Hello from the UK, baijiu buddies. Away on holiday for the moment, so I will be updating infrequently for the rest of the month, but I wanted to post another category breakdown to hold you over.
Qing xiang 清香, light aroma, the pride of the north. Before the last thirty years this was the only type of baijiu widely available in all corners of the country, thanks in part to China’s most beloved and feared light-aroma, Beijing’s own erguotou 二锅头. Light-aroma is one of the easier baijius to make, a fact reflected in the size of the region that produces it, stretching from Heilongjiang in the northeast to way out to Shanxi in China’s northwest. So how’s it made?
Preparation of ingredients: Light aroma always uses a sorghum base. The sorghum is steamed, cooled and dried with fans.
Preparation of qu: Large bricks of wheat qu are the principle fermentation agent for light aromas. The higher quality Fenjiu brewed in Xinghuacun, Shanxi Province, likes to use peas in their qu (60% wheat, 40% peas).
Saccharification and fermentation: The sorghum and qu are mixed together and placed in an earthenware pot. Water is added and the jars are buried in shallow underground pits. The pits are covered with rice husks to regulate the temperature and the mash is left to ferment for 28 days.
Distillation: Fenjiu has an interesting technique for distillation. After the jars are dug out of the pit, rice bran is added to the mash and it distilled. Following the first distillation the mash is cooled and dried, more qu is added and it is fermented and distilled a second time. This addition of rice bran in the second step is what gives Fenjiu its distinctive bite.
Aging: Light aroma baijiu comes out the still a hair over 70% alcohol by volume and can be consumed directly out of the still without any alteration. I’ve tried it this way, but I wouldn’t recommend it to others. It can be diluted and aged to the specifications of the drinker, but the northerners tend to like their baijiu a bit stronger than elsewhere, and light aromas with alcohol levels in the 60% and over range are common.
In addition to the taste, which is inoffensive but not what I would consider particularly good, the popularity of this category stems mostly from the fact that it’s faster and easier to produce than the others and, as a consequence, quite inexpensive. Being a Chengdu-transplant I’ll admit a degree of bias toward southern baijiu and should add that if you were to take a national survey of favorite baijius, light aroma would be competing for many of the top spots. It’s certainly a good place for beginners to start, but do yourself a favor and hold off on the erguotou until you’ve developed a taste for the better stuff.