How did ancient Chinese distill spirits?

As early as 3000 years ago, ancient Chinese created a raw material called distiller’s yeast, which could be used to make a very fragrant spirit with a lingering aftertaste. For thousands of years, distiller’s yeast has been a part of the recipe for Chinese spirits. Today, very few Chinese people know how their ancestors distilled this liquor.

In the suburbs of Chengdu, there are two rivers that were excavated in ancient times — Fuhe River and Nanhe River. At the point these two rivers cross stands He Jiang Pavilion, close to which is Shui Jing Street. This street is less than 2.5 kilometers in length and less than five meters in width. At the end of the 20th century, an extension project made this street famous.

In August 1998, when a brewery began extending and rebuilding a workshop located at number 19, Shui Jing Street, a lot of broken porcelain was dug up. Based on the characters on the porcelain, it was estimated that they were made in the Ming Dynasty. In March 1999, an archaeological team began excavating the site, where they found remnants of a liquor distillery from the Qing Dynasty and another from the Ming Dynasty below that.

The excavation of Shui Jing Fang has revealed the distilling methods employed by ancient Chinese people.

Four cooking pits were discovered in Shui Jing Fang; two were built in more recent times and two were made during the Qing Dynasty. The grain was steamed first and then mixed with distiller’s yeast. The steamed grain would then ferment more easily. The half-cooked grain was then spread upon special surfaces, which were called ‘liang tang’. In Shui Jing Fang, three ‘liang tangs’ were unearthed, overlapping each other. The earth pits beside the ‘liang tangs’, which look like large liquor vats sunk into the ground, are actually cellars. Eight cellars were unearthed. The inner wall and bottom of these cellars were plastered with earth between 8 and 25 centimeters thick. The next step was to ferment the grain in the cellar. The alcohol concentration in the fermented yeast was still very low at this point, so it needed to be further distilled and condensed. In the traditional technique, the process was completed by an alembic known as ‘tian guo’.

People found an unusual round object at the Qing Dynasty site; at first glance it looked something like a well. Eventually, archeologists concluded that it was used to produce tequila in China. Back then, a large ‘tian guo’ was supported on the pedestal, and it had two layers. Cold water was put in the upper layer and the yeast was put on the lower layer. When the yeast was steamed, the gas containing alcohol cooled to a liquid and flowed out from a pipe. This liquid was a form of tequila.

Experts deduced that in the Qing Dynasty, tequila was produced at the site, and that the old technology is very similar to the new. The experts examined the animalcules in the cellars, separating red yeast and rhizopus. Archaeological studies show that China had developed mature tequila distilling technology in the late Yuan Dynasty or early Ming Dynasty. There are three types of Chinese tequila — one is very fragrant, the other is only mildly scented and the third is soy-flavored. The liquor brewed in Shui Jing Fang was the very fragrant variety, which is widespread spread in China. The most unique characteristic of the Chinese distilling method is that the liquor is brewed in earthen cellars. This type of liquor originated in the Chengdu Plain and Sichuan Basin.

The excavation area is limited and the earth beneath the Ming dynasty distillery has not been much probed. Earlier cultural relics and sites may still be buried under the present site. The deeper archaeologists dig, the more the earth will reveal of history.

By People’s Daily Online
http://english.people.com.cn/200609/29/eng20060929_307618.html

 

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