The Hawj Brother’s Distillery Story – Brewing a Dream

It’s commonly known as Baijiu in the East. But in our community, we’ve always called it caw dlawb or “rice wine”. You’ll find it stored in jars on kitchen counters or in the pantries of most traditional homes, but you won’t find it on any market shelf-at least not until now. “It’s actually a distilled liquor, not a wine,” says Rinna Her, 28, co-founder of Hawj Brother’s Distillery, located at 1100 Garden Highway in Yuba City. With his sister, Nancy Her, they’ve come a long way to introduce caw dlawb as the next American alcoholic beverage.

Culture and Tradition
Rinna’s knowledge of making caw dlawb is a centuries old tradition passed down from one generation to the next. “I see it as something worth preserving,” he says, having acquired the trade from his parents. “You’ll find that caw dlawb plays a huge role in our community.”

The drink represents friendship, commitment, and respect. Back in Laos, the arrival and departure of a guest, relative or old friend in one’s home would be addressed with an offered sip of caw dlawb. During the ceremonial process of weddings and funerals, the drink is poured into tiny plastic cups and given to key participants, especially male family members, elders, and clan leaders. It also has its medicinal purposes when mixed with herbs. Traditionalists will use it as a nightcap for health rejuvenation, a remedy for muscle and joint pains, or even as treatment for a nasty wasp sting. And then, like other alcoholic beverages in most world cultures, caw dlawb has its common role in social gatherings. In America, with the Hmong community clinging to its traditions, caw dlawb is still popular for the same reasons.

“I hope my re-invention of the drink will be used for these cultural practices,” says Rinna.

The Process
Taking classes and attending conferences in alcohol fermentation and distillation, Rinna realized the similarities between the skills passed down from ancestors and the techniques used by the American distiller. “It’s all the same,” he reveals. “I just learned more technical terms for the process. The only difference is: different grains and different yeasts equals different flavors.”

Walking into his distillery in Yuba City on any given day, you’ll find Rinna and his family making caw dlawb from raw materials. “A true artisan makes his product, hands-on, from scratch,” he says.

The early phase is a manual process, carried out by Rinna and his siblings. Short-grain white rice is steamed over several small stoves using standard propane tanks. When cooked, the rice is cooled and hand-mixed with yeast in large stainless steel trays, and then it is moved into fermentation tanks to be blended with water. “I let it sit for two to three weeks,” says Rinna. “It’s a period of just waiting.” After fermentation, the liquid is transferred into a copper still. Three stages of alcohol are produced: the heads, hearts and tails.

“The heads are so harsh that I use them for a sanitizer or cleaning solution.” He compares the heads to nail polish remover. The tails are saved and redistilled. The hearts, “the part you want,” he describes, are bottled in a fine glass bottle sporting the Hawj Brother’s Distllery’s golden logo, a paj ntaub design known as “an elephant’s footprint”.

When asked about the difference between his product and what you get from traditional homemade caw dlawb, Rinna boasts, “Unlike mine, they don’t dilute theirs, and they keep all the heads, hearts, and tails. That’s why you get that burning sensation from your throat down to your stomach when you drink it. It’s like drinking poison. It might taste stronger than my product because of the burn, but it’s actually only 120-130 proof. My stuff won’t burn as much, but it’s 180 proof, about 90% alcohol. The finished product is 90 proof, 45% alcohol.”

Business Challenges
Going into the distillery business has been a huge risk for Rinna and his family. Rinna, who worked as a Sutter County Sheriff’s Department detective, had to quit his job because state law prohibits being in law enforcement and holding a liquor license in the same jurisdiction.

“People would think you’re nuts, trying to go into this business,” he says, smiling. To launch such a business, it is a requirement to build or rent a facility with all equipments installed prior to submitting a distillery license application. “You have to risk spending a lot of money before you can even submit an application. You don’t know if you’ll be approved after inspection. I talked to a lot of people who were already in the business before I decided to take the chance.”

Rinna recalls the application process as a grueling experience. “You will be rejected for every little minor error. Our application got kicked back several times before it finally passed through.”

His plans to open a distillery began in November of 2007, and progressed into December of 2008 when a federal permit was finally obtained. Three months after, a state permit followed. “That one cost us several thousand dollars, unlike the federal permit, and has to be renewed annually.” All labels on the Hawj Brother’s products are required to run through inspection to avoid infringing upon advertising laws. “We cannot depict sexual content,” says Rinna. “And all our models have to be 24 years of age, well above the drinking age, because some 21-year-old might look 18.”

A Dream in the Making
When asked why the beverage will be marketed as Baijiu instead of caw dlawb, Rinna says, “The name ‘Baijiu’ is sweeter on the tongue. It’s harder for non-Hmong speakers to call it the way we call it. Plus, in Asia, Baijiu is already the most recognized name for the drink. It’ll be easier to market.” Rinna and his family hope to make this alcoholic drink as popular as what the Japanese did with sake and what the Koreans did with soju. “This is new, different from everything you can find in America. You won’t find it anywhere.” A bottle of Baijiu from Hawj Brother’s Distillery retails at $29.99. Soju, vodka, and bourbon will soon be added to their list.

It’s a dream in the making for Rinna Her and his family. Like any business, there has been much sacrifice and hard work. Often, Rinna will spend his nights at his distillery, keeping an eye on his production, checking temperatures on his machines to make sure everything is functioning properly. “We didn’t have much when we were young,” he reveals. “We went to The Salvation Army for our things. If we do it right, our whole family and the generations to come can really benefit from this.”