Choujiu is definitely one of the more interesting brews that I’ve done so far. The fermentation process is unusual when compared to other beers, and actually just unusual in general. Fermentation of choujiu is a dual process, as you inoculate the rice with both a mold and yeast. On it’s own, the yeast can’t ferment the starches in the rice, but the mold helps out by saccharifying the starches in the rice, and the yeast then converts those sugars into alcohol. It’s interesting to watch the gradual moldy decay of the sticky rice and it’s conversion into sweet, sweet choujiu. Most sources refer to choujiu as a rice wine, however, since what we’re fermenting is actually a grain (rice), it’s closer to beer than wine.
Choujiu has a long history in China, going all the way back to at least the Tang Dynasty of the 7th century. It was one of the favorite drinks of the famous poet Li Bai, who in turn wrote many of his poems about the wonders of alcohol. Since those ancient days, choujiu has continued to have a prominent place among Chinese alcoholic beverages and the ancient Tang Capital of Xi’an remains renowned for it’s choujiu.
That said, it’s time to look at how to make this ancient Chinese beverage.
Here’s what you’ll need for a batch of choujiu:
- 4 cups of glutinous (sticky) rice
- Dried Chinese yeast (which is actually a yeast/mold/bacteria mixture called Jiuqu)
- A teaspoon of flour
Preparing the rice for the choujiu:
Your first step should be soaking your sticky rice overnight. Add enough liquid so that it is just covered in water. After soaking it, drain it and then steam it until it is partially cooked. The partially cooked rice should then be rinsed under cool water to bring it down to just above room temperature. For this part, I transferred the rice to a large strainer and ran it under the faucet, at the same time working the rice lightly with my hands to keep the grains from getting too stuck together and soaking up too much water. You want to largely be transferring just the cooked rice (and not water) into your fermentation vessel. After you’ve transferred all the rice, drain off any excess water.
Preparing the yeast:
Take one of the Chinese yeast balls and break it into a fine powder using your pestle and mortar. Then incorporate about a half teaspoon of flour with the yeast. The flour provides some additional nutrients to the yeast during the beginning saccharification stages.
Now, some of you might be wondering where to acquire these yeast balls (which are actually a mixture of yeast and the fungus Aspergillus Oryzae, along with some lactic acid bacteria). You can find them at most well stocked Asian markets. In my case, I found them in the baking section next to a variety of flours. I’d suggest asking an employee for help. The Chinese name for these yeast balls is ‘Jiuqu’. If you don’t have access to an Asian market, you could order Koji cultures to inoculate the rice and engineer your own dual-fermentation by the addition of yeast and lactic acid bacteria. Koji is somewhat difficult to find, but Amazon has it here.
Inoculating the rice:
After grinding the yeast ball and flour mixture into a fine powder, mix about 3/4 of the yeast in with the rice. Then, form a small well in the center and sprinkle the remaining powder across the top of the yeast. Cover the fermentation vessel (in my case, I used saran wrap to make a tight seal) and set aside.
Fermenting the choujiu:
Fermentation of choujiu can be a slow process. Gradually, you’ll see mold develop across the top of the rice. The rice will also begin to pull away from the sides as the mold converts the starchy yeast into a sugary solution, which at the same time fermented by the yeast into choujiu. After about four days, I saw a notable reduction in the size and solidity of the rice. The rice had become very gelatinous mass and was evidently floating on a lot of choujiu.
At this point, I set up a very large bowl and positioned a strainer above it. I then poured the fermenting mass through the strainer to separate the rice from the choujiu. After that, I applied pressure to the mass of rice, in order to extract much of the liquid that the rice was retaining. It will take quite a bit of time and a reasonable amount pressure to extract everything from the mass of rice, so go as long as you have patience for. By the end, I had extracted almost a liter and a half of choujiu from the four cups of fermented sticky rice. Time to find out how it tastes.
Aroma: Not much aroma. Slight notes of sour rice fragrance. Exactly what you’d expect from fermented rice.
Taste: Sweetness hits first and hits fairly strong. At the midpoint, there is the hint of ‘rice-ness’. Final notes is a tangy sourness from the lactic bacteria in the jiuqu. The sourness lingers a moment on the tongue and it’s definitely welcome considering the sweetness of the drink.
Body/Mouthfeel: There is a fairly significant body, due to the sweetness and the residual sugars and rice elements in the choujiu. It definitely has the almost milky body typical of the style. Combined with the sourness and tang from the lactic bacteria, it’s pleasant and refreshing.
I did not take any gravity readings on the choujiu. For one, it was impossible to do pre-fermentation, as there was no liquid to measure the gravity of. This is one of those cases where you simply have to trust the fermentation process, your yeast, and everything else to turn out right. That said, chiujiu typically clocks in with an ABV in the mid to upper teens, and based on how I felt after finishing my glass, I’d say that’s a fair estimate.
Overall, chiujiu was pretty delicious and would be a great drink for a hot day. The fermentation process, while unusual, is pretty straightforward. The main care you have to take is in sanitation, as you don’t want any contamination. Contamination is a potential risk, as you’re essentially leaving cooked rice out at room temperature for days at a time. Make sure that you’re keeping things clean at each stage of the process. As well, make sure you sanitize everything thoroughly afterwards, as you are basically playing around with mold, bacteria, and yeast to make your choujiu, and any of those might infect whatever you brew later.
All that said, I would totally brew it again. It’s cheap – you can get sticky rice for about a $1 a pound – simple, and delicious.