REVIVING A SPIRIT
An ancient-looking building cluster appears before us as we set foot in Xinghuacun town in northern China’s Shanxi province. More than 100 imposing black-tiled buildings stand close to each other and their roofs resemble a sea of stones stretching out into the distance.
They are building replicas from the Tang (618-907), Song (960-1279), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (16441911) dynasties.
The cluster covers a floor space of 1.58 million square meters, the size of 10 Palace Museums in Beijing. The wall surrounding the cluster alone runs 10 kilometers.
The cluster is part of the Fenjiu and local government efforts to integrate tourism with local wine culture.
Xinghuacun has been known for wine production going back 1,500 years. The famed Tang Dynasty poet Du Mu (803-852) made the town an epithet for good wine in his wellknown poem The Mourning Day.
To date, the town is home to the time-honored winemaker Fenjiu, which specializes in producing lightly scented liquor.
The cluster will feature the whole process of wine making, from crop planting and wine brewing, to storage, filling and packaging, as well as an exhibition, says Zhang Xiaojun, an investor.
Zhang says that introducing Xinghuacun to the world will make Chinese liquor as popular as global brands.
Fenjiu is a traditional brand which wants to stay true to its traditions while at the same time keeping abreast of modern developments.
But as grand and attractive as Fenjiu’s new conglomerate is, the traditional wine making process has been retained.
“Modern technology has not helped me a lot with my work,” says Wang Guangfeng, who has been the distiller’s yeast maker for 30 years.
Most of Wang’s work is based on experience.
“Peas and barley (two of the major ingredients) are from the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, Jilin and Gansu provinces, and they vary based on where they come from, so we need to fine-tune the ratio accordingly”, the 52-year-old worker says.
Mixing water in also needs experience. “You need to monitor the water speed to ensure consistency,” he says.
But the hard work begins when it comes to microbial which takes 26 days.
“First, you need to move the blocks of the compacted mixture into a room, wrap them with mats, and then inject them with the microorganism,” say Wang. cultivation,
Then, one relies on experience to adjust room temperature and humidity, including by opening or closing windows and turning over the blocks. No modern machine can help.
Wang says he is used to waking up in the middle of the night to check on the fermentation process.
“It’s like taking care of a baby. But the yeast is the heart of the liquor. If it’s not properly handled, the later process is a lost cause,” he says.
The main thing is for the microor- ganism to spread on the surface like a thin layer of sesame.
When the 26 days is over, Wang takes a few days off before the next round starts.
When asked if he gets bored with the work, Wang says the process never ceases to surprise him.
“The beauty is that every time is different, and you can always make better yeast than the previous one, and you feel pride when the yeast makes for better liquor.”
Saying goodbye to Wang, we make our way to the Fenjiu museum that has a history of more than 800 years.
There, old wells, pavilions and workshops tell the story.
Back in 1915, sorghum-based Fenjiu first made waves abroad at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.
The expo helped hundreds of local small wineries showcase their products.
At the museum, rooms for retail sales, accountants, managers, kitchens and wine storage facilities have been maintained the way they were in ancient times.
There, one gets an insight in how the Chinese wine business was conducted.
Meanwhile, Xu Fenjun, who is in charge of liquor production at Fenjiu, says: “Fenjiu might be the only winery that doesn’t have water purifying equipment.”
This is because local water comes from Shanxi’s Pangquan’gou, which is surrounded by forests that cover an area of 6 million square meters. There, natural permeation purifies the underground water, so it can be used without any treatment, says Xu.
Separately, some liquor production still goes on at the museum. There, hundreds of black porcelain vats are buried underground for fermentation.
“It (the process) is clean and keeps bacteria away,” says Xu. Moreover, the method also keeps the temperature from fluctuating too much.
Cleaning the vats, however, is heavy lifting. “First we have to use boiling water to clean the vat, but not the neck, because the impurities there could get in,” says Xu.
Later, the vat is turned upside down, and the neck is cleaned. Then, Sichuan pepper water is applied
The time-honored liquor brand is now looking to innovate to endear itself to the younger generations.
Zhang Yanguang, the Fenjiu board secretary, says: “The liquor industry needs to satisfy young people’s needs.”
There’s room for innovation in taste, packaging, alcohol content and design, he says.
The brand is also working with sport event organizers and new media to promote itself.
The ultimate goal is to create a taste for Chinese white spirit. And Zhang believes that young people will eventually fall in love with traditional Chinese liquor as they learn more about it.
Fenjiu’s new conglomerate in future.