Saturday, December 25, 2021

:: boston baijiu bar ::

Back in October, I met bartender Nick Lappen at a tequila event in town. I soon realized that he was someone I had conversed with on Reddit and that he was the one running the Boston Baijiu Bar at Backbar that I had read about. The Boston Baijiu Bar is a ticketed event held on Thursday nights since September in Backbar's side bar that previously hosted the Olde Mouldy historic spirits bar, and it is an educational experience about China's most popular spirit. I was curious about attending for I could not wrap my head about this liquor as I described in this article on baijiu, and I wanted to be properly guided (spoiler: I was previously drinking it in an American style instead of one that works with the spirit). Between my work schedule and other life events, I expressed that it was not possible to attend this on Thursday nights, and Nick then offered up that he could do a Sunday night for bar industry folks to align better with our schedules. That industry Sunday finally came about two weeks ago, and I took my wife to experience some educational drinking.
The Boston Baijiu Bar comfortably sits six guests per each of the three seatings in a night (costing $35 + gratuity for the experience that includes a cocktail, sample pours, and snack pairings). As we sat down, we were greeted by a Chinese hiphop soundtrack, a glass of water, and a menu of six cocktail options (see tomorrow's post for the two we selected). Once all of the attendee's arrived and the drinks were made, Nick started the formal part of the class. At some point, Nick explained how he got interested in baijiu, and it was a whole story within itself. He mentioned that it began with a decision made with a friend after a bit of Jameson Irish Whiskey to teach in China for 6 months; he later described how it was not stateside as I imagined but in a bar in Jerusalem – a city where he had a short term job as a teacher. After a 6 month stint in China, he returned home to the United States only to find the allure of China calling him back for both bartending and teaching opportunities. Nick lived in China for 5 years before returning home for a short visit; unfortunately, the Pandemic set in, the borders closed, and he got stuck here away from his girlfriend and child. During those 5 years, Nick's bartending jobs there exposed him to baijiu and the drinking culture, and he explored and got into the various styles. Previous to his joining the Backbar team in Summer 2021, he worked at Drink where the various staff there claimed to hate the spirit, and he wanted to prove them wrong by developing this class and exposing them to more quality baijiu than the cheaper common brands like Red Star that come across like nail polish remover. Unfortunately, Drink closed for four and a half months to fix the leaky foundation, and he never got a chance. Luckily, his next bar home embraced the idea.

But what is baijiu besides the world's most popular spirit where total production is greater than that of vodka plus whiskey combined? It is a Chinese grain spirit of sorghum and sometimes rice and other grains in the mash bills, and it is produced from a wild ferment of airborne microbes that gives the spirit terroir or a very region-specific feel. The name itself means bai="white" + jiu="spirit," and it is one of the oldest distilled liquors known to man. Its precursor was shaojiu or "burnt water," and this spread to Korea and Japan as soju and shochu, respectively. Alcohol production dates back around 9000 years in China, and this pre-dates the cultivation of wild rice; it is possible that rice crops came about as a way to produce more alcohol. Baijiu is often fermented in lined pits in the ground, and the oldest provable distillery was set up in 1573 and is still producing today (baijiu production started earlier than this date by a few centuries though). Unlike most traditional spirits, the fermentation work is done by a combination of yeast, mold, and bacteria in a single step (unlike sake which is fermented in two steps with mold followed by yeast). A starter called qū of microbes growing on wheat or steamed rice is used to start the fermentation. One study found more than fifty types of mold in the mix, so lots of variations in microbes and thus flavor is possible. The stills are short, squat, and alembic-like but unique in design, and the stills also function as grain steamers. Finally, blending is a major part of the art to target the desired flavor profile.
Originally, baijius were classified by where they were produced for they corresponded to the stereotypical flavor profiles of the region. Later, as different regions started producing other styles, baijius became classified by aroma (not flavor) with four major styles and several minor ones including ones infused with medicinal herbs and aromatic flowers. Those four major styles are rice aroma, light aroma, strong aroma, and sauce aroma, and for each of them, Nick offered up a pour paired with a snack food. The food pairings were a necessary part of the class for baijiu is most often drank at meals especially with friends and family. Moreover, it is traditionally served in small glasses (1/3 to 4/10 oz or around 10-12 mL) in multiple rounds each with a toast. The classic toast is "Ganbei!" which means "dry (your) cup," and it is practice to clink glasses a little lower to show respect; this can be taken to an extreme with the toast being done close to the floor as each tries to undercut the other.
Style 1: Rice Aroma: This is the most mild and subtle of the styles which originated in rice-rich Southeastern China, and its starter is fermented rice flour made into a ball and pitched into fresh steamed rice. With this style, Nick paired the baijiu with dried shiitake mushrooms with salt, and the umami notes helped cut the slightly sweet aspect of the rice baijiu. My tasting notes of the baijiu were "nutty, rice note, close to rice soju, approachable – no crazy flavors."
Style 2: Light Aroma: Unlike the former category, the light aroma baijiu are made from sorgum, and the style originated more to the north. Nick paired this sample with latiao which are gluten pieces soaked in chili oil and coated with chili dust and MSG. My tasting notes for the spirit were "waxy texture, earthy, grain, savory, soy aroma; funky grain, fruit, and soy taste."
Style 3: Strong Aroma: This style originated in Sichuan in the Southwest of China, and it is made with multiple grains yielding complex flavors and aromas. Nick served this sample with Lay's Mala Barbecue potato chips to capture the numbing and spicy food style that would be traditionally paired with this class of baijiu. Indeed, this spirit could match the intense food for my notes were "overripe tropical fruit, durian, pineapple, guava in front; barnyard funk, fermented hay, Brettanomyces-influenced natural wine on end." The oldest distillery is Luzhou Laojiao meaning "old hole in the ground" and makes Ming River brand; check out Camper English's photos and tour on Alcademics. Many of these pits are over 50-100 years old, and they are never fully emptied; perhaps to keep consistency for sour mash and perhaps to generate additional flavors akin to Jamaican rum.
Style 4: Sauce Aroma: This one is Nick's favorite, and it originated in the landlocked province of Guizhou/Kweichow to the Southwest; this has historically been one of the poorest provinces in China that has suffered from a series of famines. Moreover, it is where Nick was living. Frequently, it is made from a combination of sorghum and wheat. Here, the spirit was matched with pickled mustard greens. Sauce aroma style lives up to its name for it is replete with umami and is rather soy sauce like. My tasting notes were "shiitake, cocoa powder, soy sauce, toasted sesame."

While baijiu lives up to the name of "white spirit," some of the stronger flavored and aromatic ones are aged in neutral clay or porcelain vessels to induce oxygenation and concentration. Rice aroma have short fermentation times of around a week, light and strong aroma spend 2 weeks to over a month, and sauce aroma can be over 9 months. Again, there are other styles including medicine aroma where herbs are added in the fermentation such as mugwort, licorice root, and star anise. And the most unusual sounding was phoenix style aged in wicker baskets sealed in bee's wax and pig's blood (no one opted for this one, but if I weren't a vegetarian, I would have requested it. And perhaps curiosity would have gotten the better of me if it was placed in front of me). The additional baijiu that I requested to taste off the shelf was Mei Kuei Lu Chiew which had rose petals in a gin vapor basket-like contraption, and this was delicious and floral. Chu Yeh Ching Chiew was a sweet yet medicinal one from a bamboo leaf infusion that I passed up to try the rose one.
As I mentioned earlier in my quote in that article, Western bartenders often do not get the spirit for they try to work it like vodka, gin, or whiskey, and also they frequently do not think about food pairings. Many baijiu styles share more with rhum agricole, cachaça, and high ester Jamaican rum than other standard spirits. Therefore, baijiu works incredibly well in tiki and tropical drinks with fruity and bold flavors with pineapple being an easy and obvious example. Baijiu also works great with very bitter ingredients such as Cynar, Suze, and Bitter Bianco. And finally, autumnal baking spice vibes mesh well such as allspice dram liqueur.

Over the last almost 4 months, Nick has taken up to 18 guests a night via three sittings of 5pm, 7pm, and 9pm around 3-4 Thurdays a month. 10% of the ticket price and all the proceeds from the sale of mugs (a donation from Ming River Baijiu) become a donation to the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. Nick picked this charity for it funds the local community that includes 80% Chinese immigrants. The charity does a lot of work with children with kindergarten and pre-K classes, and after school tutoring, mentoring, and snacks for the older students such that their parents can work. For adults, they sponsor English language courses and job training opportunities.

To learn more about the Boston Baijiu Bar, follow it on @bostonbaijiubar on Instagram or on email. Use the app's messaging function or the email address to make reservations.

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