Before getting too carried away with the drinking, it’s best that I discuss some baijiu basics and, by extension, alcohol basics. I am neither a scientist nor an alcohol industry expert. I assume the same holds true for most readers, so I’m going to keep this as simple as possible. If I make any mistakes, please feel free to chime in and, if you’re bored, come back in a day or two to read of my harrowing run-in with Luzhou Laojiao and (probably) fake Maotai.
Alcohol is brought to us courtesy of our remarkable little friend yeast. You probably already know that yeast helps create bread, which in turn plays a key role in heavy drinking by helping to lay down a solid base. But yeast also creates the drinks, too, eating sugar and shitting alcohol – the process we call fermentation.
With fruit wines, the sugar is right there for the yeastie’s taking, but when fermenting a grain base you must first convert the starches into sugars. With Western liquor and beer this is done either by adding enzymes to ground grains or through the process called malting, which involves mixing the mashed grain with water to break it down and then heating it up. (I tend to leave such miracles in the hands of the beer gods, but if you’d like to know more there’s a pretty good explanation of both processes here.)
Chinese grain alcohol is distinct from its Western counterpart in that both the conversion of starches to sugars and sugars to alcohol happen in the same step, thanks to something called qu 曲. There’s not really a good English translation for qu. I’ve heard others use “leavening agent,” “distillers grain” and “starter,” and while the last is the most accurate, qu is the shortest, so let’s stick with the Chinese. Most baijiu manufacturers have their own qu recipes and there are several varieties, however in this post I’m going to focus on the two major categories: big qu and small qu.
Big qu baijius are probably what most of you have tasted. They are commonly sorghum based, have complex flavors and are very costly at the high-end. Almost all of the most well known (and most expensive) baijius, particularly in southwestern China, are big qu baijius and include Maotai, Wuliangye, Shuijingfang and Jiannanchun among others. The key ingredient in big qu is usually wheat, and sometimes other cereals and vegetables, which is mixed with water, ground into a paste and pressed into bricks of about 6-7lbs (3-3.5kg). The bricks are taken to a closed room and stored at high temperatures for one to two months, during which time various yeasts and other molds form on the bricks (gross, right?). Finally the bricks are dried out and ground into powder for alcohol fermentation.
Small qu baijius are less well known, but are popular in southeastern China. Small qu is used to make rice-based (supposedly less-fragrant) baijius as well as huangjiu (“yellow wine”, the Chinese equivalent of Japanese sake). Better known small qu baijiu brands include Guilin Sanhua and Yibingshao. Small qu is made with a cooked rice base, and sometimes contains soybeans and herbs. The rice mixture is rolled into small balls and set aside to collect valuable molds for fermentation.
The distinction between big qu and small qu is an important one, and may even help you to impress your Chinese friends and our local baijiu vendors. Good luck and happy (or at least painless) drinking.