How-To: Brew Sake

Food & Beverage
How-To: Brew Sake


Sake, the delicate Japanese alcoholic beverage, is said to have originated in the Nara period (710–794 AD). And though it’s often referred to as rice wine, sake is produced using a grain-based brewing process more like that of beer. Surprisingly, sake is easy to make, requires only four ingredients, and can be made using basic beer-brewing equipment in about 12 to 15 days. Fermentation specialist Alastair Bland walks us through the eight steps on the pages of MAKE Volume 33.

From his intro:

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.




Read Alastair’s full sake tutorial and try your hand at making your own.


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13 thoughts on “How-To: Brew Sake

  1. Ben Hennessy says:

    But how does it taste?

    1. Goli Mohammadi says:

      We made a batch here at Make: Labs and it was good! Granted it wasn’t artisan quality, but it was our first batch. Practice makes perfect.

  2. chuck says:

    The rice and water are essential. Use the best water you can find. Don’t scrimp on the rice, either. Koji can be found at health food stores. Ask your local brewer’s supply for proper yeast, but don’t be afraid to experiment. Some of the best yeast I ever used was from the bulk section at a health food store I used to frequent. It tasted better than most of the specialty brewers yeast I tried at a fraction of the cost. After you get a palatable batch try running it through a simple wok and ice reflux still to produce Soju. Keep in mind that any distillation of alcohol for human consumption is technically illegal, so don’t go crazy, but it is a good skill to have. I don’t think the feds are going to break down your door for a few pints of 60 proof hooch.

    1. Jerry Carter says:

      Illegal you say? I think the cache of that particular operation just went up measurably among those who live for such law flaunting opportunities.

      Serious question – if the purpose of the fungi is to break down the rice into sugar, why not just sugar yeast and water? I’m guessing there are a lot of little things not broken down that add to the flavor? I’m guessing the fungus doesn’t die off in the process, so that has to be a good portion of what you’re imbibing at the end of the day?

      1. Desco says:

        …which is basically the precursor to rum. To make rum, sugar cane juice is fermented into a “wine”, which is then distilled into rum. It looks like there are some cultures that make sugar cane wine to drink, but you don’t hear of it so much so I would guess it is not that good.

        Beer starts with some grain (barley, wheat, etc) and it is “malted” to convert some of the carbohydrates into sugar, which is then fermented into beer. (Distill that, and you have whisky.)

        Wine starts with grape juice, which already has a lot of available sugar. Mead starts with honey. So essentially, all brewing is employing yeast to turn sugar into alcohol. What you use to get there is what determines the flavor of the finished product– the “other stuff” that is not alcohol. Remember, beer is usually only 3-6% alcohol.

        Why not just add sugar to rice water and ferment that? Sure, it’ll work. But why not just start with Everclear and add grape juice and call it “wine”? There are many many things going on to creat the flavor of beer, wine, and sake. Not just the fermentation of sugar into alcohol. Read the Wikipedia article about Koji. It definitely contributes a lot to flavor.

        1. Jerry Carter says:

          Thansk, DESCO – very informative. So the stories I heard about prison wine – that stuff must taste awful… but if you’re going to prison, skills to have. Not that I am. I hope.

        2. matt warrillow says:

          I believe there is a version of Mount Gay rum that is called Sugarcane Brandy in Barbados but I have not seen it outside of the country.

          1. Christopher Todesco says:

            And “brandy” is just distilled wine. :)

      2. Edd says:

        Your guess pretty much hits the nail on the head. Just sugar, water, and yeast makes a generally pretty gross concoction. There’s a reason beer is made with malted barley and not just sugar.

        Don’t be too grossed out at the mold though. Yeast is just another kind of fungus as well.

        1. Jerry Carter says:

          Thanks Edd, I’ve seen the make-me-want-to-give-up-soy-sauce how it’s made video… kind of a little grossed out. But then, I’ll happily eat slippery jacks from my yard so I guess it’s just the fermentation sorta kinda = rotting that I’m struggling with. :-P But I’m seeing more stories about the utility of yeast as a bio-factory these days…. and I understand white vinegar is commercially produced with yeast, so there you go.

    1. Satoshi Komiya says:

      Sake lees yeast (Kubota): 100g
      Koji (Miyako Koji): 200g
      Rice: 450g (1000g)
      Natural water: 1.2 liters

  3. Robert Greenly says:

    I was influenced by this article that I started my own website for Sake home brewing. Check out

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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