Baijiu basics: sauce aroma

Moutai Factory

Fermentation pits and distillation at the Kweichow Moutai factory.

They call it sauce-aroma, jiangxiang 酱香, as in soy sauce-aroma. The dreaded saucy sauce is a leveler of foreign palates. I’ve made no secret on this blog that sauce-aroma is my least favorite baijiu category, and recent taste tests conducted in Chengdu and Shanghai indicate that I’m not alone in this sentiment. It’s not that it can’t be good, but that it so rarely is. And when it’s bad, it’s really bad, “Pirates of the Caribbean 3” bad. But enough preamble…

The notable standout in the sauce-aroma category is Kweichow Moutai 贵州茅台, particularly its signature Feitian 飞天 (Flying Fairy) brand. Other popular sauce-aromas include Lang Jiu 郎酒, Maotai Town 茅台镇 and Xi Jiu 习酒. This is a fast-growing category though, and a lot of traditionally strong-aroma producers are expanding their product ranges to include some sauce-aromas. The reason for this is obvious: sauce-aroma and strong-aroma are cousins. Both hail from the same region, southwest China, and share a number of common production techniques.

Preparation of ingredients: It will come as a relief to most to know that sauce-aroma contains no soybeans or soy sauce. In fact, this is the most basic of all categories in terms of ingredients. It uses sorghum and only sorghum, which is steamed and cooled.

Preparation of qu: Like strong-aroma, sauce baijiu uses bricks of wheat “big qu.”

Saccharification and fermentation: Also like strong-aroma, sauce aroma ferments all of its grains in subterranean fermentation pits, or jiaochi 酵池, the idea being that the microorganisms within the qu will coat the walls of the pit, which will in time develop more complex tastes in the mash. The key difference between strong-aroma and sauce-aroma is that whereas strong uses mud pits, sauce uses pits lined with stone bricks.

The grains are mixed with qu, buried in the pit, and then covered with a layer of mud and left to ferment for about a month.

Distillation: The mud casing is removed and the mash is removed from the pit a layer at a time before being distilled in a solid state. This is, however, just the beginning of the process. After distillation, the mash is removed from the still and mixed with equal parts of fresh sorghum and more qu. The distillate is sprinkled on top of the mixture and returned to the pit to ferment a second time. The process is repeated for as many as seven or eight fermentation/distillation cycles, making the whole process last about nine months to a year. This sorghum-heavy, labor-intensive process is another key to sauce-aromas distinctive acidic taste, and partially explains why the category tends to be pricier than the others.[1]

Aging: The baijiu is moved to earthenware jars and aged for at least three years, and sometimes twenty or thirty. It is diluted with water after aging, typically to around 53% ABV.

This concludes my series on the production methods of the four major categories, if you have any further questions, please feel free to drop me a line in the contact section.


Related posts

Recommended sauce-aromas

Making baijiu made simple

Baijiu basics: strong-aroma

[1] Clearly it doesn’t explain why Moutai’s price was as high as it was last year. For more on that, see this story.

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2 Responses to Baijiu basics: sauce aroma

  1. Kev says:

    so when the qu is mixed with the grains in the 酵池, is there usually any added moisture, or only what the grains contain themselves?

    • Derek says:

      Good question, Kev. Although more warm water is added to the mash after the initial steaming in the case of strong-aroma baijiu, sauce-aroma baijiu enters the pit with a lower moisture level of about 45%, all of which comes from the initial steaming. After the grains are initially steamed, they are cooled down so as not to kill the microorganisms in the qu, then they are shoveled into piles to begin fermentation. Once the heat of the pile begins to rise, the mash goes into the pit for the first time. The process is similar for all future fermentations.

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