Apologies for the absence last week, I was travelling sans VPN and the Chinese government hates wordpress almost as much as they love baijiu. It was not an entire loss, though, because during this moment of introspection it dawned on me that I’d never properly told you exactly how it is that people go about producing baijiu. I’ve written about its origins, the different flavor categories, whether it’s toxic and even whether it can cause humans to spontaneously combust. But how it’s made? Nothing. I plan to start exploring the differences between the various baijiu flavor profiles in the weeks ahead, so now seems as good a time as any to correct this gross oversight.
Baijiu is made in five steps: preparation of ingredients, preparation of qu, saccharification, fermentation, distillation and aging. The specific ingredients and techniques employed vary from one baijiu to the next, but at its most basic, this is how it’s done.
Preparation of ingredients
Not much to this step. You take your ingredients, typically sorghum or rice, but sometimes other grains, beans or vegetables, and you wash them. Sometimes the ingredients are steamed, sometimes they’re mashed. Most outrageously, I’ve heard of a baijiu company who has beautiful barefoot young women trample ingredients underfoot, although I can’t see how the women would affect the final product, except sentimentally.
Preparation of qu
Qu 曲 (pronounced like “choo” in choo choo train) or jiu qu 酒曲, is the defining feature of Chinese alcohols and, to my mind at least, ranks up there with the compass on the list of great Chinese inventions. Qu is essentially mashed grains, sometimes containing Chinese medicinal herbs, mixed with water and formed into bricks or balls that are stored in a warm, damp environment for about a month. At the end of the month the qu is filled with yeasts, fungi and all types of microorganisms. Why would anyone want that? Because it is really important when you want to start…
To make alcohol you need sugar, but freshly harvested grains don’t contain all that much. That’s where saccharification, the process of converting starches to sugar, comes into play. In making Western grain alcohol, this is typically accomplished by malting – mixing the grains with water until they germinate and then drying them with hot air. The Chinese saccharify their grains by adding powdered qu and water, and letting the microorganisms do all the heavy lifting. With most global alcoholic beverages, saccharification is a separate step in the production process, but qu gives you the ability to merge this step with…
Fermentation is the process by which yeast feeds upon the sugars and converts them into alcohol and carbon dioxide, though today we’re only concerned with the former. This is the step in the production process that really separates one type of baijiu from another. The grains in some baijius are fermented in giant subterranean mud pits, some ferment it in ceramic jars and some ferment it in jars buried underground. Sometimes fermentation is done in several cycles, with a bit of fresh grain and qu being added each time. There are good reasons for these variations, but we’ll get to that in later posts. For simplicity’s sake, it suffices to say that at the end of this step you usually end up with a mushy soup of alcoholic grains, or a mash.
By this step, you already have all you need for an alcoholic beverage. You could stop here, strain out the alcohol and you would have a wine. Indeed this is more or less how all ancient Chinese wines were produced. But you wouldn’t have read this far if you were interested in the weak stuff. You want some hooch. To accomplish this you need distillation.
A still is a device that extracts essences, or spirits, from liquid mixtures. Alcohol has a lower boiling temperature than water, so when the still brings the mash to a boil the alcohol vaporizes first. The alcohol vapors are collected in a tube and siphoned into a separate chamber where they are cooled back into a liquid with a much higher percentage of alcohol: a distilled spirit.
Some baijiu is made using the same modern stills you could find elsewhere, but most is distilled using traditional Chinese stills that resemble giant dumpling steamers in appearance and function. This latter contraption is necessary when making baijiu in which the mash doesn’t have enough liquid to boil and must, as a consequence, be distilled with steam.
The liquid that issues forth from the still is a proper baijiu, fit for human consumption, but this is not the end of the line for most Chinese spirits. Many manufacturers will mix the baijiu with fresh grain, and repeat the fermentation and distillation process one or more times. Most will store their baijiu in earthenware urns in an underground cellar, cave or dark room for at least a year or two. The flavor matures and balances while a small amount of the water will evaporate in the jug during the aging process – the “angel’s share” as it is commonly known.
Taking their cue from expensive Western wines, whiskies and cognacs, several baijiu makers now offer 10, 15, 30+ year aged spirits. What remains unclear is how much of the aged spirit is contained within each bottle, a serious question given the newness of the products and the likelihood that the market trends that prompted their inception could have been foreseen as far back as they claim. Also uncertain is the overall value of a baijiu that has been aged over the long-term.
Aged whiskeys and wines interact with the wood of the casks in which they’re stored, changing the complexity of the flavors over time, but does the pottery in which baijiu is stored confer the same benefits? Possibly, but I have yet to see any evidence demonstrating this. People have also been known to pay top-yuan for older baijiu bottles at auction, but again the value is unclear. If the baijiu has been aged inside of an airtight glass bottle in a controlled environment, there should be little to no change in flavor over time. In my view the standard interval of a couple years should be sufficient to produce a tasty white spirit.
Once the baijiu is aged the desired amount, it can be immediately bottled or diluted to taste. When the baijiu first comes out of the still it is typically over 70% alcohol by volume, a percentage that ever so slightly increases through water evaporation while aging. Most popular baijius are sold in the 48-56% ABV range, the only difference being the amount of water added before bottling.
At first glance, making baijiu isn’t all that complicated. For the vast majority of its long history, baijiu has been a cottage industry, produced in small shops by home-brewers well into the twentieth century. But before you get carried away, start fermenting sorghum in your bathtub and drink yourself into an early grave, there are some finer points to discuss. Specifically, how these steps are tweaked into making wildly different baijius. But those are posts for another day. Stay tuned.