The production of baijiu is very important to Chinese nationals. Distilleries are located all over the country, in a number of different provinces. Every distillery produces their own, distinct form of baijiu. In many cases, the recipes for a particular baijiu are passed down from generation to generation.
While tradition is important to the manufacture of baijiu, the industry has embraced modern technology. The distilleries of the past would use organic materials such as wood and bamboo, transporting ingredients in wheelbarrows. In the 21st Century, however, cranes and scientific apparatus have been embraced.
What has not changed in the manufacture of baijiu, however, is the order of events. There are six key stages to the process of creating baijiu. The ingredients may vary, depending on what baijiu is being produced (See Also: Types of Baijiu). The process, however, remains unchanged between distilleries.
The Moutai University, located in the town of Renhuai in the Guizhou province, even runs a course in how to prepare baijiu. This is particularly important to the Moutai brand, which remains the most prestigious brand of baijiu in China. This is a direct reaction to the number of skilled baijiu manufacturers among the younger generation dropping.
Regardless of which brand of baijiu is prepared, the same seven steps of the process are followed. These break down as follows.
Preparing the Ingredients of the Baijiu
See Also: Ingredients of Baijiu.
Baijiu is impossible to create without the appropriate ingredients. These are typically grains, such as sorghum, or rice.
Which ingredients are used depends on the aroma that the finished baijiu will take. Strong Aroma baijiu will utilise heavier, sturdier grains, as will Light Aroma. Rice Aroma baijiu, as the name suggests, is made with rice as opposed to grain.
Once the ingredients have been sourced and prepared, they are loaded into a large still. This still is then placed over a cauldron of boiling water, and the ingredients are cooked via steaming.
This process is essential before anything else can be undertaken. The steaming process serves two purposes. Firstly, it cleans the ingredients. The grains used in baijiu are often sourced directly from the ground, which means they need to be cleaned up. In addition, steaming breaks down these ingredients. This means that the grains and rice will interact with jiaqu, which is the next step of the baijiu production process.
Preparing the Qu
Big Qu is made from grain. This is most often sorghum. Barley, peas and the husks of grain are also used. It depends on which province the qu is being prepared in, and which grains are available.
Once the ingredients are selected, they are soaked in warm water to soften them up. These grains are then ground into a fine powder. This is usually performed with state-of-the-art machinery. However, some more traditional distilleries complete this process by hand.
Once the grains are powdered, more water is added until the mixture becomes a fine paste. This paste is then moulded into the shape of bricks. These bricks of qu are left to naturally dry in the sun. Once this process is complete, they are moved to a cool and dry location. This may be a cellar, or it could be underground. Again, this depends on what facilities are available to a distillery.
The qu bricks are stacked, and hay and straw is packed around them. This is designed to trap any moisture within the qu. The bricks will then be left for a prolonged period of time. Some distilleries inspect the qu on occasion, and add more water if the bricks are in danger of drying out. The bricks may also be flipped on occasion.
This process lasts for several months. While the qu is incubating, natural and healthy bacteria will grow upon it. This is a deliberate process, as it gives the qu a unique flavour. Upon completion of the process, the bricks of qu will be crushed and ground down to powder.
Small Qu is constructed from rice, as opposed to grain. This is why baijiu that is made using small qu has a lighter taste. This rice may be long grain or glutinous, depending on the manufacturer’s taste preference. Sticky rice is typically more floral on the palate.
Before being converted to qu, the rice is soaked in water to soften it up. The rice is then shaped into small, round balls as opposed to bricks. Rice is simply not large and substantial enough to be made into bricks. This is why this process is called small qu.
As small qu creates a more delicate-tasting baijiu, further herbs are sometimes added according to the preference of the distillery. Alcohol has long been considered to contain medicinal properties in China, so these could include animal by-products or medical herbs. Some distilleries also choose to add essence of fruit or flowers.
These rice balls are left to cultivate for around one week, before being ground into fine powder. This means that small qu makes for a considerably faster production process than big qu.
Qu is so important because none of the natural ingredients of baijiu contain sugar. Sugar is pivotal to the production of alcohol in the west, as yeast feeds upon it.
With baijiu, the saccharification process is achieved by adding powdered qu to the core ingredients of the biajiu, along with water. Most distilleries prefer to use a natural water source for this process, such as stream or river. If the distillery is located in a landlocked province, a well will be sourced.
The ingredients, qu and water will then be left to mix. This process enables more microorganisms and bacteria merge with the recipe. This is how the starch found in the grains or rice turns to sugar. This, in a nutshell, is saccharification. Once this process is complete, fermentation of the baijiu can begin.
Fermentation is arguably the phase of baijiu production that varies most between different distilleries. The ingredients, qu and water of the baijiu are placed in a ceramic pot, and left to ferment.
What differs is where these ceramic pots are placed. Some, strictly traditional distilleries like to bury their mixture underground. Other distilleries have built their own cellars in order to store the mixture.
Some distilleries leave their mixture to ferment naturally, and do not touch it for months. Others like to check in periodically, and add more grain and qu. This is entirely at the discretion of the manufacturer. As a result, however, no two brands of baijiu taste identical due to these differing production practices.
Ultimately, however, the result is the same. When the fermentation of the baijiu is complete, the ingredients make a thick, mushy soup. If the liquid of this mixture was strained, an alcoholic beverage would be ready to be bottled and sold. This would not be baijiu, however. It would be more like ancient Chinese wine. The ingredients and taste would be similar, but it would lack the famous strength and high alcohol content of baijiu. That requires the process of distillation.
When the baijiu recipe is ready to be distilled, it is poured into a still. Hence, the name of the process. In many respects, distillation is very similar to the first stage of baijiu production. The ingredients are boiled and steamed. The reasoning is very different, however.
The purpose of distillation is to capture the alcohol which has fermented within the mixture of grain or rice, qu and water. These ingredients are heated through steam, and the vapours that arise and captured and bottled by a device called a distallate. This is a delicate procedure, as alcohol has a much lower boiling point that pure water. If left too long, the alcohol will dissolve and the process must begin all over again.
Once these vapours are captured, they are cooled off and left to turn to liquid. Some of this liquid evaporates. This is known as the Angel’s Share of the baijiu. This liquid is baijiu in its purest form. It will be even stronger than traditional baijiu, however, and must be diluted with water. Anything that is left over from the process is distilled again, until all the ingredients have been used. Baijiu distilleries, much Chinese society on the whole, abhor waste and avoid it wherever possible.
Baijiu is left to age before it is released for sale. Much like western spirits, how long this process takes depends upon the prestige of the baijiu. A cheaper, lower-end baijiu will not be left to age for long. Six months is the minimum period that a baijiu can be left to age. Anything less than this would be too harsh for the human throat to accept, and would irritate the oesophagus.
A more reputable brand, however, may be left to age for as long as five years. The longer a baijiu is left to age, the more flavour the finished beverage will have. This is why aged baijiu, especially brands that have been left for several years, are considered highly valuable collectors items.
While a baijiu is left to age, it is typically left in clay pots. These pots are often located in underground cellars, or within caverns found in cliff ranges. This allows the liquid to breathe, and interact with oxygen.
The environment that houses the clay pots must be humid. If moisture makes its way into the recipe, the final spirit can be diluted to excess. The opposite is also true, though. If the baijiu is left to age in an arid, dry environment it will lac oxygen. This will make a flavourless liquid that tastes of pure alcohol.
Many distilleries will also blend their baijiu. They will also undergo rigorous tasting processes to ensure consistency. This is very important to the manufacturers of baijiu. The brand label on a bottle is seen as a source of pride and a seal of quality. Distilleries wish to ensure that no two customers have a different experience from the same brand of baijiu.
Once the distillery is happy with the finished product, the baijiu is bottled and prepared for sale. Baijiu bottles are often works of art in themselves, as presentation of the spirit is taken very seriously. Every brand has their own, unique identity based upon the bottles and boxes that their products are sold within.