Wuliangye’s secrets buried not in vaults, but cellars
Liquor cellars, especially older ones, are the key to giving Chinese brands their unique essence, according to national experts.
The older a cellar is, the richer the aroma will be.
Although China’s alcohol industry is prosperous with many competitive brands, only a few use aged cellars. Wuliangye is one of them. Wuliangye’s cellars have been working for centuries, ceasing only in times of nationwide crisis.
Wuliangye’s fragrance, to a large extent, is from its aged cellars. Though the cellars were made of mud, the aroma passed from them is described as delicate and pleasant.
This puzzled many Japanese liquor-makers who kept wondering how these crude mud cellars were able to produce spirits with such a faint scent.
Wuliangye’s aged cellars are scattered throughout the old downtown area of Yibin, a city in southwestern Sichuan province.
Every old home hidden in the twists and turns of mountainous roads gives some hint of the cellars’ historical roots — some can even be dated back to several hundreds of years.
Workers who spent a long time in these cellars have a deep sense of pride, they told reporters. The reason is that a considerable proportion of the best Chinese liquor comes from these cellars.
According to rules of the Wuliangye plant, only the most outstanding liquor can be selected as the basic liquor for making Wuliangye.
An ordinary new cellar might produce no Wuliangye but only ordinary liquor in three years. Even when it passed the three-year new cellar period, the good liquor rate is still not that high. However, aged cellars can guarantee that half of their productions reach the standards for making Wuliangye.
As a workshop director said, the aged cellars and environment completely maintained their original forms. Without these cellars, no good liquor can be made.
According to research, Sichuan is very likely to be the origin of strong aromatic Chinese liquor cellars, and Wuliangye’s aged cellars are among these most time-honored.
The unsophisticated Wuliangye cellars are the marks of good Chinese liquor, said workers. The dust on the wooden beams and the mottled walls have borne witness to time and history.
The workers said that Yibin’s liquor cellars normally have two parts: the fronts are stores facing the street, and the backward parts are cellars.
The size of cellars follows the width of streets. But the varied sizes do not affect liquor quality, said workers.
Craftsmanship can be found everywhere in Wuliangye’s cellar workshops. For example, an old single-wheel mechanism has been restored to have a steel body, but the wheel is still wooden.
Some workers are putting fermented crops into steamers, while some others are fanning them. They told reporters that fanning was not for cooling down but to disperse the harmful atmosphere from the aged cellar. This traditional process has been passed down for generations.
Although modern mechanical production can save much human labor, the use of aged cellars at the Wuliangye plant keeps the company rooted in the most traditional procedures, mainly to protect the aged cellars and guarantee the liquor quality, old workers said.
An old worker demonstrated the difference by digging out a piece of cellar mud with a grayish sheen, which was clearly unlike the yellow mud in the newly built cellars.
He told reporters that the gray color with luster is the character of aged cellars. The mud absorbed the essence of fermentation through generations and forms several microbial communities, thus developed their own aroma — strong and peculiar at the first smell, but gradually turns into sophisticated fragrance.
The latest studies done by the company found that there are more than 600 varieties of microorganisms in the aged cellars. These microbial communities form the foundation for liquor making. They help form Wuliangye’s special aroma system, workers said.
The mud in the aged cellars is well preserved by strict rules. Even waste mud is tested before disposal to make sure that few microbial communities are left inside, according to the company.
“We are not only making spirits but also helping the microbes to maintain their own ecosystem,” workers at Wuliangye said.
Use of the aged cellars at the Wuliangye plant is in strict conformity with traditional procedures.