The Art of Crafting Baijiu in Traditiona

Estimated read time 16 min read

  A few old craftsmen, a handful of traditional cellars, and a workshop. This is the most authentic and original form of many Baijiu distilleries.

One ancient cellar, with a hundred years of ups and downs in the history of Baijiu.

Among China’s tentative list of world cultural heritage sites issued by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage in 2010, there were five ancient sites associated with Baijiu production: the Luzhou Daqu traditional cellar complex, Shuijing Street distillery ruins, Jiannanchun Tianyi distillery ruins, Liuleng Drunken Pot distillery ruins, and Lidu distillery ruins.

Besides the excavation of numerous Baijiu-making tools and utensils, the discovery of ancient traditional cellars that have been used for centuries has also attracted significant attention.

For instance, Luzhou, the birthplace of strong aroma Baijiu, has long been known for its “old cellars.”

For over 400 years since the Ming Dynasty, the ancient liquor-making workshops known as “Shuju Yuan,” “Wen Yongsheng,” “Tian Chengsheng,” “Chun He Rong,” “Da Xing He,” among others, have established Luzhous reputation in the history of baijiu-making. Currently, Luzhou Laojiao has over 10,086 traditional cellar pools, of which 1,619 have continuously produced baijiu for over a hundred years. These cellars bear witness to the continuation of ancient liquor-making techniques as well as the continuous innovation of the modern baijiu industry.

However, a common trend is that the ancient cellars in the company are often smaller in size compared to the newly-built ones after the industrialization and the expansion of production scale. On the one hand, this is a product of mechanized operations in industrial mass production and an inevitable result of the industrialization of the industry; on the other hand, it also demonstrates a connection and inheritance relationship between the large and small cellars.

Does this signify that small cellars are the origin of large ones? In fact, small cellars are a product of traditional manual labor, while large cellars symbolize modern industrialization.

Talking about those old cellars

The old cellar pools are often indicative of a companys developmental history, and behind each old cellar pool lies a profound historical story.

The older the cellar pool is, the longer the aging period it has, and the more compatible the ecosystem of the cellar pool becomes. Brewing liquor is a process of microbial fermentation, during which the cellar pool will produce a variety of microorganisms and aromatic substances, which gradually permeate deeper into the cellar pool. With a longer aging period, more favorable microorganisms will accumulate in the cellar mud, and more microorganisms and aromatic substances will be produced, resulting in a stronger liquor fragrance and becoming a rich natural source of aroma, achieving the purpose of “using the cellar to promote the mash.”

The cultural relic authenticity and value of the century-old cellar pools of Luzhou Laojiao are evident. Since their construction, the “Four Unchanged” features of their original appearance, location, operational processes, and techniques have been maintained. The century-old cellar pool group of Luzhou Laojiao is the only cellar pool group in China that continues to produce white liquor, with a scale of over a thousand, and its World Cultural Heritage attributes make it one of the “world wine-making wonders” and “the most representative of Chinese white liquor” in the world.

The name “large-scale original liquor cellar pool group” is well-deserved for its scale and cultural significance. The Jian Nan Chun Tianyi Lao Hao Distillery Site in Mianzhu City, Sichuan Province, is a well-preserved and distinctive brewing workshop group from the Qing Dynasty, with a large scale and complete layout and facilities. The site covers an area of approximately 120,000 square meters and is composed of multiple Qing Dynasty workshops arranged in a “front shop and back workshop” pattern on both sides of Chapan Street and Qipan Street.

Among the excavated relics, there are not only production facilities that reflect the entire process of liquor making, such as wells, liquor cellars, stoves, drying rooms, water ditches, liquor pits, pools, granaries (for making koji and drying grains), but also building foundations and a large number of porcelain liquor utensils. The large and small cellar pools in the same site are used for the storage of Daqu and Xiaoqu respectively.

It has been discovered that different cellar pools produce different varieties of liquor. The discovery of the Yuan Dynasty liquor cellar at Li Du Distillery Site confirms the record in “Compendium of Materia Medica” that “liquor distillation was not created by an ancient method, but by a method originating from the Yuan Dynasty.” It also proves that China had already developed solid-state fermentation to produce distilled liquor as early as the Yuan Dynasty. The brewing relics from the Ming and Qing dynasties found at this site show that the production process of their liquor belongs to the Xiaoqu process, making this distillery site the oldest known site to use the Xiaoqu process for making liquor in China.

The most well-known among these old distilleries is the Shuijing Distillery Site, which is a Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasty old distillery site. In August 1998, during the transformation of the koji and liquor production workshop at the Sichuan Quanxing Distillery, the site was discovered. In 1999, multiple archaeological and research units excavated this site and found that different cellar pools were used to produce different liquors.

Archaeological excavations in the site revealed the presence of eight liquor cellars from different periods of time, four stoves, four ash pits, a drying room, an ash gutter, a road base, wooden poles and bases, and wall foundations, among other relics. Ceramic artifacts that were unearthed include bowls, plates, basins, pots, cups, saucers, spoons, oil lamps, jars, pots, barrels, bricks, tiles, well rings, and more.

Ancient cellar mud and koji mold from the Water Cellar Distillery Site, which originated from the end of the Yuan Dynasty and the beginning of the Ming Dynasty and has continued to be used until the present day, have become important production resources and a brand foundation for the development of Water Cellar Distillerys series of products through their protective development and utilization.

These sites that represent the history of distilling have very few “living artifacts,” and their exceptionally rare and precious ancient cellar pools are among them. Today, many of these ancient cellar pools are still in use.

Even after centuries, these cellar pools continue to be in use and seem to be telling the story of the hard work and wisdom of the distillers from a hundred years ago, filled with a simple and robust traditional flavor.

From Small to Large Cellars

Many white spirit enterprises possess cellar pools over a hundred years old, whether its Maotai, Wuliangye, Luzhou Laojiao, Jiannanchun, regional enterprises like Jingzhi, Niulanshan, Xuanjun, Lanling, or others, each have their unique and long history of cellar pools.

Today, these ancient cellar pools are revered and cherished, and have become an important cultural and heritage asset for white spirit enterprises.

The “National Heritage” level ancient cellar pools are still being used today and have become the foundation for producing high-quality white spirits. In many enterprises, the old and the new cellar pools are often located in the same workshop.

In one scene, workers in the workshop on the right are busy mixing ingredients, filling vats, and putting them into the cellar, occasionally producing loud mechanical noises. While on the left, the ancient cellar groups are quiet, and the sunlight pouring onto the roof of each cellar pool makes the entire distillery exude a mysterious atmosphere.

Upon close observation, an interesting phenomenon emerges: compared to newly built cellar pools, ancient cellar pools are generally smaller in size and closer in proximity to each other, which is obviously related to the distilling methods of the past when large-scale production was not yet developed.

Pure manual labor used to be the norm in the production of white spirits, but with the arrival of the industrial era, more and more newly built cellar pools began to gradually increase in size.

It is a fact that with the boom of the liquor industry during the “ten-year golden period,” more white spirit enterprises have started the vigorous “mass production” movement. A series of ecological industrial parks, liquor industry concentration zones, and large-scale distilling workshops have been established for production. It is also during this time that the “big workshop” model of large-scale industrialization started to prevail in the industry and become a trend. With the introduction of large-scale mechanical tools in distilling workshops, the cellar pools in the workshop also began to develop towards two dimensions: scale and largeness.

Compared to “small cellars” that were once common, the scale and size of the workshop cellar pools have enhanced significantly, in response to the trend of industrialization. The popularity of this trend has depended on the fact that the application of large-scale machinery in distilling workshops has improved production efficiency and reduced production costs, making it more competitive.

As for the “big cellars,” they are larger volume cellar pools that represent the evolution of an era and a massive transformation from manual labor to industrial production methods.

The “Shu Juyuan” distillery was established during the Ming Wanli era in 1573 AD. It was the first officially listed distillery that produced fermented high-quality liquor in Luzhou. Not only did it inherit the traditional method of producing fermented high-quality liquor, but it also established the “Luzhou Fermented High-Quality Liquor Ancient Cellar Pool Group,” which later became known as the “1573 National Treasure Cellar Pool Group.” Originally, eight ancient cellar pools were built, which coexisted with four other pools during the early Qing Dynasty. Today, Luzhou Laojiao Co., Ltd. is a large state-owned enterprise group that developed from the basis of 36 ancient distilleries of high-quality fermented liquor in Ming and Qing dynasties.

These ancient cellar pools are a testimony to the historical development of the liquor industry in China. They represent the inheritance and innovation of traditional craftsmanship, and it is an art form that has been passed down generation after generation. As the trend of industrialization swept through the liquor industry, the traditional manual labor method of producing liquor gradually gave way to a more modern and efficient approach.

During the transition from small to large cellar pools and from old to new methods, most companies have maintained traditional techniques while promoting the traditional “fermentation of solid grain in mud pools” through innovative and modern technologies. However, companies such as Jiannanchun and Luzhou Laojiao that continue to use ancient cellar pools from the Ming and Qing dynasties to produce “rare and precious liquor” are mostly used as seasoning wine for high-end blends.

Among numerous companies, the brewing method of Dongjiu liquor is unique. In the two fermentation devices used by Dongjiu, the larger one used to make “fragrant mud” is referred to as the big cellar, with a volume ranging from 17 to 23 cubic meters. In todays brewing process, only Dongjiu uses “small mud pool fermentation for liquor mash and large cellar pool fermentation for fragrance mud.” Therefore, using small grains and small cellar pools to produce liquor mash and large grains and large cellar pools to produce fragrance mud is a traditional and distinctive technique of Dongjiu liquor production.

Another characteristic of Dongjiu liquor production is the use of large grains and large cellar pools to produce fragrance mud and the “double fermentation and steaming” process.

From old to new, from small to large, from traditional to innovative, from inheritance to improvement, the changes in the size of the cellar pools and the scale of the distillery workshop indicate the rapid development of the industry while witnessing the process of the industrys differentiation.

Inheritance of Traditional Small Cellar Techniques

From a dialectical perspective, if we solely consider the size of cellar pools, small pools may seem inferior to large ones. However, the traditional technique of small cellar pools is still being inherited and perfected by many liquor enterprises.

Representing the handcrafted traditional flavor, it is an affirmation of the brewing skills that have been passed down orally for centuries.

With the rapid development of the market economy and the industrialization of the liquor industry, large cellar pools, which are more popular than small ones, are being adopted by more and more liquor enterprises. As a result of mechanization, the labor cost of enterprises has been greatly reduced. Thus, small cellar pools are seen as more traditional, while large ones are regarded as more modern.

From a technical perspective, what are the differences and characteristics of small cellar pools compared to large ones?

Shen Jueming, a technical expert from the China National Research Institute of Food and Fermentation Industries, said that small cellar pools are more suitable for retaining the unique flavor and aroma of baijiu because of the limited space, temperature and humidity regulation is more precise, and the grains are fermented more evenly. On the other hand, the use of large cellar pools allows for more efficient production, higher yield, and lower costs.

According to the second section of the fourth chapter of the second part of The Complete Book of Baijiu Production Technology, edited by Yi Fang, the characteristics of the Laowu Zeng fermentation process are that the cellar pool is small, the volume of the lees is not much, and the contact area between the lees and the cellar mud is large, which is conducive to the cultivation of the lees and the improvement of the quality of the liquor.

In the third section of the first chapter of the third part of the New Baijiu Brewing Technology Compendium, edited by Wang Xun, the fermentation cellar and mud are described as follows: The fermentation mud pool is generally excavated from the ground, rectangular in shape, and the volume should not be too large. For mud cellars that are entirely hand-operated, rectangular cellars with a relatively small volume should be used under the premise of meeting the process requirements. For a certain amount of feed, more small pools are better than fewer large pools as they increase the contact area between the lees and the cellar mud and are more beneficial for fermentation.

In Qin Hanzhangs book, Technique and Experimental Study of Chinese Baijiu Production, the size and shape of mud cellars should be determined based on the production process and the technical requirements, but as a general principle, a rectangular shape with a smaller volume is preferred as it allows for a better contact area between the grains and mud. In addition, Qin also emphasizes the importance of the proper maintenance of the mud cellar, including regular cleaning and mud replacement.

As mentioned on page 258 of Technique and Experimental Study of Chinese Baijiu Production, a rectangular-shaped small cellar has been proven to be advantageous for the esterification and aging of the cellar mud, as well as the cultivation of the lees. It also facilitates operations and prevents contamination from foreign bacteria, helps to maintain the alcohol and aroma components, and avoids issues such as the lees overheating and the top layer of lees being difficult to preserve moisture. Therefore, it is conducive to improving the quality of the liquor.

The small cellar mentioned by the experts above mostly refers to the cellar used for the Laowu Zeng process in the strong aroma type liquor, which has five vats of grains. According to Qin Hanzhangs book, in Chapter – Contemporary Intermittent Distillation Equipment, the capacity of each vat is about 2m3, and five vats add up to 10 cubic meters. Considering the presence of the cellar cap during production, the volume of a small cellar is generally around nine cubic meters.

It is reported that to conduct small cellar research, Shen Yifang has visited some small cellars many times to observe their operations and collect data.

Representative enterprises in the baijiu-making industry, such as Anhui Xuanjiu and Shandong Taishan Liquor Industry, were visited and studied on-site.

Anhui Xuanjiu is a rising brand of Anhui baijiu in recent years. It is precisely because Xuanjiu has been persisting in the traditional small cellar brewing process for a long time and retaining its own product characteristics that it can emerge in the fiercely competitive Anhui baijiu market. Shen Yifang has a special fondness for small cellar brewing and has visited and guided Xuanjius small cellar brewing base on several occasions. “Your cellar pools are a unique type of small cellar pools in the Jiangnan region, and they are the largest small cellar group I have ever seen in the Jiangnan region. Xuanjius Jiangnan small cellar group is typical and the most complete and vivid record of the Jiangnan brewing history that has been inherited and protected,” said Shen Yifang.

Shandong Taishan Liquor Industry Group is also a baijiu-maker that specializes in small cellar brewing. They have a small cellar complex with exquisite layout, ancient construction style and advanced brewing technology that highlights their unique product features. They always adhere to the principle of brewing quality liquor with traditional techniques and modern methods, providing consumers with high-quality liquor that enjoys a good reputation both at home and abroad.

Renowned enterprises, famous for their baijiu, have a high reputation for their “small cellar fine liquor”. They believe that the biggest advantage of the small cellar is its small size, which allows the wine mash to fully interact with the cellar mud, ensuring full fermentation and producing more flavor substances. In addition, the small cellar brewing process requires strict and traditional handcrafting techniques, resulting in higher production costs.

It can be said that the small cellar is the most widely used and longest-standing cellar pit in the history of Chinese liquor-making. Though it has a small capacity and ensures full fermentation, it relies on manual operation and high-cost traditional brewing techniques. Therefore, in the process of modernizing the baijiu industry, the vast majority of enterprises have gradually abandoned small cellar pits and adopted industrial large cellar pits to meet the growing market demand.

However, in the opinion of famous baijiu expert Shen Yifang, small cellar brewing can still produce unique and high-quality baijiu. He has visited and studied many small cellar brewing bases of baijiu-makers and affirmed their exquisite brewing techniques. He believes that although small cellar brewing requires more manual work and higher production costs, it is worth promoting and inheriting for preserving the traditional brewing craftsmanship and producing great baijiu.

It seems that small cellar brewing has a promising future. Shen Yifang said, “The small size of the cellar pit allows for a larger contact area between the cellar soil and the fermenting wine mash. With a larger contact area, it can produce more aromatic components and bring them into our baijiu.”

In the face of the choice between scale benefits and traditional inheritance, there are still enterprises such as Xuanjiu, Taishan, Yangshao, and Dong Liquor that adhere to the inheritance of small cellar techniques, persist in promoting small cellar culture, and maintain confidence in the small cellar market.

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