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Liquor production's steps to perfection

THE history of Chinese alcohol flows as long as the 5,000-year-old country's civilization. Baijiu, the liquor with a strong smell and taste, has drifted deep into the blood of Chinese men and been integrated into people's everyday life.

Many enjoy baijiu for its harsh and fiery kick, though it might not be everyone's preferred drink. Big baijiu brands such as Moutai and Wuliangye are probably the first names to pop up in people's minds, yet very few know that Shanghai has its own home-grown baijiu brewer, which enjoys equal respect with those big names in the alcohol industry. It is even nicknamed "Little Moutai."

The Shenxian baijiu brewing factory, hidden in the remote Situan Town in Shanghai's southwestern Fengxian District, is a place filled with fragrant earthy odor in the air all year round. It is the city's only baijiu brewer using the traditional production process.

"Feel woozy? It's the aroma of our Shenxian liquor. Take a deep breath and just enjoy it," says the factory's consultant Yan Zhidong with a smile.

Shenxian in Chinese literally means an immortal, who lives in the heaven, leisurely and carefree. "Liquor can also give people this walking-on-clouds experience, making people spiritually free from the real world's troubles for a while," Yan says.

The history of the town's Shenxian liquor dates back to Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). A farmer surnamed Cai opened a shop in the town center, brewing baijiu in an old-fashioned way with a simple steaming wok and using grains such as sorghum and wheat.

The ancient technique stretched across generations, as ideas were passed on and embellished. The drink earned its popularity in the town and even spread to the city. The factory was set up for the first time in 1958 to mass produce the liquor.

"From the first grain-sorting to the last packaging, we faithfully keep to the very old brewing skills," says Yan proudly. "That's the reason it has survived and has won the love of many baijiu lovers."

That's probably also the reason it can only meet the needs of the Shanghai market because old-fashioned brewing takes time.

The grains are all from the northeast China, and contain a high content of protein and make the liquor smell rich.

The workers also use jujubes, dried sweet potato, rice, barley, maize as well as some traditional Chinese herbs to make medicated liquor with health benefits.

Walking around the factory, one might notice that each wall of the fermentation workshops is as black as coal. "Don't take it the wrong way. They are not charring burns or dirt. It's all microorganisms or yeast, growing during the fermentation process," Yan says.

It's the mark left by years after years of liquor production. "It's a sound environment for brewing, good for yeast. If we clean them off, the climate in the workshops would be ruined and we won't get good liquor," he says.

There are three key processes to make baijiu - fermentation, distillation and condensation.

Red sorghum from Northeast China is cut into small pieces and then put into a large distilling container. After half an hour, the steamed sorghum begins to smell strongly.

The second process, fermentation, involves mixing the steamed sorghum to help it ferment, and then putting it in a bodega (cellar). It is covered with a large piece of nylon paper and mud to avoid air and light getting to it.

The bodegas are only the size of a bathtub and are ordered very well.

The mud has to be from the rotten river bed, added with chopped apples and other fruits.

"It's good for fostering yeast, and the rotten fruits can give the liquor a sweet fruity aroma," the consultant says.

The fermentation carries on for three months, six months and nine months. The longer the time, the better the liquor will be. "The taste is a mix of light sweet, strong, spicy and mellow," Yan says. "It's the taste of life."

During the fermentation, the workers step on the bodegas barefoot to dispel the air inside. The first week workers step every other day; then it changes to twice a week and once a week.

"Only experienced workers can do this, because the stepping strength varies according to the different weather conditions and seasons," Yan says.

After the fermentation, it is distilled one more time with red sorghum. There is a narrow pipe joining the distillation and condensation containers. So the gas, after distillation, travels through the pipes and is cooled into a liquid, which is baijiu.

"Baijiu that is just distilled reaches over 70 percent. We'll blend it with water," Yan says.

The last and most important step is the storage of baijiu. As is the case with many liquors, the longer baijiu is stored, the better it is.

The baijiu is stored in large, airtight vats, half of which are underground. After three to 10 years, the baijiu's taste and aroma has matured enough to be ready to drink.

Today Shenxian factory has created almost 100 types with different alcohol percentages and storage time from three years to 10 years.

One popular type is called Shanghai Old Bodega 1608. "Many people think it's the birth year of our wine. Actually, 1608 is the number of our bodegas for fermentation," Yan says.

Five years ago, the factory opened a baijiu museum near its workshops to better protect the traditional brewing skills.

The museum highlights some interesting facts about liquor, illustrates the culture and history of baijiu, along with some folk tales. Visitors are also able to try genuine baijiu at the exhibition.


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