For the Sake of Sake
Words by Rob Hardy / Images by Kristin Teig
I’ve been a fan of Japanese cuisine, along with other Asian cuisines for many years. As an avid home cook, I’ve tried many different dishes and preparations over the years. I’ve also been a home beer brewer and winemaker at times, so I figured why not take a shot at making sake myself? Until I really looked into it, I had no idea how interesting and complex the process really is. Nothing is particularly difficult about it, but there are a lot of steps. Like many ancient food products, it makes you wonder how the original pioneers more than a thousand years ago figured out how it all worked.
What I learned in this process is that you can make very high quality sake at home—I like my home brew better than most of the commercial brands out there. The process only takes a few hours of work, but they are spread out over about six weeks. You can also make some very interesting sake beverages that are not generally available in the United States—fruit infused sake, sparkling sake, among other types.
Like most things these days, I first started to look for information on the Internet. It turns out there are a number of avid sake brewers out there with interesting blogs and websites devoted to the home sake brewer. Likewise, the unique ingredients—polished rice and sake yeast —are also available online. It is an interesting adventure that yields some really good sake, so give it a try. I’ll outline more about what sake is, how it all works, and give you a basic recipe at the end.
What is Sake?
Sake is commonly referred to as “rice wine”—it isn’t. While the process to make sake is referred to as brewing, it has very little to do with making beer—other than you can use some of the same equipment. Sake is a very old beverage and very important to traditional Japanese culture. While the exact origin of sake is unclear, some estimate that the Japanese were brewing a drink that resembles modern sake by the 8th century AD.
Sake is a fermented beverage that is only made from two ingredients—rice and water. The fermentation is unique in that it uses three types of microorganisms—bacteria, yeast, and mold. There are many fermentations that use bacteria and molds: cheeses, including bleu cheese, camembert, and brie are among them. Likewise there are a number of alcoholic beverages that use yeast and bacteria—Guinness is probably the most famous using yeast and a proprietary blend of bacterial cultures to give the beer its famous flavor and texture. As far as I know, sake is the only fermentation that uses all three types of microorganisms.
OK, so why is that? All alcoholic fermentations are based on yeast converting sugars to alcohol and carbon dioxide. However, depending on the sugar source, there may be other steps required. Making wine is easy: grapes are full of fermentable sugars. Pick the grapes, take out the stems, crush them, add yeast, and stand back. Beer is a little more complex because barley and wheat are made up primarily of starch, which the yeast can’t ferment directly. Luckily for ancient brewers who hadn’t conceived of food chemistry, the grains come with their own set of tools to turn starch into fermentable sugar.
To get the very clean grain flavors in sake, it’s made from highly polished rice where the bran, germ, all protein, and oils have been polished out. The rice for sake is a 60% polish, which means 40% of the grain has been polished away—basically leaving pure starch. Unfortunately, polishing also removes the source of the enzyme to convert starch into fermentable sugar. So in order to make sake, we need to find an enzyme source to turn the starch into sugar. That’s where the mold comes in. Aspergillus orzyae (A. orzyae) is the enzyme source for making sake and is the only aspergillus mold that is not toxic to humans—makes you wonder who figured that out in the 8th century.
In order to make sake you first must make Kome Koji. Kome Koji is rice that has the A. orzyae mold growing on it. Kome Koji or koji is terribly important to Japanese cuisine—it is the enzyme source that allows you to make soy sauce, mirin, rice vinegar, miso, and the fermented beans known as natto as well as sake. Without this particular type of mold, Japanese cuisine would look dramatically different.
Kome Koji is made by sprinkling A. orzyae spores on freshly steamed rice, and incubating for about 48 hours until the rice is covered with the white mold and it begins to digest the starch and convert it to sugar. I made my koji the first time I brewed sake, and it turns out that a 25 watt light bulb closed into a cooler with your steamed rice and mold spores keeps the temperature just about right for the incubation. I later found out you can buy higher quality koji that is shipped frozen—it’s a lot easier than making it. The koji I buy comes from the Oregon sake brewery Sake One.
The third microorganism in sake is bacteria – specifically lactic acid bacteria—the same ones used to develop flavor in cheese. Finding these bacteria is really easy—they are all around us every day. I’ll explain how that works in a little bit.
The number 3 is an auspicious number in Japanese culture, and there are many important symbols made up of three elements. So it should be no surprise that the sake brewing process—once considered sacred —has a lot of three’s in it.
Once you have made or bought your koji (I buy it), you are ready to make sake. The first step is to make a starter called shubo. Shubo is made from steamed rice, koji, water, and the special strains of yeast for making sake that can survive at very high alcohol contents. So we have the yeast we add directly, and the aspergillus mold that comes with the koji, but what about the bacteria? Luckily lactic acid bacteria are all around us, and are particularly plentiful in a kitchen. To encourage the growth of these bacteria, and discourage all the others, all you have to do is add some acid—lactic acid—to the shubo starter. This raises the acidity of the starter and allows the lactic acid bacteria that end up in your shubo from the air to grow, but keeps all the other kinds of bacteria from growing. Once all the ingredients are in place, let your shubo sit on the kitchen counter for a week. The changes in the appearance and texture are quite interesting to watch over the week while your shubo is growing.
Once your shubo has grown for a week, we are ready for Moromi, or the main ferment. You add your shubo, water, more koji, and steamed rice to your sterilized fermenter in three additions. Keeping all your equipment sterile is really important—you only want the yeast and bacteria you add to grow and make sake. You do NOT want “wild” yeast and bacteria that are floating around your kitchen in your sake—this can lead to really bad, sour, and off flavors in the sake. So sterilize your fermenter and all the equipment you use each time using one of the sanitizing products you can buy with your brewing ingredients and equipment. (Fermenters are six gallon food grade plastic buckets with tight fitting lids. The lids have a hole and gasket for a fermentation lock. The fermentation lock is a plastic bit filled with water that lets the CO2 gas out of the fermenter without letting oxygen in. Both can be bought from any wine- and beer-making retailer.)
The first addition is known as Hatsuzoe. Each addition doubles the volume of the fermentation until you have reached a final volume of about four gallons. These later additions (Nakazoe and Tomezoe, for those playing along at home) happen after days 11 and 13. By the final addition, you are an expert at steaming large volumes of rice. The final rice addition is 11 cups of dry rice (about five pounds) that has been washed, soaked and steamed for about an hour then cooled – that’s a LOT of rice.
Now you let your sake ferment quietly in a cool place—ideally about 45°F. If sake is fermented at much warmer temperatures, it develops strange floral and fruity flavors and aromas which are not at all what you are looking for. Even at 45°F, this is a highly energetic fermentation usually with more than a foot of foam on the surface of your fermenting sake. The requirement of a low fermentation temperature is why sake was traditionally only brewed in the winter—prior to modern refrigeration. Luckily my basement tends to be about 45-50°F from December through March—perfect for sake.
After about three weeks, you have your first batch of sake. Sake can ferment to very high alcohol contents. Typically sake at the end of fermentation is between 18 to 22% alcohol (36 to 44 proof!). Commercial sake is diluted with water post fermentation to reach the labeled 15 to 17% alcohol you see. At this point however, there are still several steps involved to clarify the sake just like wine making or beer brewing. You need to get the sake off the remnants of the spent rice grains, then let it settle and clarify further prior to bottling. Interestingly, sake must be pasteurized, or it will only last a few weeks. There are still active enzymes and bacteria in the sake even at the end of the fermentation that will cause very nasty flavors over time. Sake must be heated in order to have a shelf life longer than a few weeks. Commercial sake is traditionally aged for six months prior to sale. It is interesting how much the flavor changes once it is in the bottle—subtle woody, nutty, and complex spicy flavors emerge over time.
Once your sake has completed fermenting, you can add fruit extracts and syrups to it to make sweeter, flavored products – plums go really well with sake. You can also make sparkling sake by adding water to the ferment on day 19 to dilute the alcohol content below 11% so you can have a second ferment in the bottle. For sparkling sake you add a mixture of sugar, water and champagne yeast to the bottles after you have pasteurized your sake to get the desired bubbles.
So there you have a little about my adventure of learning to brew sake for the past several years. I typically brew three or four batches over the winter which last us through the year—while giving a good bit of it away to friends who have become fans of our home brewed sake. I strongly encourage you to give it a try—it is an interesting process, and you end up with some really good sake. I think I’m going to try making soy sauce next. Cheers!
Rob Hardy has been taking on absurd food challenges for many years, from growing giant pumpkins to now making sake. His wife is concerned by what may be next as they continue to remodel their antique farmhouse in Topsfield. Rob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.