About Sake

About Sake

Because of its alcohol content and the lack of hops and carbonation, most people refer to sake as “rice wine.” This is not entirely accurate. Wines are always made from fruit, specifically the grape. Beer always contains hops, some kind of grain, and usually some amount of carbonation. Sake fits into neither one of these categories, though if you twisted my arm I’d tell you that it would go in the beer category. However, the category that sake really fits in is jiu – the Chinese word that is the root for all the myriads of other words Asians use to describe their fermented alcoholic rice beverages.

If you’d like to learn more about the history and methods of making sake in Japan, check out some of the External Links at the top of this site.

Making Sake

Years ago my first attempt didn’t turn out very well. It was very sour, low in alcohol, and just not very drinkable. Like many of the other “recipes” found in the Wild World Wide Web, I tried to shortcut the process by adding all the ingredients at once and fermenting at room temperature, resulting in a beverage that is known as doburoku (濁酒) in Japan. My excuse for that, such as it was, was I didn’t have the right equipment for making sake, specifically a steamer and a means for controlling the fermentation temperature. Also, I was an impatient new brewer.

I’m passing this on to you: don’t make the same mistakes I did!

Before you can make sake, you must learn the basic concepts of how sake is made. Let’s start with the ingredients.

Like beer, sake has only 4 ingredients:

    • Water (水)

    • Rice (米)

    • Kome-koji (米麹)

    • Yeast (酒母)

Notice the absence of malt there? You can’t malt rice for sake making the same way you malt barley, so the rice doesn’t contain any enzymes for converting starch to sugar like malted barley does. I’ll reiterate: rice won’t convert itself to sugar for the yeast to ferment. That’s where kome-koji (just koji from here forward) comes in.

Koji is rice that has had aspergillus oryzae (koji-kin) mold grown on it. This special mold has an interesting property: it produces enzymes that convert starch to sugar. If you add it to a soupy mash of rice, water, and yeast, the result is fermentation. All that remains is technique.

If I were to list the steps for making sake right away, most of you would close this window and never come back, and I wouldn’t blame you for it. At first glance it looks really complex. Hell, my first attempt at sake turned out horrible largely because I didn’t understand the rules of sake making and tried to oversimplify the process. I guess years of homebrewing experience really does make for a greater understanding of certain concepts, because when I got back to making sake after having given up for a few years, the whole convoluted and tradition-steeped process that the Japanese use to make sake began to make sense to me.

Eventually, I worked it out to simple rules that must be followed to make sake:

  • Rule #1: There are no shortcuts! Perhaps more than any other brewer, sake brewers must possess the patience and discipline to adhere to every step of a process. Every step of the process is absolutely necessary, and attempting to skip any steps invariably results in dumping out your batch of sake. That’s just how it is.

  • Rule #2: Make a yeast starter. Like any other beer (especially lagers), a big healthy yeast starter is essential for a good sake fermentation. When making sake, this step is called the moto (or shubo these days) or “seed mash” and the purpose is to get the yeast to reproduce to a good number and start actively fermenting before you add more rice and koji for the main fermentation.

  • Rule #3: Rice must be added in doubling additions over a period of a few days. If you add everything at once, your yeast will just give up before you reach the desired alcohol content of sake. Worse: if your yeast gives up before all the sugar is gone, other bugs can take over and ruin your sake. So, add rice in additions that double your fermentation volume each time over a period of about four days (koji counts as rice for this purpose, by the way). Using this method, your homebrewed sake can reach 18%-20% ABV.

  • Rule #4: Koji is always added the night before you add your rice addition. Basically, you add koji to your fermenting sake at the same time that you put your rice in the fridge to soak for steaming. The purpose is to hydrate the koji so that it will give up its enzymes to the solution, ready to be soaked up by the steamed rice being added the next day.

  • Rule #5: Control your fermentation temperature. The closer you get to 50ºF (10ºC), the more dormant lactobacillus becomes while yeast is still very active. This allows the yeast to take control of the fermentation and prevents your sake from becoming too sour. Some acidity is necessary, but too much will render it undrinkable.

As mentioned in the above rules, there is the method of adding fermentables gradually to the fermentation and it’s really important. Sake brewing is separated into the following stages:

  1. Moto (酛) – The “seed” or “yeast” mash. This is a yeast starter, fellow homebrewers. Also called shubo if you’re using the sokujo moto method.

  2. Moromi (醪) – The main fermentation, which has three koji and rice additions:

    1. Hatsuzoe (初添) – First addition.

    2. Nakazoe (仲添) – Middle addition.

    3. Tomezoe (留添) – Final addition.

  3. Yodan (四段) – Stabilizing addition: water to dilute or koji to sweeten.

Got all that? Ok, recipe time.