Chinese brewers say, “Water is an alcohol’s blood, qu is its bones, and grains are its flesh.” It sounds better in Mandarin, but you get the idea: Ingredients are everything.
Choose an Ingredient
Water is used in every step of the baijiu production process. Water steams the grain and breaks down its cellular structure. Liquid residue aids in kicking off fermentation. In the still steam passes through the fermented grains and becomes a spirit. When that spirit has finished aging, water is again added to dilute the spirit to optimal strength.
Behind every great distillery is a good a source of water. Literally. In China’s foremost production region—Southwest China—the water is neutral and contains decent levels of magnesium and calcium. The minerality of the water makes for a more acidic, and thus more productive, mash.
Qu—pronounced “chew”—may rightly claim its place among the great Chinese inventions. First produced before 2,000 BC, qu is the foundation of all traditional East Asian alcoholic beverages.
It is nothing more complex than a clump of grain mashed with water. The grains decompose in a carefully controlled environment over a period of a few weeks, during which time yeasts, bacteria and molds form within and without the qu. During the cultivation phase, the temperature of the qu rises to as high as 140°F (60°C). Mixing qu directly with steamed grains kicks off simultaneous saccharification (conversion of starches to sugars) and fermentation (conversion of sugars to ethanol), creating a beverage known as huangjiu (hwang-j’yo, “yellow wine”) or, in distilled form, baijiu.
There is an endless variety of qu, but the two most common in baijiu production are biq qu and small qu. Big qu is typically made from wheat stamped into large bricks, but can also be made from barley and peas. Small qu is made from rice rolled into balls or cakes, sometimes mixed with medicinal herbs and spices.
Each qu is an ecosystem unto itself. No two of them are alike. The specific mixture of microorganisms that qu harvests from the air depends on geography and climate, so qu lends to Chinese winemaking something similar akin to the Western winemaking notion of terroir: Even a slight difference in scenery can produce surprisingly unique results. Distillers are keenly aware of this, so qu recipes are among the most closely guarded trade secrets in the baijiu industry.
Baijiu can be made with any grain fermented and distilled using traditional methods, but most baijiu is made from sorghum. Sorghum is a tough, drought-resistant member of the grass family that grows in stalks. Its deep red kernels are rich in starch and calcium, and when fermented have a fruity sweetness.
Other commonly used grains include rice, glutinous rice, wheat and corn. In some regions Job’s tear grains and millet are also employed. Grain husks are also used as filler and insulation throughout the production process.