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And Now For Something...Different
Every once in a while...oh, who am I kidding? Frequently the homebrewer gets the urge to make something different. Come to think of it, that's probably what prompted most of you readers to try your hand at making sake to begin with. One of my many Google forays into the world of sake turned up this Japan Times article about akaisake
What the heck is that, right? Well, in a country where sake in general isn't very popular, it shouldn't be any wonder that few Americans have ever seen this funky red rice wine from Japan.
Yes, red sake.
Even in Japan, this is a rare style of sake. It's made by very few brewers, and it's just not popular enough to make other brewers want to take up making it. That means that here in the States, it's even harder to find a commercial example. In fact, I could only get my hands on one commercial example to try (pictured at right): Asamurasaki "Morning Purple Red Rice Sake" made by Kiuchi Brewery Japan.
Akaisake is very unusual among sake. The flavor is deceptively sweet, very fruity and berry-like, in addition to the usual sake flavors. The result is very attractive to look at, pleasant to drink, and very different from your usual sake.
As it turns out, it's not difficult to make. Well, no more difficult than any other sake, anyway.
I'll tell you how, after the jump.
So, How is it Different?
If you've made sake before, then you're already familiar with the four ingredients of sake:
Akaisake, in order to get that red color and unusual flavor, adds a fifth ingredient: beni-koji. More commonly known as "red yeast rice," this culture of monascus pupureus mold on rice is currently quite the controversial hot product in the United States.
According to current Chinese research, it seems that this humble little fungus is capable of producing significant levels of compounds known as statins. This created a buzz because these compounds are evidently identical to - and therefore have the same effect as - patented prescription cholesterol control drugs. This means that beni-koji is, in effect, an inexpensive and over-the-counter alternative to an expensive prescription drug.
As you could probably expect, the US FDA stepped in and tried to ban the sale of this product as a dietary supplement for controlling cholesterol within the United States - evidently unsuccessfully, because I recently found a package of red yeast rice capsules in the vitamin section of my local supermarket.
Still, whole red koji is somewhat difficult to get hold of in this country, and I have yet to find a commercial online source for it. I happen to have a friend who lives in Singapore who was kind enough to send me enough for one batch of akaisak, but if you live in a city with a strong Chinese presence you may be able to find it at a Chinese traditional medicine shop. If you can't find the whole grain product, you can still use the powdered form. Just try to buy it in bulk and not in capsules, because you don't want to spend all night opening or grinding pills for this.
So, would you like to make some akaisake? Read on!
Here We Go Again, Now...
We begin with a slightly modified version of my usual sake recipe:
10.00 lbs Short Grain Rice 04.75 cup Koji 01.25 cup Red Koji 02.00 gal Water 00.75 tsp Yeast nutrient 01.00 pn Epsom salt 01.25 tsp Morton salt substitute 01.00 ea White Labs WLP705 Sake yeast (Japanese #7 strain)
I have deviated from the usual recipe here in two ways:
First, I have replaced 20% of the normal koji with the red beni-koji. You could go as high as 33% if you want to end up with a darker color and stronger flavor, but for this first batch I figured 20% would be a good place to start. That's about half a pound, if you're buying by weight (sorry guys, you'll have to do your own metric conversions this time).
The other change is that I'm using the White Labs WLP705 sake yeast, which - the company confirmed this to me in e-mail - is the Japanese "Sake #7" strain. This is strain is heavily used throughout the sake brewing industry, favored because of its clean fermentation character. Clean is what I wanted here, in order to accurately judge the flavor and aroma contributed by the red koji.
Incidentally, I'd like to point out that just last year this strain was a "Platinum Strain" only offered by White Labs for September-October. In their 2009 literature, the yeast lab confirms that they've added this yeast to their regular lineup as of this year. Good going, White Labs! Now we homebrewers have both of the popular sake strains (#7 and #9) available to us year-round from two different labs.
The Brewing Process...
...Is identical to the process described in the Taylor-MadeAK Sake Hombrewing Guide. I'll briefly outline it here, with some pictures for illustration, but I really don't want to duplicate that guide in its entirety here so please feel free to refer back to it as needed.
Briefly, the steps of sake brewing are:
That's it, really. Except for ingredients, the method of producing akaisake is exactly the same as making any other sake.
So, How Does It Taste?
"I think it's really good. It's a lot smoother than any other Sake I've tried, and the sweet taste is lovely. The aftertaste is a bit of a surprise as well." --John Arden
In all honesty, I don't even warm any kind of sake up to drink any more. This sake in particular is so fruity and funky that I feel like warming it up at all would just destroy it. Drinking it chilled is the way to go, in my opinion. The reader (that's you!), of course, is free to make their own decision on the matter.
So, how does it taste? For comparison, I obtained a bottle of Kikusakari Asamurasaki and tasted it side-by-side with my homebrewed version. Note that Asamurasaki is not a junmai sake, but rather a honjozo shu that has had distilled alcohol added to it in the manner of many other lower-shelf sakes. That doesn't mean it's bad, mind you, in the same way that beers with rice, corn, or other adjuncts that prevent them from being called "all malt" are not bad. This isn't top shelf sake, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Right away, as you can see in the picture above, the first noticeable difference is that the color in the Taylor-MadeAK version is markedly lighter. This is a result of bentonite fining, which is infamous for its ability to strip color out of wines. With this in mind, I would recommend the use of a different fining agent for those who would like to avoid stripping the pretty red color out of their red sake - Sparkolloid would be a good substitute.
Below are the results of my simple comparison between my akaisake and the commercial version:
Appearance: Very clear red-peach color.
Aroma: Fruity, with hints of vanilla. Almost smells like umeshu.
Flavor: Astringent, sharp bitterness, with vanilla smoothness and an ineffable fruitiness in the middle. Alcoholic warming after swallowing with a lingering, hop-like bitterness.
Appearance: Very clear orange/light peach color.
Aroma: Fruity, reminiscent of peaches with some strawberry and a tiny hint of vanilla. The grainy aroma usually associated with my homemade sake is there, but just barely.
Flavor: Astringent, tangy, fruity, with a similar vanilla-like smoothness in the middle. The tail is bitter and leaves the tongue tingling, with alcoholic warmth only appearing shortly after swallowing and rapidly disappearing.
In the end, I found that I preferred the more intense and complex flavor of my homebrewed akaisake over the much cleaner and more delicate commercial version...but just barely. The two were very different in their aroma and flavor profile, but still so close that it's fairly difficult for me to say that one is better than the other.
Looking back upon this experiment, I would have to conclude that the difficulty of obtaining beni-koji is high enough to make homebrewing this style of sake not much more than a niche curiosity. Mind you it's a rewarding niche curiosity, but one that should probably only be undertaken by the true mad scientist type homebrewers out there who have the connections to get red yeast rice without crossing the FDA and the kind of understanding spouse who doesn't mind having what appears to be a bucket of gore taking up space in the temperature-controlled chest freezer.
Until next time, kampai!