- Preparing the Qu
- Saccharification and Fermentation
- Distilling the Baijiu
- Aging the Baijiu
- Blending the Baijiu
The production of baijiu may be big business in China, but it’s far from a soulless corporate enterprise. Each distillery and territory treasure the heritage of their recipes, and for years they were passed down through the generations.
This is not to say that the production of baijiu has not been significantly modernised to keep pace with the modern world. Wood, bamboo and wheelbarrows are out, replaced by cranes, steel and scientific apparatus. Baijiu itself however, and method of its production, has largely remained unchanged since the 14th Century.
How Is Baijiu Made? Preparing the Qu
On paper, Qu does not seem very appealing as an ingredient. It’s essentially a stack of grain that has been left to spoil, and attract mould and bacteria. The truth is, however, these microorganisms are essential to the creation of baijiu, converting the grain into alcohol during fermentation.
Big Qu is usually made from sorghum, though barley, peas and the husks or grain can also be effective.
Big Qu is created by soaking the ingredients in warm water and grinding them down to powder. More water is then added, and the mixture is moulded into bricks – either using machinery, or bare feet, depending on how traditional the distillery is. The latter method may sound unsanitary, but it actually ensures that the Qu does not lose any essential bacteria.
The bricks are then left in the sun to dry, before moved into a cool, dry incubation chamber. Straw is stacked on all sides to trap moisture, and more water is occasionally added. The bricks are regularly flipped, and remain in the chamber for several months, and eventually pulverised when ready to be mixed with the remaining ingredients of the baijiu.
Small Qu is constructed from rice. This may be long grain or glutinous, depending on the manufacturer’s taste preference. The rice is soaked in water and then shaped into small, round balls. These balls are then left to cultivate for around a week, before being ground into fine powder.
As small Qu creates a more delicate tasting baijiu, further herbs are sometimes added according to the preference of the distillery. Alcohol has long been considered to contain medicinal properties in China, so these could include animal by-products.
Centuries ago, several hundred different additions to a small Qu based baijiu were common. Today, however, there are considerably fewer herbs applied. The largest rice producer in China, Guilin Sanhua, only uses one herb in their recipe for small Qu.
How Is Baijiu Made? Saccharification and Fermentation
These are two pivotal steps in the creation of any baijiu, regardless of the core ingredients used. During saccharifaction, any starch found in the ingredients is broken down and converted to sugar. This is followed by fermentation, during which the solid grains take the sugar and convert it to alcohol.
How Is Baijiu Made? Distilling the Baijiu
Distillation is arguably the most important phase of making baijiu, or indeed any spirit. It involves turning the alcohol created during fermentation into steam, and then cooling it down again into the liquid that will eventually be bottled, sold and consumed. This may take a number of cycles, depending on the preference of the producer.
This needs to be done gradually, as alcohol has a lower boiling point than water. The steam is captured in a device known as a distillate, where it cools and becomes liquid again. Once this process is complete, anything unsuitable for consumption is removed and the liquid is poured into a pot still. These are then placed into storage for ageing.
How Is Baijiu Made? Aging the Baijiu
When baijiu completes the distillation process, it’s theoretically ready to drink. Manufacturers of premium baijiu, however feel the baijiu must be allowed to age before it’s bottled and sold.
This will make the spirit a little less harsh on the throat, and allows more flavour to slowly make its way into the drink. If the liquid was bottled and sold immediately, it would likely act as an irritant.
The bare minimum that most baijiu is left to age is typically six months. Like most spirits and wines, however, the older a baijiu, the more prestigious it is considered to be. It’s quite common for a baijiu to be aged for five years. Some of the baijiu also evaporates during the ageing process. This is known as the, “angel’s share.” Even celestial beings are getting on board with the baijiu revolution, it seems.
Where baijiu differs from such western favourites, however, is just where it is left to age. Baijiu distilleries use clay pots to let the baijiu breathe, and interact with oxygen. This improves the flavour of the spirit, and prevents anything undesirable from making its way into the concoction.
Baijiu must also be aged in a humid environment. Moisture in the air can have a hugely detrimental impact on the carefully prepared recipe, diluting the potency. If the environment is too dry, however, the baijiu will become almost pure, flavourless alcohol that even the hardiest soul will struggle to enjoy.
As a result, many producers choose to age their baijiu in underground cellars or caves located in cliff ranges.
How Is Baijiu Made? Blending the Baijiu
The final phase of preparing baijiu is blending. This is what separates a high quality, costlier baijiu from a budget option on the shelves of a convenience store.
When baijiu is produced, the quality will vary from batch to batch. This is unavoidable – some mixes will be fermented more than others, be stored in different locations, and may contain different levels of grain. Even a change in weather and temperature could have a substantial impact on the finished product. This could lead to different bottles of baijiu from the same manufacturer tasting differently.
This is anathema to baijiu distilleries, who place a great deal of emphasis on consistency. It’s very important to a baijiu manufacturer that, should you choose a bottle of their brand from the shelf, you will know exactly what to expect. With this in mind, distilleries will spend a great deal of time blending the finest elements of every distillation. This will create a consistent flavour throughout the entire batch.
Finally, a little more purified water is added to the baijiu to complete the blending process. The thinking behind this is simple – it’s diluting the spirit a little more, to make it palatable to consumers. The typical alcohol proof of baijiu varies wildly from 36% to as high as 65%. Again, it all depends on the manufacturer in question.
When the process is complete, the complete baijiu is stored in a stainless steel container. This is a preference to the oak barrels that many western wines and spirits are held within. Once the baijiu has coalesced appropriately, it is bottled, shipped and sold to grateful customers. Who knows, that may include you in the near future!
A whole lot of work goes into creating the perfect baijiu. Consistency and quality control is hugely important to the industry, and to Chinese culture on the whole. Baijiu is so pivotal to the nation that a disappointing distillery would not stay in business for long!
Thankfully, there is no such thing. These ancient but celebrated techniques for creating baijiu remain as impactful today as they always have been. Buy a bottle of baijiu for yourself, and you will see what we mean.