Baijiu factory tour: How Chinese brew their national liquor
Baijiu is the Marlboro Red of liquors. A no-nonsense, straight-talking hardened drink for hardened drinkers, and one that may come as something of a shock for foreign visitors.
The transparent firewater is also China's national drink, an omnipresent liquor served liberally at banquets and ranked on the shelves of convenience stores right next to mineral water. And at RMB 3 (US$0.47) for a bottle, it's about the same price.
A guided tour through Beijing's Niulanshan (牛栏山) baijiu brewery, a vast, colorless prison-like complex on the city's northeastern fringes, presents foreign visitors with a new, unique way to understand the nation.
A way to understand China
A sprawling 200,000-square-meter site, Niulanshan is accessible only by a long meandering stretch of dusty road.
At the gates, large trucks carrying bottled baijiu and crates of empties rumble in and out at regular intervals, while small clusters of workers chain-smoke between shifts.
Its out-of-the-way location, coupled with a distinct lack of promotion, means the factory rarely features on tourist itineraries.
Journalist turned baijiu ambassador Feng Cheng (冯承) is hoping to change this.
In his 40s, Feng has been leading tours to Niulanshan since 2004, as part of his work as director of the China Culture Center, a non-governmental educational organization that aims at introducing traditional Chinese culture to an international audience.
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His privately arranged group tour currently takes around 100 curious foreigners around the factory complex each year, though Feng expects this number to rise.
"You can't hope to understand China, until you understand its national drink," explains Feng.
Enough baijiu to get Beijing drunk
Niulanshan brews erguotou (二锅头), a high-grade baijiu that's 50 percent alcohol on average. The name, translated as "second distillation," indicates its level of purity.
You can't hope to understand China, until you understand its national drink.
-- Feng Cheng, director at China Culture Center
The brand's ubiquitous high-proof little green bottles are a favorite among the city's legions of hardworking migrant workers -- an honor that has helped turn the baijiu brand into one of Beijing’s most iconic and instantly recognizable labels.
From the outside, the compound looks and smells indistinguishable from a particularly noxious chemical plant.
As tour guide, Feng Cheng (冯承) explains, "the smell of the factory can at times be overwhelming."
This turns out is something of an understatement. Strong, and unrelenting, the factory’s pungent odor stems from the vast quantities of baijiu produced on site.
Each year, 2,000 men and women in blue uniforms help churn out more than 15,000 tons of erguotou at Niulanshan -- enough, as Feng jokes, "to get the whole city drunk."
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Walking around the site, tour groups are privy to the rhythm and hum of the factory line, as row upon row of uniformed workers mechanically bottle and package a continuous conveyer belt of shop-ready products.
The effect is one of nostalgia, as if the factory were a window to pre-1980s China, where everyone still rode bicycles and wore matching clothes.
"It's certainly a lot more manual work than we're used to seeing in U.S. factories, where bottling is mostly done by machines," comments Lance Rodewald, a 59-year-old U.S. health worker.
The second distillation
Visitors at Niulanshan are witness to the basics of the second distillation process, with an emphasis placed on discerning differences in taste.
"Certain regions are famous for their distinctive take on baijiu," remarks China Culture Center assistant, 27-year-old Iris Wu, who helps lead the tours.
"For Guizhou, it's Chairman Mao's old favorite, Maotai (茅台); for Sichuan, it's Wuliangye (五粮液),;and for Beijing, it's erguotou," continues Wu.
Erguotou is distilled mainly from the grain sorghum. Grounded sorghum is first distilled in a large cylindrical steamer.
The boiled grains are then separated, and left to ferment for another five days in deep cement pits, described by one member of the tour group as "rows of mass graves," before undergoing the process again.
The alcohol is then stored in 1.2-meter-tall clay jars and aged up to 50 years. Cavernous rooms housing lines of these jars are open to visitors’ inspection from behind glass panes.
The rooms provide a perfect backdrop to mini-tasting sessions of expensive, pure erguotou, aged for 10 years.
The aging process alters the taste considerably.
"I could definitely taste some hints of fruit, more rich flavors, more of a bouquet," comments Erin Henshaw, 27, a Beijing-based corporate events and charity manager from United States.
"But the burning sensation was still very evident, it just wasn't as venomous as the cheap stuff," she adds.
Variations can be blended with walnuts, Chinese wolfberries, red dates, ginseng and sugar. The entire process takes at least six months.
The factory's exhibition center is near the exit, a convenient stop to pick up bottles of erguotou -- the cheapest priced at RMB 3 (US$0.47) and one of the most expensive at RMB 50,000 (US$7,861).
Most foreigners arrive at the tour believing that all Baijiu tastes the same. However, having sampled a variety of different-aged erguotou, many have modified opinions of the liquor by the time they leave.
As photographer Robert Cloud remarks, "I'd have to say, as an American, the closet thing to erguotou is moonshine, but an elegant moonshine."
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How to join the tour: The China Culture Center runs English-language group tours to the Niulanshan Erguotou Factory three times a year. Check their website for further details.
The center also organizes private tours throughout the year for groups of seven people or more.
The tour costs RMB 150 (US$24) per person and lasts for approximately half a day with travel time. The cost includes round-trip transportation from the China Culture Center to the factory, samples of erguotou, and roasted peanuts to help take the edge off the liquor.
Niulanshan Ergutou Brewery, Niulanshan Town, Shunyi District, Beijing 北京市顺义区牛栏山镇, +86 10 6941 2531, www.niulanshan.com.cn