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M033_Proj_Sake_Opener_tight
The bottles are slender and elegant and colored a frosty white or baby blue, alcohol levels usually hover in the mid-teens, and the price tags often exceed 30 or 40 bucks. For these reasons, sake has gained a reputation among many Westerners as the Eastern equivalent of fine wine — something rare and precious, to be consumed in tiny portions, and more often than not simply out of reach.

But this favored table beverage of Japan is actually a simple grain-based brew, much like beer. And while it’s true that good sake, often called “rice wine,” is expensive, there’s an easy way around the price tag: make it at home. It takes just 4 ingredients, and anyone, using only the most basic of beer-making equipment, can transform a sack of pearly white rice into fragrant, perfumey sake in as little as 12 to 15 days.

Born in China some 4,000 years ago as rice cultivation took root, sake culture found its way to Japan about 2,000 years later, where it bloomed into a refined and hallowed tradition. Over time, rice varieties would be bred specifically for use in brewing, and today those who make sake — often in tiny microbreweries with their own proprietary yeasts and rice strains — are esteemed as among the greatest of craftsmen.

Brewing sake requires rice, water, yeast, and, finally, one more essential component: a mold native to East Asia called Aspergillus oryzae. We have this critter to thank for black bean sauce, soy sauce, miso, and other cultured food products of Asia. A. oryzae releases an enzyme that breaks down complex carbohydrates into simple sugar. Since sugar is what yeast turns into ethanol, the first step in making sake is to convert steamed rice into a sticky, sweet porridge.

Purists may wish to start from scratch by buying spores of the A. oryzae mold and sprinkling it over a batch of steamed rice. Here, the mold blooms and does its magic: the grain turns as sweet as candy. The rice is now called malt-rice, or koji, and can be dried or frozen and stored for months until needed for brewing.

Most sake homebrewers opt to purchase dried, premade koji ready to use. A favored product is that of Cold Mountain, which sells 20oz plastic containers full of dried rice inoculated with A. oryzae.

You’ll also need yeast, and many beer and wine yeasts do just fine. In advanced sake brewing, the water and its particular mineral content are a matter of concern, but beginners can use clean tap water.

Finally, there’s the rice. Brown rice is commonly advised against, since the outer layers of each unhusked kernel contain proteins and fats that can, by some opinions, produce off-flavors. Commercial brewers use specially bred sake rice varieties, but these are expensive. Fortunately, table rice can make very respectable sake.

The magic moment of brewing arrives when the lid of the bucket is removed. Here, where 2 weeks before was a slurry of rice, fungi, and warm water, is now a naturally transformed beverage. If all went well, the aromas should be beautiful — stone fruits and guava and flower petals — and to think that they all came from polished white pearls of rice can be astounding. To see firsthand that sake can easily be produced in a bucket in one’s kitchen is just as thrilling. Here’s how.

Materials

For 1 gallon of sake:

  • Short-grain rice, white, 3.3lbs
  • Cold Mountain koji, 20oz tub — Check your local Japantown (I got mine from Nijiya Market in San Francisco), or order online from Pacific Mercantile (pacificeastwest.com) and select the quickest shipping since it needs to be kept cool.
  • Yeast, champagne or dry white wine variety, 1g
  • Water, 4qt

Tools

Specialty brewing items are available at most homebrewing and winemaking supply stores.

  • Brewing bucket, 5gal — typically 12″ OD × 17½” tall
  • Airlock and rubber stopper — adds about 5″ to bucket height
  • Mini-fridge (optional) — to fit your bucket and airlock, with a temperature range that goes up to 55°F–65°F. We used a Vissani 52-Bottle Wine Cooler, Home Depot item #MVWC52B (homedepot.com). If weather permits, omit the fridge and leave your brewing bucket in a cool garage or basement where the temperature is a steady 55°F–65°F.
  • Measuring cup
  • Scale — for measuring rice, yeast
  • Colander, stainless steel
  • Large pot — for steaming the rice
  • Cotton towels
  • Funnel
  • Ladle
  • Glass jug, 1gal — for secondary fermentation
  • Sanitizing agents — One Step No Rinse Cleanser or iodine
  • Rubber tube — for siphoning
  • Beer bottles
  • Bottle caps
  • Hand-operated bottle capper
  • Siphoning pump (optional)
  • Bottling valve (optional)
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Steps

Step #1: Wash, soak, and steam.

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  • Rinse the rice with cold water through a colander until the water drains out clear.
  • Soak the rice for 90 minutes. Fully wrap the rice in a clean cotton towel, then place it in a colander within a large pot. Add about 1/2" of water and simmer over low heat, making sure the lid closes tightly and the pot doesn’t dry out and burn. Cook the rice for 1 hour or more, adding water as needed.
  • When finished, properly steam-cooked rice will be sticky and a bit rubbery between the teeth — and palatable. If it's still al dente, keep steaming it.
  • Sterilize your brewing bucket, lid, measuring cup, rubber stopper, airlock, and your hands with either iodine or One Step No Rinse Cleanser. If using One Step, make a solution of 1 tablespoon per gallon of water according to the instructions, throw in everything above, slosh water over all the equipment, making sure everything is covered, and remove it all after 2 minutes.
  • Cap the bucket with the lid and airlock, and shake the bucket to coat the insides with the solution. Dump the solution out after 2 minutes. Sloshing some boiling water in the brewing vessel afterward can’t hurt.

Step #2: Mix.

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Kanpai! Brewing Sake

Combine the 4qt of cold water, steamed rice, 20oz of koji, and gram of yeast in the brewing bucket. Secure the lid.

Step #3: Ferment.

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  • The starch-to-sugar conversion and fermen-tation will begin at once and simultaneously. If you’ve plugged your brewing bucket with an airlock, bubbling will start within hours, and the glugs will come increasingly rapidly. Put the bucket in a cool place to keep the sake at 55°F–65°F.
  • The fermentation, and the pace of the glugging, will probably peak between day 3 and day 7. When it slows to one glug every 15 minutes or so, after about 2 weeks, the sake is mostly finished.

Step #4: Sample.

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  • Open the lid and you should see the rice floating on top and yeast settled to the bottom. The sake will be relatively clear and can be carefully (don’t stir up those funky sediments at the bottom!) poured or ladled through a cotton cloth into a carafe for immediate consumption in case you’re thirsty.
  • Squeeze out the sake from the rice by twisting the cloth.
  • NOTE: Any material or surface (hands included) that may come into contact with the sake should be considered potentially “infected.” Sterilize everything thoroughly just before use.

Step #5: Ferment some more.

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  • Secondary fermentation is an important step that clears up your sake and allows bad-tasting esters to settle out. First, the sake remaining among the soupy bottom dregs must be separated from the foul-tasting yeast sediment. To do so, pour or siphon the boozy muck, again filtering out the rice, into a sanitized glass gallon jug. This is your secondary fermenter.
  • Here, the last kicks of fermentation will peter out as the sediments precipitate to the bottom. This may take several weeks, with the jug kept at about 55°F. (Some brewers just put it right into their near-freezing kitchen fridge.)

Step #6: Bottle

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  • When the sake is clear, with a thick layer of sediment on the bottom, siphon it into sanitized beer bottles. (A bottling valve, which only flows when pressed to the bottom of the bottle, makes it easier.)
  • Seal the bottles with sanitized caps using the hand-operated capper. Drink within weeks or months.
  • TIP: Wrap a cloth around the tip of the siphoning pump to keep rice from clogging it.

Step #7: Age (optional).

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Kanpai! Brewing Sake
  • If you wish to age your sake, you should pasteurize it prior to bottling by placing the filled-but-not-yet-capped bottles into a pot of boiling water. Using a clean thermometer, monitor the rising temperature of the sake. When it hits 140°F, consider the drink sterilized.
  • Now cap the bottles and stash them away. You might even age some for years.

Step #8: How to serve sake.

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  • At last, the night will arrive when your homebrewed sake comes to the table. Reverence and respect must be shown, but don’t overdo it. For one thing, you don’t need to “pair” it with sushi. While sake and sushi are often seen hand in hand, that’s only by convention and tradition — like two villagers married in an arranged ceremony, never knowing that their true soul-mates were living somewhere far away. So cook whatever you want — Indian curry, Greek dolmatas, Mexican tacos, French cheeses. Sake likes them all.
  • Secondly, you can serve your sake from square cedar cups — or just keep it real and use the stemware in your cupboard. In fact, you want a glass that’s wide enough to swirl, setting aloft those lovely aromas.
  • Finally, for Pete’s sake, don’t drink your sake warm or hot. This has long been a trick for masking off-flavors in lower-quality sake — and your homebrew is anything but.

Alastair Bland

Alastair Bland is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. He writes frequently of food, science, and the environment. He travels frequently — often by bicycle — and his journeys can be followed at his blog “Off the Road” (blogs.smithsonianmag.com/adventure).


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