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Making Maotai, China’s finest liquor, even finer

(Posted Aug. 2023) If you’re already the best, can you get better? Well of course! Particularly with Huawei as a partner. 

In the small town of Maotai in Guizhou province in southern China, liquor manufacturer Kweichow Moutai teamed up with Huawei in 2020 to achieve a digital transformation. Three years on, results are showing. 

The mountainous town of Maotai enjoys a unique micro-climate

Fierce and pungent with an alcohol level of over 50%, Maotai is one of China’s most famous “baijius,” literally “white alcohol” in Chinese. With prices easily reaching in the thousands of dollars per bottle, it is mostly served at very special occasions like weddings, diplomatic dinners, and to honor esteemed business partners. Similar to France’s Appellations d'Origine Contrôlée, only wines made in the Guizhou town of Maotai can call themselves Maotai wine. And within Maotai, Kweichow Moutai towers above competitors as the undisputed market leader. 

To create its prized nectar, Kweichow Moutai follows strict manufacturing steps that involve tight control over the supply chain. Key ingredients like water, sorghum, and qu (a mix of yeast and mold) are sourced locally. Surrounded by a range of mountains, the Maotai valley has a unique micro-climate: summers are hot, winters are mild, rain is low, but humidity is high. 

Kweichow Moutai is made via a strict traditional process involving lots of labor 

Making Kweichow Moutai is complex. The wine is distilled nine times, filtrated on eight occasions, and fermented seven times. Most of the work is done with lots of manual labor.

And then, there is storage. It takes five years to make the most basic bottle of Kweichow Moutai which sells for several hundred dollars, if it can even be found as demand far outstrips supply. The most promising vintages age in earthenware jars for up to 80 years and are eventually sold for several tens of thousands dollars per bottle. 

The best and most promising vintages are stored for decades in earthenware vats in temperature-controlled rooms

A lot can go wrong before a bottle of Maotai is produced. With so much human labor involved, it’s hard to control for errors. When wine is aged for decades, it requires lots of constant monitoring to ensure that temperatures never change. And then, there is the risk of pilferage from visitors, contractors, or perhaps even employees succumbing to temptation. 

This is where digital transformation helps. Deploying a fully-fledged IoT infrastructure offers the potential to keep Kweichow Moutai managers aware of even minute changes in conditions in warehouses. And when a quality problem is found, they can easily trace back to ingredient sourcing or failure to comply with manufacturing standards.

Technology simplifies the monitoring of facilities. This is critical when inventory is worth a fortune. 

In April 2020, Maotai and Huawei signed a strategic cooperation agreement in Shenzhen. The partners committed to a comprehensive cooperation in digitization, new infrastructure construction, and the development of industrial Internet platforms. The outcome will eventually be “Smart Maotai” wine produced with the help of Huawei technologies including 5G, AI, and cloud computing. 

A partial view of a screen in Kweichow Moutai's control room

Digital transformation is a long journey. But walking into Moutai's production area, a visitor can already see that almost all brewing procedures are under digital monitoring. A new system supports wine storage safety, manufacturing process management, security of premises, fire prevention and response, emergency management, and administrative operation management have been adopted. 

The digital transformation of Kweichow Moutai is well under way, illustrating that resting on one’s laurels is not the only option even when you’re already at the top of the market.  

Environmental parameters displayed in real time just outside one of Moutai's facilities