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China’s new booze university wants to change how Americans drink

A student smells baijiu samples at a baijiu tasting class in Sichuan University of Science and Engineering. (Luna Lin/For The Washington Post)

YIBIN, China — China’s mission to protect its economy now includes a college where the students study booze.

This $58 million school — built in nine months and so new that plastic still covers the surveillance cameras — is one outpost in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s national push to rethink the country’s growth recipe as trade frictions with the United States intensify.

Beijing aims to produce more goods at home and sell larger numbers abroad, ordering farmers to ramp up soybean production and chipmakers to purchase local copper while earmarking billions to advance domestic technology.

The state-funded Baijiu College in the misty Sichuan mountains teaches students how to craft its namesake grain spirit — or work on robots that could someday automate the brewing process. The goal is to turn China’s native liquor into the next whiskey or tequila or gin: a drink with global recognition.

Outsiders, though, can be stunned by baijiu’s customary burn. Journalist Dan Rather once dubbed it “liquid razor blades.’’

Students like Luo Meixin, however, believe in the spirit’s potential.

The 19-year-old chemistry ace with bottle-shaped earrings has forsaken hot peppers and gardenia-scented shampoo to preserve her sense of smell. One recent morning, she lifted a plastic tester cup of baijiu to her nose. Is this one appropriately fruity? Or too bland?

“The smell is so great,” she said, grinning.

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Luo and her roughly 2,400 classmates are learning how to distill, inspect and market baijiu in the humid Sichuan region, whose history is as tied to the spirit as Kentucky’s is to bourbon.

A day before Luo’s late September tasting class, the Chinese president met with farmworkers in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, preaching the merits of independence.

“Unilateralism and protectionism in the world are on the rise and force us to rely on ourselves,” Xi told them.

The deepening commercial battle with the United States has only accelerated China’s drive to reduce reliance on the American market, especially in technology. Expanding exports in all sectors — including baijiu — is viewed as essential to offset losses from a protracted trade dispute with the White House.

Xi’s message on the front page of state newspapers last month came after Washington and Beijing slapped each other with the largest round of tariffs yet, placing punitive duties on roughly half of their traded goods.

Luo, a native of sleepy Yibin, said she feels called to help her country.

She is one of the first 32 students in China training to become an “international baijiu sommelier” and wants to teach foreign drinkers about her favorite beverage, made from sorghum, rice and other grains.

“I hope all of the world can know it, smell it, drink it,” Luo said.

At Wuliangye, the region’s biggest government-backed brand — and major benefactor to the Baijiu College — more than 50,000 employees work to brew the spirit in factories that resemble giant barns.

Above them tower dozens of statues. There’s the 50-foot goddess of rice wine, promoting a bountiful harvest with a “W” for Wuliangye on her golden crown. A hulking shark with a fish in his jaws, reminding workers they must top the food chain. And a 100-foot bottle of baijiu — just because.

The trade war doesn’t scare Zheng Jia, deputy director of Wuliangye’s technology research center. The company, which posted $4.4 billion in sales last year, grows its grains on 165,000 acres of Sichuan land — no imported goods necessary. If tariffs raise the cost of American liquor in China, meanwhile . . .

“It could be a good opportunity for us,” he said. “I expect the sales will only increase.”

The brand is also forging partnerships abroad. Wuliangye recently teamed up with the Austrian crystal maker Swarovski to create wedding-themed baijiu bottles, including one shaped like a diamond ring. It is also concocting a variety that tastes like whiskey to entice Western palettes.

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The international focus follows a local shift.

After Xi launched his anti-
corruption campaign in 2012, China’s baijiu makers pivoted away from bottles that cost hundreds of dollars — a favorite among China’s business and political elite — and rebranded the beverage as a drink for the people.

The volume sold since then has swelled between 10 percent and 20 percent every year, said Luo Huibo, director of the Baijiu College. Such growth caused a labor shortage, he added, and the spirit can’t ascend internationally without a surge of fresh talent.

“We are trying to share our best with the world,” Luo said.

The school is developing an English dictionary of baijiu terms so Western drinkers can learn how to order different styles. Some taste like soy sauce or sesame, for instance, while others invoke “fiery pineapple.”

More forms of outreach include sending baijiu to England’s royal family — but not yet the White House — and conducting informal tastings at the Hard Rock Cafe in Los Angeles. (The bartender prominently displayed his free bottle of Wuliangye, according to one staffer’s iPhone photos.)

Most students at the Baijiu College study a foreign language — the most popular are English and Japanese. They describe their passion for drinking as a national duty.

In the bright white tasting lab, a couple of dozen silently smell and sip the spirit in five tester cups. Then they spit it into buckets to stay sober.

Lei Xingyue, a 19-year-old from a nearby city, said he has loved baijiu since boyhood. His family saw the drink as a tradition to cherish.

“When I was 7 years old,” he said, “my father told me, ‘You must learn how to drink it.’”

Lei wants to become a brewer because many of his province’s 200-plus factories are hiring. He can make good money, he said, in a socially responsible way.

“Our country needs more people to make better baijiu,” he said.

Baijiu jobs that require college degrees pay up to $30,000 a year, more than three times the average Chinese income, the school’s director said.

For Luo, who carries a baijiu-patterned purse to match her bottle earrings, the sense of purpose was more attractive. The drink doesn’t just lift your mood, she said: It could also be a force for peace.

“I think this, part of our culture, could be a way to connect with others,” she said. “Connect with Americans.”

Luna Lin contributed to this report.

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