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January 1, 2011

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High-spirited farmer's heady brew

WINTER is time for rustic, homemade rice wine that can be drunk, eaten as a semi-sweet snack and used to flavor various dishes. Tan Weiyun visits the aromatic brewery of a high-spirited old farmer.

Venturing into farmer Li Jinxin's two-story brick house, visitors can get a bit tipsy, pleasantly so, since this is where he makes his locally famous winter treat jiu niang, a heady rice wine soup.

Li is famous for his jiu niang, a traditional wintertime snack or pick-me-up in Shanghai. It's used to flavor other dishes and is quite good when the alcohol is diluted and cooked with small dumplings. It's a popular dessert in many Chinese celebrations.

"My customers always recognize my red cap and know it means quality jiu niang," says Li, a 68-year-old veteran of the rustic rice wine business in remote Chezhan Village of Pudong's Datuan Town.

He and his 65-year-old wife Huang Wenlian can make and sell as many as 16,000 kilograms in a winter. The soupy brew is sold vats carried in tricycles to various markets.

Many villagers know how to make the rice wine soup in winter and it's sold from tubs on the street.

Farmer Li is a star, the go-to man for jiu niang, and he smiles broadly and chats happily at length about his brewing. He learned the skill growing up in Chezhan Village, which he has never left.

"My jiu niang is so popular that it's often in short supply," he says with pride. This winter he and his wife have made more than 1,500 kilograms - the peak will come during the Chinese Lunar New Year, the Spring Festival. This year the Chinese New Year's Day falls on February 3.

His worn and faded red cap is a beacon for buyers in the town; some people come from around Shanghai because they know of farmer Li's brew.

"They might not be able to remember my face, but they know the red hat. People can easily find me just by asking where the red hat is," says the weatherbeaten brewer. "It's sort of like my brand of jiu niang."

He is extremely busy these days making jiu niang as winter sets in. Li and his wife get up at 2am every morning to check the fermenting rice, then load about 46 kilograms into two big vats, put the vats on two tricycles and peddle slowly to markets.

Husband and wife each take a market, one in the south and one in the north of the village. When the vats are empty, they return home.

"Two vats every day, no more no less," says Li.

While there are many brewers, Li has invented his own method and unlike most other makers, he doesn't use glutinous rice, only fresh, plain, polished white rice.

Li began making jiu niang around 45 years ago when he was a young men.

"I love eating this sweet rice and started to try making it myself," he recalls.

His home brewery is filled with the fragrance or fumes of rice wine fermented in 24 big vats.

Winter is usually the best season to brew, since the low temperatures make for longer shelf life; in summer the potion goes sour faster.

"And people love to eat something sweet and moist in the cold weather," the farmer says. "It has to be fresh rice harvested this year, not the rice that's been in stock for more than a year."

The new rice is translucent and shiny.

First he soaks the rice in water in bamboo containers that he has woven. Soaking makes the rice moister and more glutinous when cooked. Then he places the rice - separated by many layers of gauze - in a giant bucket and steams them on top of his clay oven for around 45 minutes.

Most people don't separate the rice in layers, they put it all in a bucket but then the rice gets squashed and doesn't keep well after cooking, Li says.

Then he rinses the rice in water, cooling it to around 36 degrees Celsius. He doesn't need a thermometer, he can feel the right temperature with his hands.

After straining out the water, the cool rice is placed in giant vats. Then Li sprays yeast (fermented rice powder from supermarkets) in the rice, and stirs it so the yeast is well-distributed.

He digs a deep hole in the center of the rice, a reservoir for the rice juice released in the fermentation process. He seals the vats with lids.

"Then comes my secret weapon," Li says, pointing to bundles of straw and a quilt for each vat. He wraps the vats in quilts to keep the temperature at around 36 degrees Celsius, though it can rise to around 40 degrees during fermentation.

"When that's all done, we leave the rest to time," Li says. In winter each vat takes around 36 hours to ferment to the right level; if the weather is especially cold, it takes longer. But brewing is an art; too much fermentation can make the rice go sour and spoil.

"When the time is up and you open the lid, a strong sweet aroma with a slight alcoholic smell rushes out of the vat - it's so enjoyable," says the smiling brewer.

There it is at last. The crystal-white fermented rice, lustrous and slightly fragrant.

Farmer Li recommends that in addition to eating it straight, cooking jiu niang with dumplings, sweet omelette and steamed pork.


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