Sake Homebrewing FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

You guys keep sending me a lot of really interesting questions about making sake, and I’ve accumulated and answered enough of them so far to make into a Frequently Asked Questions list. So, here it is, the Taylor-MadeAK Homebrewing Sake FAQ!

Contents:


Q: Hey, my sake is yellow! What did I do wrong?

A: This is far and away the question I get asked the most frequently. There’s a long answer and a short answer to this question.

The short answer: You didn’t do anything wrong, real sake is yellow.

The long answer: The rice plant stores a lot of the lipids and proteins needed for the new plant to germinate in the outer layers of the grain, which are called the bran layer. It’s these compounds – especially the proteins – that turn sake yellow and can contribute harsh flavors to the finished product. This bran layer is still present in brown rice, but has been abraded away in polished white rice. The more of the outer part of the rice grain you remove, the less of those proteins and lipids will be present in the kernel that is left. This is the reason why commercial sake of even the lowest grade starts with 75% polished rice. The more you polish that grain, the lighter and more delicate the final sake will be.

But no matter how much you polish that rice, the final sake will still always be some shade of yellow. That’s because all of the starch granules in the endosperm are surrounded by protein that bind them together. Think of it as the “skeleton” of the endosperm. The opposite is also true: using grocery store rice (with a 90% polish) in your homebrew sake is going to result in lemon yellow sake.

So, for hundreds of years, all sake was yellow. All of it.

So, the real question is: why does the sake your favorite sushi ya serves you look like water? The answer is filtration. If you don’t have a bottle that says “junmai ginjo” or “junmai daiginjo” on it, then chances are you’re drinking bottom shelf sake that has been heavily filtered through activated charcoal to give it the appearance of a lighter colored high grade sake. The problem with this process, however, is that the charcoal filtering also strips a large amount of the character originally present in the sake. This is why many sake connoisseurs prefer to drink junmai ginjo and higher grades of sake.


Q: Can I use other kinds of rice?

A: Sure. Use any kind of rice you want, experiment and see what kind of difference it makes to your sake. Short grain rice is just preferred because of its kernel structure compared to long grain rice. Short grain kernels have a core filled with loose starch particles that are pretty readily digestible by koji enzymes, while long grain rice are pretty much solid starch. Koji still works just fine on long grain rice kernels, it just might take it a little longer to fully liquefy it.

Brown rice is something different altogether. I avoid that stuff because you have to use about 10% more and it takes 2.5 times longer to soak and steam it. If you want to use brown rice to make genmai sake, keep in mind that you’ll have to soak it for 36 to 45 hours, followed by steaming for 1.5 to 2 hours.


Q: What about American rice vs. Asian rice?

A: With the exception of yamada nishiki rice, I can’t think of a single material difference between Japanese and American rices. Well, there’s where the rice is grown, but that’s about it. The real question is, can you even get Japanese brewing rice in the United States? Probably not, because those rices (especially yamada nishiki) are protected pretty fanatically by the Japanese government.

You know, even the big American sake producers like Takara don’t use Japanese rice. They use American rice same as we do, mostly grown in California. The difference is they have the equipment to polish their rice down past the 90% that rice meant for eating is polished to. Rice polish is much more important than where the rice came from, if you ask me.


Q: Without an original gravity measurement, how can I determine the alcohol content of my homemade sake?

A: There are a couple of ways to approach this. My preferred method, though only accurate to within 1% ABV, is to use a Vinometer. These are inexpensive, easy to use, require a very small sample size, and commonly available at your local homebrew supply shop.

Another, more accurate method would be to use the “boiling method” (credit goes to Outbreak Monkey for reminding me that I needed to add this to the FAQ). The link describes the method in detail, but in a nutshell this is what you do:

    1. Start with a 250ml sample of your sake and measure the specific gravity.
    2. Boil the sample until the volume is reduced by half.
    3. Add distilled water to the sample to reconstitute it back to its original 250ml volume.
    4. Measure the specific gravity again, and calculate alcohol content with this equation: AbV=((SGfinal-SGorig)/2.11)*1000

Those are two options that don’t involve a laboratory or distillation. What method you choose to use is up to you.


Q: What about plum wine?

A: What about it? OH! You mean how do you make it? Well, traditional home-made Japanese umeshu isn’t a wine at all, it’s a liqueur. Here’s how it’s made:

Ingredients:

2.25 lbs Unripe umes (also called Japanese plums)
2.00 lbs Rock sugar
7.50 c Shōchū

Procedure:

Wash umes, discarding any that are bruised or have broken skins. Use a toothpick or bamboo skewer to remove the calyxes (the black bit from the flower end of the fruit) and dry thoroughly with paper towels. Wash out a very large jar (at least a gallon capacity with a wide mouth) very well and allow to drip dry thoroughly. Place umes and sugar in the jar in alternating layers, starting with the umes, then fill the jar with shochu. Place in a cool dark place for 6 months to a year, checking on it every now an then and giving it a shake to help dissolve the sugar. Umeshu is ready to drink after a year.

This isn’t the plum wine that you buy at the liquor store or order in the restaurant, however. Commercial examples like that are made by adding ume syrup to white wine or (very rarely, unfortunately) sake. If you want to make your own using sake, I suggest following the above recipe and just substituting your homebrewed sake for the shochu. I’ve never seen green umes in any grocery produce sections, so I don’t even know if they’re available in the USA; but I live in Alaska so I urge you to check around your area for ethnic grocery stores to see if you can find some. They’re in-season starting in May.


Q: Is it possible to use other kinds of grain to make sake?

A: I’m going to say NO, and for a couple of reasons:

First: Koji is a species of mold called aspergillus oryzae. The “oryzae” in that name means “rice,” and it’s an indicator that this particular mold has been selectively bred over the centuries to be pretty specific to the kind of starches found in rice. Amylase is amylase, and I’m sure that the enzymes produced by this mold would indeed break down starches from barley, wheat, oats, corn, etc. provided those enzymes can get at the starches in question.

Rice, however, is always milled to remove the hull, germ, and most or all of the outer bran coat, which gives koji easy access to the starch once you gelatinize it by steaming. Other cereal grains simply aren’t processed in this manner, which means you’d have a hard time growing koji on the grains in the usual manner as well as trying to get the enzymes to penetrate the cooked grain. While we’re at it, have you ever tried to steam a large amount of barley or wheat? Not pretty.

Second: Can you really call it sake if it’s not made with rice?


Q: I saw this stuff called “rice malt syrup” can I use that to make sake?

A: Rice can’t be malted that I know of, so the “rice malt syrup” is a bit of a misnomer (just like how koji is sometimes called “malt rice”). Rice syrup or brown rice syrup is made by mashing cooked rice with barley malt to saccharify it, then straining off the liquid and boiling it down to a syrup. Sound familiar? Yep, this is the same way malt extract is made.

Can you make an “extract” sake with it? Nope. Sake gets its characteristic flavor and alcoholic punch from the slow starch-to-sugar conversion and flavors produced by the koji. If you add rice syrup to water and then ferment it, you’re making rice beer sans hops, which will taste nothing like sake.


Q: Do I really have to use several 1 gallon jugs as secondaries? Can I use [insert on-hand equipment here] instead?

A: Use whatever you want. I just suggest using glass jugs as your secondary fermenter vessels because they’re commonly available, small enough to handle easily, and can be sealed with a cap later for the clarifying/pasteurizing step.


Q: Is it really necessary to soak the rice for 18 hours? I’m reading on line on how to make sushi rice and most say to soak for 30 minutes.

A: YES!

Those directions for cooking sushi rice assume that you will be using a rice cooker or a pot on the stove to boil your rice. Either way you’re going to be immersing the rice in order to cook water into the kernels. The result will be soft, fluffy, sticky sushi rice.

This is not what we’re after for making sake. We want a solid, almost rubbery, and only slightly sticky rice kernel here. That can only be achieved by steaming, and steaming only heats the rice. An overnight soak in water is necessary for the rice to absorb the water that will actually cook the rice.


Q: Am I really waiting 2 days before I mix in more rice in the Nakazoe stage?

A: Yep. I can see where this gets confusing, so let me try to clear it up for you. The moromi, as I explained in the guide, is built up over 4 days. Illustrated thusly:

Hey, if this image is cut off a little bit on the right, it’s because you’re using Internet Explorer. Nothing I can do about it, use Firefox instead.

Take a close look. You’re adding rice for the hatsuzoe on Monday, then prepping for the next addition on Tuesday. The nakazoe addition actually takes place on Wednesday. The reason for this is you’re giving the yeast time to multiply their numbers before doubling the volume of rice that they have to deal with. Remember, you’ve already doubled it once with the hatsuzoe addition. Giving your yeast a couple days to build their numbers up will give you a better fermentation.


Q: How do I calculate my sake’s alcohol content?

A: Short answer: you don’t.

Okay okay, you want the long answer. Because sake is a dual parallel fermentation in which starch is being broken down to sugar which is then almost immediately consumed by yeast, there’s no way to take an original gravity reading. With no original gravity reading, you can’t use a final gravity reading to calculate your approximate alcohol by volume like you do with beer. If you really want to know exactly how much alcohol is in your sake, you’d have to take it to a lab somewhere to have them do their thing with it.

If you’d just like to have a ballpark idea (accurate to within about 1% ABV), I’d suggest purchasing a vinometer. This is what I use, and I’m pretty happy with the results.


Q: I’m starting my first venture in homebrewing with a small batch of sake. When I told a friend about this, she seemed concerned about going blind from it. Could anyone tell me if I should be concerned with methanol in my brew, and if there’s anything i should do to get rid of it?

A: The short answer to this question is: No, you have nothing to worry about. Homebrewing sake is no more dangerous than homebrewing beer.

The long answer is: I get this question more often than I ever expected, and the source is usually non-homebrewing (or once it was the owner of a homebrew store) but well-meaning friends who seem to be under the impression that sake is a distilled spirit. I can see where you’d get that impression: it’s generally as clear as water (commercially made sake, that is) and can taste fiery and powerfully alcoholic. But the fact is, sake is still a fermented beverage. Even though all yeasts produce higher weight hydrocarbons like isopropanol and methanol in trace amounts (yes, even your beer yeast and baker’s yeast), it’s just not a problem unless you concentrate them through distilling.


Q: Why is it necessary to continue to add more [i]koji[/i] at each step? If the mold in the [i]koji[/i] is active and digesting the rice starch shouldn’t it be reproducing as well, much like the yeast?

A: There are a couple of reasons why koji is added with each rice addition. The first has to do with the conditions the mold requires for growing: koji does NOT continue to grow, reproduce, and produce enzymes in the moromi because the mold requires a temperature of around 85ºF to do so. Enzymes are slowly active at low temperatures, but the mold itself is not.

Making koji is often compared to malting barley, so let’s follow that thought to its next step. Koji is like an incredibly powerful diastatic malt that can handle a ton of adjuncts in addition to converting itself. Just like malt, however, there is a limit to how much starch the enzymes in a given amount of koji can convert. So with each addition of rice we add the amount of koji necessary to convert it.


Q: I can’t get any of the WYeast Sake #9 yeast that you recommend. Can you use other kinds of yeast to make sake?

A: This question is actually answered on page 4 of the main guide, but I keep seeing this question pop up on search engine hits coming to this site. So you guys are asking Google the question, and Google is bringing you to me. That’s cool, I like that.

The answer is both simple and complex. The simple form is you can use any white wine yeast to make sake. “Brewer’s yeast” such as ale or lager yeasts, however, usually won’t work because of their low alcohol tolerance. There are exceptions because different yeast strains have differing levels of alcohol tolerance, so the best advice I can give you is to read up on the yeast strains information provided by the two main liquid yeast companies: White Labs and WYeast.

Here’s the big point I’d like to make: if you have a local homebrew store that you can buy beer and wine yeasts from, then they can get the sake yeast for you. All you have to do is ask them to. And please do try to get some real sake yeast, because a lot of the characteristic sake flavors come from the fermentation activity of the yeast used to produce it. I’m not saying that you can’t produce good and interesting sake with a different strain of yeast, but I am saying that using the right yeast will result in a more “authentic” product.

While we’re on the subject of yeast, I’d just like to add one more thing: please don’t use baker’s yeast to make sake. Just…don’t do it. Seriously, yuck.


Sake Timetable

This isn’t really a specific question, but probably the most confusion I see people expressing over making sake lies in the timetable. I totally understand! The varying times between steps and the order in which the steps happen confused the heck out of me when I first started reading about making sake. I had to actually sit down and mark it out on a calendar before I got it. So, to help everyone out, I’ve gone and put together a Google calendar for my current batch of sake to serve as an example. This batch of sake spans from mid-January to the end of May; use the navigation arrows to move between the months and click the links to see what the steps are.

Hey, if this calendar is cut off a little bit on the right, it’s because you’re using Internet Explorer. Nothing I can do about that, use Firefox instead.


This marks the end of the FAQ. I will, however, continue to add to it as more questions come in. Keep ‘em coming! I answer every question you send me, and if a question gets asked twice or strikes me as being pretty important, I will add it to this FAQ. Thanks for reading!