We hired locals to show us what they did for fun - which largely revolved around cock-fighting and any other form of gambling they could find and moonshine. They even bred fighting fish for gambling.
I sipped (small amounts of) moonshine and watched Cambodian soldiers play poker and boules.* The soldiers left their machine guns in a pile whilst they gambled. They would not let me photograph them because they were on duty. (They had machine guns - so I went along with that request.)
The moonshine was bad. Really bad. Kill-people sort-of-bad. Drinking it in quantity would be like having your brain smashed around a gold brick and then twirled with some slightly rotten pineapple chunks. It told me that the real game in alcohol in developing countries is to get people off the (literally) poisonous once-distilled moonshine and get them onto double or triple distilled stuff that comes in bottles. The biggest selling liquor label in the world used to be Johnny Walker Red Label. Now it’s Bagpiper - a genuine Indian whiskey. Bagpiper is one of the few liquors I would argue saves lives. The alternative is moonshine and with regular and sometimes very large death-tolls.
In China they didn’t take to whiskey like the Indians. Instead they drink Baijiu. The alcohol is usually sold as a wholesale ingredient - and blended under lots of brand names. The commercially made (and multiple distilled) grain alcohols will be displacing moonshine for years to come. There is good quality growth there.
Which brings me to China New Borun (BORN). BORN is a controversial stock floated on the US exchange earlier this year. It had reputable brokers backing the IPO. [The prospectus is part of my holiday reading!]
The prospectus tells us that edible alcohol is sold by grade (A, B, C) with A grade being more refined and hence tasting better. This company produces B and C grade with increasing focus on the B grade. Absolut Vodka it is not - but whatever - it is likely far better than the vat of rice and rotten pineapple by the Tonle Sap I tried. Here is what the company says about its production.
We currently own and operate two facilities: one in Shouguang, Shandong Province and the other in Daqing, Heilongjiang Province. Our Shouguang facility has an annual production capacity of 160,000 tons of corn−based edible alcohol (90,000 tons of Grade B edible alcohol and 70,000 tons of Grade C edible alcohol). Our Daqing facility currently has an annual production capacity of 100,000 tons of corn−based edible alcohol (70,000 tons of Grade B edible alcohol and 30,000 tons Grade C edible alcohol). We are constructing an additional 120,000 tons of capacity (all Grade B edible alcohol) at our Daqing facility, currently expected to commence commercial production in December 2010. According to the Frost & Sullivan Report, we are the largest privately−owned corn−based edible alcohol producer operating in Shandong Province and Heilongjiang Province. Our Daqing facility is licensed to build up to 330,000 tons of production capacity of edible alcohol. Based on data from the Frost & Sullivan Report and our knowledge of our industry, we believe we will be the largest producer of corn−based edible alcohol in China, in terms of current known production capacity, following complete development of the Daqing facility.
In China the numbers can bamboozle you - but I am not used to talking about 380 thousand tons of edible alcohol. That will supply an awful lot of drunks. I was trying to work out just how many - but the text of the prospectus does not make clear whether they are talking about metric tonnes or US short tons** as would be measured in America. (The spelling is different - so I would normally go with the spelling - except that China would measure this in metric and some diagrams later in the prospectus are specifically labelled as “metric tons”.)
And here is the diagram that was labelled “metric tons”. It purports to show edible alcohol consumption in China. They mean grain based stuff sold into the Baijiu market.
Lets take the 2012 estimate. 7.3 million tonnes of alcohol per annum. That is 7.3 billion kilograms of alcohol per annum. That is of course on top of the moonshine, wines, beers and imported spirits that the Chinese drink. (The growth in this chart must be moonshine replacement.) This is a lot of alcohol even for 1.3 billion people. It is more alcohol than the Chinese drink according to WHO statistics. Indeed it suggests that the Chinese are as drunk as the Russians (something that casual observation of culture makes you think is unlikely).
There is just over a quarter of a kilogram of alcohol in a (standard 700ml) bottle of Absolut Vodka. So this represents say 29 billion bottles of vodka. One company - China New Borun - is - according to its prospectus - responsible for about 1.2 billion of these bottles.
By contrast, the biggest selling liquor labels in the world (Bagpiper, Johnny Walker Red) sell about 20 million bottles (ahem: cases) each. China New Borun claims to be an absolute global behemoth in the business of getting people smashed. (Even with the bottles-cases correction China New Borun is a global behemoth in getting people stewed.)
Of course all the consumption in this note - and China New Borun's capacity - represent 2012 estimates. Maybe - like everything else in the world - the Chinese are building excess capacity in getting people pissed, legless, bladdered, trashed and otherwise off-the-wagon.
Lesson of all this: there are either a lot of drunks in China or the statistics are wrong. Maybe there are a lot of drunks in China and the statistics are wrong. Maybe the statistics are compiled by the drunks. Maybe the excess alcohol capacity is supplied by drunks. Whatever - when it comes to statistics and China you need to take them with a good stiff glass of Baijiu. If the statistics are in a prospectus trying to sell you stock - take two glasses of Baijiu. If that does not work - resort to moonshine.
*The French left baguettes, boules and train-tracks. The train-tracks have since been converted to bamboo railways.