In this post, I'm going to combine some material from different places. Previous posts have been:
- Baijiu Production in Relation to Other Spirits
- Regional Differences in Baijiu Style and Production
- Baijiu Production: Qu and Fermentation
- Baijiu Backgrounder: A Brief History Lesson
- Repetitive and Continuous Fermentation and Distillation in Baijiu
- A Visit to the Luzhou Laojiao Baijiu Distillery in China
There are at least 12 recognized categories of baijiu, distilled liquor from China: Strong aroma, light aroma, sauce aroma, and rice aroma. Strong aroma makes about 75% of the market, and these four categories in total make up about 90% of the baijiu market. Other categories are mostly combination of these four categories.
In this post, I'm going to outright steal content from the Ming River Baijiu website, and combine it with fermentation/distillation information that I wrote about in my previous post "Repetitive and Continuous Fermentation and Distillation in Baijiu."
If you haven't read previous posts, just know that qu is the combination of yeast, mold, and bacteria that breaks down grains and ferments them at the same time. It is used in all baijiu. You can read more about qu in this post if you'd like.
The first paragraph in each of the below descriptions comes from the Ming River website, and the rest of it comes from me.
Light Aroma Baijiu
Light-aroma baijiu is most popular in northern China. It is made from sorghum and sometimes uses qu made from barley and peas. It is fermented in stone pots or pits, and it is best known for short production cycles with minimal aging periods. It has a light body with floral notes and the mellow sweetness of dried fruit.
There are two types of light aroma baijiu. In the simplest, erguotou, the sorghum grains are steamed, fermented, and distilled just once. For fenjiu, new rice husks are added to the pot still along with fermented sorghum grains. After the first distillation the fermented/distilled grains and new rice husks are fermented again (fresh qu is added) to extract more alcohol from the mash. Each of the distillation runs are stored (and probably aged) separately.
Strong Aroma Baijiu
Strong-aroma baijiu is popular throughout China, but most closely associated with Sichuan Province. It uses wheat qu and continuous fermentation in earthen pits. It is distilled from sorghum, sometimes in combination with other grains. It is notable for a robust body with notes of tropical fruit, anise and pepper.
In strong aroma baijiu, there is no production cycle that ends at a certain point, as in the other baijiu categories - it is endless. At each distillation, new grains (sorghum alone or a mixture of other grains) is added to the still along with fermented grains. After distillation, the grains are taken out of the still, put back into the fermentation pits with more qu, and refermented. Then it's redistilled with some fresh grains, refermented, and on and on.
Sauce Aroma Baijiu
Sauce-aroma baijiu, as in soy sauce, comes from Guizhou Province and is made from sorghum fermented in pits lined with stone bricks. Its mash is fermented and distilled eight times in the course of a year. The flavor is rich and umami, with notes of mushroom, caramel and bitter herbs.
We're talking about Moutai here. For sauce aroma baijiu there are 8 cycles of fermentation and distillation, but only a few of the cycles get new grains added. Sorghum is first steamed, then fermented in mud-sealed pits for a month. After fermentation, equal parts fermented sorghum and new unfermented sorghum are distilled, and then the solids are refermented. This is then distilled a second time with fresh grains added to the still. From this point on the mash continues to be refermented after distillation with additional qu, but no new grains are added. The same mash is being fermented and distilled over and over.
The whole production cycle takes one year to complete- and then the spirit is aged (each distillation run separately) and blended. Compare that to say vodka, which ferments a couple days then can be distilled and bottled and the whole thing done within a week.
Rice Aroma Baijiu
Rice-aroma baijiu is associated with southeastern China, particularly Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. It is distilled from rice fermented with rice-based small qu. Unique to this category is the occasional use of continuous distillation. It has a light body similar to vodka, with notes of flowers and honey.
Rice is steamed, fermented, and distilled in either pot or now in continuous stills. This is closest to other spirits without the repeat fermentation described above.