in the market. The real products of Xinyuanzhai are not marked with the trademark of “Xinyuanzhai.” As this trademark was registered by another businessman, Xiao Hongxian, who asserts he is the real inheritor of the Xinyuanzhai brand. He doesn’t produce any beverage products, but he has the trademark. Beijing Xinyuanzhai Beverage Company Limited has the techniques and products, but they failed to register the Xinyuanzhai trademark. The parties are now working to resolve this problem.

However, if you find the producer name of Beijing Xinyuanzhai Beverage Company Limited, you can rest assured you have the right product.


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