Of all the Hakka cultural staples—architecture, music, cuisine—perhaps the most influential is that of Hakka rice wine. For the Hakka people, homemade rice wine is a test of a housewife’s skill; it is said that you can tell how a woman runs her household by the taste of her wine. So sacred is the process and product that the saying goes in Hakka areas: “no one dares claim mastery of brewing rice wine or grinding tofu (蒸酒磨豆腐,唔敢逞师傅).”
The water used for washing the rice comes from the old wells in the village, giving the wine that special, local touch
If you want a deep understanding of rice wine, there is no better place than Zhixi Village (芷溪村) in the south of the county of Liancheng (连城) in Fujian Province. Zhixi’s basin terrain makes a natural wine cellar. The rich rain and fertile land yields high-quality sticky rice and the old wells provide clear, sweet water. Home to the Hakka people for hundreds of years, this small village holds a little over 10,000 residents as well as a large number of ancient temples and traditional dwellings from the Ming and Qing dynasties, earning the name “Hakka’s Great Old Mansions” for its rich architectural heritage. On these ancient streets, rice wine shops are found every few meters, part of life in Zhixi for nearly six centuries.
Even with the conveniences of modernity, rice wine is still made in the traditional manner and with great care
It would be inaccurate to say rice wine merely follows Hakka people from cradle to grave; it starts at conception. When women get pregnant, they make “yuezi wine”; after a baby is born, “birth wine” is made; and when the baby reaches one month of age, “full month wine” is set and the “full year wine” is prepared for its first birthday. Engagement and wedding wines are necessary for a happy marriage—then you have your “housewarming wine” and “promotion wine” as well as a “university wine”. In your waning years, the birthdays of the elderly are met with, you guessed it, more rice wine.
A wooden rather than metal steamer is used to give the wine its distinctive fragrance
As ever, wine means stories. Despite its rural nature, the area has birthed many famous scholars. In the Qing Dynasty (1616 – 1911), a local Yang family had scholars arise for seven consecutive generations. The family even had an uncle and a nephew pass the provincial civic and military imperial examination in the same year. On this rare occasion, celebrities of the age visited the Yang family. Not expecting such an onslaught of guests, the Yangs couldn’t find enough food to serve them, so they brought out their freshly brewed rice wine. The wine was so favored that the guests supposedly commented: “Ten thousand types of wine can’t compare with a cup of this rice wine.”
Local wine makers pound yeast by hand during the fermenting process
Today, the village has developed, but the art of wine-making hasn’t changed much. People still brew rice wine with natural materials and simple utensils. Many visitors today seek the well-preserved historical sites as well as the aroma of the handcrafted rice wine. To the villagers, it has been and always will be the smell of home.
When the rice is 90 percent cooked, it needs to be sprinkled with cold water from the village wells
The pounded yeast is mixed with the cooked rice and put into a wine jar to ferment
When the process is at an end, the wine is poured into containers and stored for special occasions
Zhixi villagers still use traditional methods to sterilize the wine, boiling the wine at 85 degrees celcius
Finally, after a long process of straing, brewing, pouring, and mixing, the wine can be enjoyed by all
“Wine with the Hakka” is a story from our newest issue, “Mental Health”, coming out soon. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.
Photos from Yang Tianxin (杨天鑫)