Sunday, January 27, 2008
Today I took a tour of a factory that makes erguotou, a white spirit that has up to 65 per cent alcohol.
The brand is Niulanshan, literally "buffalo fence mountain", in Shunyi, north east of Beijing. The area is also home to Yanjing Brewery and Hyundai.
Erguotou literally means "second wok head", or second distillation.
The grain sorghum is coarsely ground before being boiled in giant vats for about 20 minutes. The first batch has over 70 per cent alcohol which is very dry and leaves a burning sensation in the throat.
That batch is dumped and then after five days the grain is boiled again and then left to ferment in grave-like pits in a room. For a light flavour, the grain is placed in pits lined with ceramic tiles; to create a stronger flavour, the sorghum is placed in mud-caked pits for a more earthy taste. This second batch is called erguotou.
After the second fermentation period is over, the grain is distilled and includes flavours from walnuts, longans, Chinese wolfberries, red dates, western ginseng and sugar.
The erguotou that has about 30 per cent alcohol is quite mild and relatively easy to drink, while the 65 per cent one is sharper in taste and burns the throat. A shot definitely warms the stomach.
We saw the workers shoveling the sorghum in bare antiquated conditions. The vats and vents looked like they should have retired decades ago. But our guide insisted it was important to retain the old fashioned way of doing things rather than using modern equipment. And it didn't seem it was too far from the traditional method, save for a bit of old machinery here and there.
Finally we got to see the bottling and packaging assembly line. The green glass bottles were filled, then women quickly topped them with metal caps which were then placed one by one in a machine that screwed them tightly. These bottles were then checked against a bright white light, labelled and then white protective sleeves slipped over them.
If a bottle didn't look quite right or the top wasn't screwed on properly, the bottle was opened and the contents poured into a small sink.
Mostly women, these employees were working hard on a Sunday, a few weeks before Spring Festival when liquor like this is in high demand.
Many people buy high quality spirits and cigarettes around this time and give them to high officials in an opportunity to curry favour with them in the near future.
And what do all these officials do with stacks of cigarettes and liquor they couldn't possibly finish on their own? They sell it of course. Some entrepreneurs go around to these officials' offices, buying up their giant horde of goods at cheap prices and then sell them in small stand-alone shops around the city. These are in turn sold as much as 50 per cent off in a regular store, but just as good quality.
No tour is complete without a trip to the store. The prices were about the same as a grocery store selling this fiery water. The small bottles are 3 RMB (US$0.46), while big bottles that have the erguotou aged for 15 years is 88 RMB (US$12.20).
Liquor is more of a drink for the older generation Chinese; the younger and wealthier ones prefer beer and Western wine. Despite the changing demographic, the demand for this strong drink is still high.... for now.