I‘ve been making rice wine since 1985. Back when I was still working, I did construction, and even then I was making rice wine. I learned from others, just by following their instructions. It wasn’t a job that got passed down in my family or anything like that. Since I retired from construction, I’ve spent my days at home, so wine making is something convenient to do while I take care of the house. After I retired, I was pretty bored, but then I got used to it. I keep busy by cooking wine, doing housework, and looking after this lil’ kid right here [points to one-year-old grandson]. It takes up my whole day! A typical day starts early in the morning. Each day I cook 10 kilograms of rice, then I cook the wine–just pot after pot.For ingredients, I use brown rice; it’s not the type of rice you normally eat at home. Either sticky or non-sticky works, but sticky rice produces sweeter and more aromatic wine. Then there’s yeast. For equipments, I use a big copper pan and a “chicken intestine”–a long copper pipe. When the wine is cooked, it goes through the “chicken intestine” into a cooling reservoir, then into the bottle. You can’t use a plastic pipe because wine can melt plastic, which makes it poisonous and lose its aroma. Copper lasts longer and keeps the taste. I also have basins and jars to let the wine sit and brew.The first step is cooking the rice. It has to be cooked longer than the kind we normally eat but not as much as porridge. After cooking the rice, I spread it on a wide bamboo basket, wait for it to cool, and then put it in a basin. I alternate layers of yeast and rice. Then you have to wait for the mixture to ferment. In the summer, 2-3 days is enough. But if it’s cold, it takes closer to 5 days. You can check by hand if it’s ready or not—the mixture should be softer and there should be more liquid in the basin. Next you put the fermented mixture in 10 to 15 big jars. For each kilogram of rice, pour 1.5 liters of water into the jar. Cover it with a plastic or wooden panel so that the wine doesn’t lose its flavor. Then you wait again—7 days if it’s hot and 10 days if it’s cold. It’s like wearing clothes—if it’s hot, you wear just one layer, but if it’s cold, you wear more. After that, take the mixture out of the jar and cook it in the copper pan. When it’s boiled, the steam goes right into the “chicken intestine,” through the cooling reservoir, and there you go—rice wine.Good wine should taste somewhat sweet and burn a little—I don’t even know how to drink it—but if it’s sour, it’s gone bad. Wine made from sticky rice tastes sweeter and smells better. It’s funny how people get sick of eating just a bit of sticky rice, but they never get tired of drinking it! I only cook 10 kilograms of rice per day. I could cook more but we’re tight on space—there’s no room for more jars. 10 kilograms of rice can produce 7 to 8 liters of wine—that’s the strong kind—or 10 liters of the weak kind.
To be honest, the whole process is hard and takes a lot of effort. But the most important part is cooking the rice and mixing it with the yeast. You can’t make good wine out of overcooked or undercooked rice. Or when you let the wine sit and brew–it sours pretty easily in the summer. It ferments too quickly and goes sour. When that happens, I have to pour more water into the mixture and cook it again. The sour part goes to the bottom–you just throw that away–and you take the top layer of wine to sell. It’s a waste of time and wine. Sometimes customers complain that the wine’s gone sour–mainly in the summer–but that’s pretty rare.
It’s a hard job, but I’m a laborer, and I have to admit that having something to do everyday saves me from boredom. Plus I have a good reputation; people keep asking for my wine so I keep making it! It’s pretty fun. I’d get bored otherwise, unsettled even [laughs]. [teases grandson] Grandma isn’t at ease if she doesn’t work!
Even though there’s a lot more beer places and types of bottled wines now, people are buying from me more than ever before! [laughs] [daughter interjects] We wanna stop but people keep asking for it so we have to keep making it! People like that my wine is made pure and simple–it’s not mixed with anything else–so they keep coming back. The wine you find on the streets nowadays is made with Chinese yeast. With Chinese yeast, you don’t even need to cook the rice, you just mix the yeast in with water and rice and wait 2-3 days. It doesn’t go sour and you can get more wine out of it, but it doesn’t taste as good and it’s bad for your health. I just stick to the old-fashioned way–always have, always will.
My customers buy directly from me and my family, not from restaurants or pubs. There’s such a high demand that sometimes I can’t fill all the orders. Some folks come all the way from Gia Lâm–that’s 30-40 kilometers away. Some folks come by every ten days and still can’t get their order after a month. It’s just that there’s no more space in my kitchen, otherwise I’d sell more. I sell each liter for 40,000 VND and make about 4 million VND per month. Just enough money to put food on the table! [laughs] I could sell my wine at a higher price, but I don’t dare to because I have good relationships with all my customers–raising my prices could create rifts.
I’ll keep making wine until I just can’t anymore! [laughs] I have three daughters–any of them can do this if they want, but I really don’t think so. Making wine requires a lot of space, time, and energy. You’re inside all day. And truth be told, it’s just something to do but it’s not much to look forward to.