- What is Baijiu?
- Choosing and preparing baijiu ingredients
- Adding Qu
- Baijiu saccharification and fermentation of the ingredients
- Distilling the baijiu
- The waiting game
For so popular a drink, very little is known about the production process of baijiu. How is this celebrated Chinese liquor created, and how long does it take?
The process of creating baijiu can be broken down into several pivotal steps. Once this is complete, the drink is ready to be bottled and enjoyed throughout the Chinese nation – and beyond!
Let’s take a look at each step of the baijiu creation process, from idea to consumption.
The first thing that you need to understand is that baijiu is not just a single beverage. It’s a family of drinks (the word baijiu translates into the English language as ‘white alcohol’), with a variety of different brands, flavors and scents.
Ordering a baijiu in China is like entering a western bar and asking for a glass of wine. You’re going to need to get a little more specific to enjoy everything that baijiu has to offer. There are a number of different options open to you.
The core differences in different brands of baijiu stem from the production process, and the ingredients used to make the beverage. Naturally, selecting and gathering these ingredients is the first – and arguably most pivotal – step in creating baijiu.
No food or drink can be created without the core ingredients being in place. In the case of baijiu, that’s typically rice, sorghum (a cereal crop), and possibly a handful of other vegetables, grains and even beans.
What happens to these ingredients is entirely up to the individual. Some people like to mash them up to make their baijiu. Others like to steam them. If you’re of a traditional persuasion, you could ask a young lady to trample upon the ingredients barefoot, as some Chinese manufacturers choose to do.
Qu is a distinct Chinese invention. It starts life as a variety of mashed up grains, occasionally complemented by popular herbs. The qu is then mixed up with spring water, and takes the shape of a solid ball (aka xiaoqu) or a brick (daqu). The qu is then stored away.
The environment needs to be warm and damp for the qu to thrive, and it will remain in place for around a month. Once this time is up, it’s mixed with fungi, yeast and any number of friendly bacteria.
This may not sound like an appealing selection of ingredients, but these microorganisms are essential. Without them, the next step of baijiu creation would be borderline impossible.
In its purest form, baijiu would not be particularly appealing to the palate. After all, mashed and dried grains don’t have much of a taste. This is why, like all alcohols, baijiu needs saccharine and fermentation.
Qu and clear water react with the grains used in baijiu to create a sweeter taste. Thanks to the presence of qu, saccharification and fermentation take place at the same time.
All alcohols need to be fermented. In the case of baijiu, fermentation is essentially the process of yeast working its magic on the sugars found in the microorganisms in the qu. Over time, this means that the core ingredients will turn to alcohol. Thus, baijiu is born.
How and where these ingredients are left to ferment is what defines different brands, flavors and aromas of baijiu. There is no one-size-fits-all policy. Sometimes, the drink is left to ferment in a mud pit under the ground. Other manufacturers will use a ceramic jar or pot. It’s even possible to simply apply everything to a glass bottle, which is kept in a cool, dry place.
How long the fermentation takes also varies from baijiu to baijiu. Some manufacturers leave their concoction alone and only retrieve it when they consider it ready for bottling. Others will pluck the ingredients from the storage location sporadically, adding more grains and fresh qu. It’s entirely a matter of personal preference.
Whatever approach is taken, the end result will be the same. You’ll be greeted by a thick, gloopy mash of grains. This is now ready for the final step of baijiu creation.
Before baijiu can be bottled and consumed, it needs to be distilled. You could just strain out the alcohol and use that as a beverage, but that wouldn’t be baijiu. It’s essentially just wine. Baijiu, once distilled, is much stronger and more distinct!
To distill your baijiu mash, you’ll need a device called a still. This will pluck the spirits from the existing ingredients, boiling at a much lower temperature than water so as to maximize the alcohol content.
Chinese distilleries rarely use the modern apparatus that you’d find in a whiskey distillery for their baijiu, though. Instead, they use large old-fashioned steamers that apply a delicate level of heat and turn the alcohol to vapor.
Once the steam heat has vaporized the alcohol, it’s collected and placed in a different vessel. From here, it cools back down and once again becomes liquid. This is distilled alcohol, hence why the process is known as distillation. As it’s essentially pure alcohol, it’s also why baijiu tastes so strong!
Once the baijiu has successfully distilled, in theory it’s ready to be bottled and sold to paying customers. In some cases, it is. Low cost baijiu, fresh from the production line, is available all over China and remains very popular.
Like all spirits, however, baijiu becomes increasingly desirable once it has had time to mature. The older a baijiu, the costlier it tends to be. The logic behind this is actually yet to be proven, though. It seems to amount to tradition.
Unlike popular western spirits and wines, baijiu is not stored in oak casks that impact upon the flavors. Baijiu is usually kept in clear, airtight containers, meaning the elements should have no influence over time. All the same, if purchasing baijiu as a gift, aim for something at least a few years old. This will make a positive impression upon the recipient.
Alternatively, why not make your own? Small, independent brewers and multinational distillers alike can produce baijiu for sale and consumption. Baijiu is on the brink of making a splash on the western world. You could get at the cutting edge of the next trend if you start now.