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Baijiu - The Traditional Chinese Spirit
First published in 2015 after a visit to China by GM Bosman
Baijiu (pronounced “Buy Jee-oh”) is the traditional distilled spirit in China.
Although almost unknown in Western culture, Baijiu is the world’s most sold spirit (by volume) and accounts for about a third of the world’s liquor consumed per year.
We have not found any Baijiu for sale in South Africa, so our Managing Director, Gert Bosman learned how to make Baijiu during a recent visit to China.
Baijiu is often confused with Shochu (the national Spirit of Japan) and sometimes also with Awamori (Distilled rice wine from Okinawa in Japan) but are actually quite different in styles, fermentation and distillation.
It seems that the South African Wine and Spirits board is “censoring Chinese” spirits quite effectively to exclude any competitive products from abroad. This off-course leaves a magnificent opportunity for home distillers to produce international spirits not available commercially.
There is however quite an informal trade in illicit Baijiu in South Africa.
Unfortunately this trade is limited within the Chinese communities themselves and to buy you own bottle is seemingly impossible.
Baijiu is a spirit unlike anything else, well deserving a place in any craft distiller’s collection of spirits.
It is a spirit used for many cultural purposes in China.
For example: When a daughter is born, the family produces around 20 to 100lt of Baijiu and store it in earthen clay pots that are buried in the ground. When the daughter gets married, this pot is unearthed, cleaned and the Baijiu served at the wedding.
The great Emperors of China were initially the only people who drank Baijiu to connect to the spiritual world (…and believe me, at 54%abv Baijiu connects you rather quickly).
The last few centuries however, Baijiu are consumed at every possible occasion.
During his recent business visit to China, Gert had to drink a lot of Baijiu as it was used to toast to the health, wealth and prosperity of every member in the meeting…and at one stage there were more than 14 people in a meeting!
To get your guest drunk on Baijiu is shown as a sign of good-will … to allow him/her to connect to the spiritual world!
By making and drinking Baijiu you participate in a tradition and culture more than 7000 years old.
No western based spirit can compete with Baijiu based on sales volume, traditions and cultural importance. It truly is a very, very special spirit to make and drink.
The making of Baijiu – An Overview
A Baijiu mash starts off as a grain fermentation but quite in a different manner than, for example, whisky or moonshine. Sorghum and glutinous “sticky” rice are the most used grain but wheat, maize and other grains (also barley but not malted barley) can also be used. All these grains can be fermented according to three different processes:
1. Steamed Grain - Solid-State Fermentation
The grain (whole grain, crushed grain or flour) is steamed with little water. Then jiuqu (a combination of yeasts, bacteria and fungi) is used as a “starter” to start the conversion of starch to sugars and the sugar to alcohol fermentation. The temperatures and temperature steps are controlled during fermentation but a little hotter than we are used to (typically between 26 and 34C). Fermentation will be done between 4 and 8 days.
2. Cooked Grain - Liquid Fermentation
The grain (whole grain or broken grain) is cooked (as for whisky) and then the jiuqu used to start the fermentation. A typical fermentation will be done within 4-8 days.
3. Raw (Uncooked) Grain –Mash Fermentation
Uncooked grain flour (finely milled or fine crushed grain) is allowed to soak for a few hours in hot water and the jiuqu added and allowed to ferment dry within 8-10 days.
Once the Baijiu mash is completely fermented, the Baijiu is normally double distilled and diluted to between 40 and 60% abv. (most often 52% abv). The double distillation can be achieved by a traditional double distillation in a copper pot or by using a plate column batch still with reflux control or a continuous still with sufficient height to cut the required fractions.
Where Whisky has fairly uniform aroma and flavour profiles (relatively), Baijiu has a very broad range of flavour and aroma profiles heavily influenced by the fermentation process. (The higher fermentation temperatures allow for many esters to form and contributes greatly to the end product).
The main styles of Baijiu can be categorised as follows:
1. Light flavoured Baijiu
A rather delicately flavoured version with mellow and refreshing mouthfeel. The distilled flavours are mostly the result of ethyl lactate (buttery, creamy, coconut milky) and ethyl acetate (sweet, fruity). The lightness is achieved by distilling Baijiu to higher purity levels and diluting it more. It can be described as a delicately flavoured vodka. (Personal Opinion: Highly enjoyable for the western palate prepared to accept some new flavours)
2. Rice Flavoured Baijiu
Distilled from steamed glutinous rice using Rhizopus oryzae fungi to perform mostly solid state fermentations. Careful selection of the Rhizopus species is important as some species produce fatal human conditions. The main aromas are slightly characteristic of ethyl acetate with a clean, refreshing mouthfeel. (Personal Opinion: highly enjoyable if you’re used to drinking Sake (Japanese Rice wine))
3. Heavy Flavoured Baijiu
Bold and intense character indicating many esters mainly from high levels of ethyl acetate and tasting sweet. Starch conversion is performed through Aspergillus oryzae fungi based starting cultures and fermentation by (our traditional) Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast. (Personal Opinion: Will take a long time to acquire the taste but still enjoyable if you have an “explorative” mindset when drinking it)
4. Sauce Flavoured Baijiu
This very bold and intense Baijiu is perhaps the most difficult of all Baijius to get used to (for the Western palate). It easily reminds us of a soy sauce mixed with volatile solvents! The very famous (in China) Moutai Baijiu is a good example of this category. (Personal Opinion: It will take a lot of drinking to acquire the taste – one drink was enough, thank you). This Style is used often in state related events.
5. Honey Flavoured Baijiu
This category immediately reminds us of very delicate honey flavours together with a sweetness derived from ethyl acetate. (Personal Opinion: Good for one or two shots but not more)
6. Multi-layered Flavoured Baijiu
This highly interesting spirit surprises on many levels. Firstly it is rather aromatic with the first notes and impressions that of entering a hay storage barn and blue cheese. This quickly turns to a very surprisingly minty taste and the after-taste again surprises. The aftertaste continuously changed from blue-cheese to the smell of a South African “bees kraal” (Cattle Run). It may sound strange, but it is a rather pleasant aroma and flavour…if you allow yourself to be open for new taste experiences. This is definitely our favourite Baijiu.
Making Baijiu – Some Detail
Fermentation for Baijiu starter:
NOTE: This method requires Jiuqu (a fermentation starter culture) consisting of bacterial, fungi and yeast cultures with natural enzymes and nutrients for active fermentations. (Distillique has imported some Jiuqu for those clients of ours that would like to give it a try)
The Jiuqu (pronounced “Jieoh-chew”) is used in one of three different types of fermentation to make “beer” for distilling to Baijiu
Solid state fermentation for steamed grain (the most traditional Chinese way):
(The solid state refers to the grain being fermented without it being in a mash – it is still solid although it might be milled or broken grain.
1. Boil water (2lt for every 1 kg grain)
2.Add whole grain to water and soak for 3-6 hours (water will naturally cool)
3. Remove grain from the water and then steam it for 30 minutes or until you can crush a grain by hand.
4. Take grain from steamer and let cool to 24 – 28°C.
5. Dissolve starter culture (6 gram per kg grain) into luke warm (32-35°C) water (10 ml of water per gram of starter culture)
6. Allow starter culture to rehydrate for 10 minutes and cool to between 28 and 30°C.
7. Get grain temperature to between 24 and 30°C
8. Distribute starter culture evenly over grain and mix well.
9. Control temperature of fermentation to between 28 and 36°C
10. Allow to ferment until dry (4 to 8 days)
Liquid fermentation for cooked grain:
1. Boil water (4lt of water per kg of grain)
2. Add grain to boiling water and cook for at least 45 minutes.
3. Cool to between 30 and 32°C
4. Add starter culture (6g per kg grain) to grain mash and stir well for 10 minutes
5. Ferment until dry (4-8 days)
Liquid fermentation for raw (uncooked) grain:
1. Mix milled (the finer the better) grain or grain flour with hot (40 - 50°C) water (2.5 to 3 lt water per kg grain)
2. Let naturally cool to 30 to 32°C
3. Add starter culture (8g per kg grain) to the grain and mix well
4. Maintain and control fermentation temperatures to between 28 and 36°C – ideal temperature is 32°C)
5. Stir fermentation twice per day for the first three days to prevent sediment settling.
6. Ferment dry (between 8 and 10 days) (flour will ferment faster and broken grain longer)
After the fermentation process, Baijiu is distilled according to the different styles. More aromatic styles are less distilled and more heads/tails included in the final product. Subtle flavoured Baijiu is double distilled with less heads and tails. In a plate column, the main reflux is controlled to achieve the required strength and heads and tails cut to remove the volatiles as well as the heavier flavour components. This is unique to each distillery and the specific Baijiu end product.
Baijiu is drunk not in a sipping manner but as a shot, quite often heated, mostly at room temperature but never cold. Incidentally the Chinese equivalent to our “cheers” when toasting, is Ganbei (pronounced “Gun-bei”), which literally means “to drain until empty”.
Baijiu – the world most sold spirit – and not yet a single drop made in South Africa – not yet!
If you would like to learn more about Baijiu distilling – consider doing our newly designed Baijiu course. Unfortunately this course is only available over two week evenings due to the intricacies of the process and the timing of the fermentation process. ... or buy your Jiuqu from us (while stock lasts) and do it yourself!