Wu­liangye’s se­crets buried not in vaults, but cel­lars

China Daily (Canada) - - BUSINESS - By XU XIAO xux­iao@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Use of the aged cel­lars at the Wu­liangye plant is in strict con­for­mity with tra­di­tional pro­ce­dures.

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