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Monday, February 11, 2013

Sake: Fermentation’s Final Frontier

Eric Fouch is an experienced homebrew and the president of Primetime Brewers, one of the oldest and most respected homebrew clubs in Michigan. In this post, Eric documents his first experiences making sake.

Inoculating rice with koji-kin
By Eric Fouch

Over the last 17 years of my homebrewing “career,” I have brewed almost every fermented beverage there is. Of course, I started brewing beer, then tried my hand at making ciders, meads, perries and wines. I have even made some kombucha and kefir. I say “almost” because I have never made and never plan to make traditional chicha.

The preparation of traditional chicha involves tribal women sitting around a communal pot, chewing either ground corn or manioc root, and spitting the results into the communal pot. The naturally occurring enzymes in human saliva then covert the starches to sugars, and natural yeasts do the fermentation. Not happening. I have, however, written up my experiences making kombucha, kefir, and cheese in the January 2010 edition of the Primetime Brewers Rubber Chicken newsletter, which  you can find on our website,

But here I am writing about making sake, Japanese rice wine. I started looking into this seriously when I saw a homebrew Sake kit at Siciliano’s. That’s just what I need, another hobby or project! But, after a brief exposure to a couple different types of sake at the Wine and Food festival, my interest was piqued.

Truth is, the more I looked into it, the more confusing it got! I can’t really write up the entire process in detail here, as the best instructions I found online were about 10 pages long. So, in this article, I plan to touch on the basics, and cover some of the more obscure, or confusing points, coming at it from the perspective of an experienced homebrewer and hoping to pass along any tips I've learned from my own experience.

This is the basic process, in a nutshell:
  1. Make or obtain koji, a steamed rice that has been inoculated with koji kin, the proper type of sake fungus.
  2. Make steamed rice using the proper process—it’s not what you think it is!
  3. Combine steamed rice, koji, water, sake yeast (in three different additions) and temperature control. 
One thing that threw me for a little bit was the difference between koji-kin and koji. I kept re-reading the instructions I found online, but it just didn’t make sense, not until I noticed another link for making the koji, which added an additional two days and 4 pages of instructions to the process. It was then I realized I have to use the koji-kin (the actual fungi spores) in the kit I bought to make koji (the inoculated rice)!  Now it’s starting to make sense, and it’s pretty darn labor intensive.

Other things that caused a bit of consternation had to do with the rice and the rice preparation.

The Rice: The proper kind of rice was hard to find. It was fairly easy to eliminate one type of rice right away—the ubiquitous “Extra Long Grain” rice. The perfect rice to use is polished rice. 99.9% of the rice you find around these parts is "10% polished," which means it has been de-hulled, and minimally milled to remove the bran. Rice used traditionally and commercially for sake production is 40% to 60% polished, which means that much of the grain has been milled away. The outer portions of the rice grain are not the most desirable for making sake. Short of actually finding polished rice, I found references that said short grain, or pearl rice is acceptable. So off I went for a local source of polished rice or short grain. I visited every Asian supermarket/specialty store I could find in Grand Rapids, Holland, and Zeeland. I found long grain rice, wild rice, black rice, brown rice, red rice, sushi rice (also known as sticky rice), and saffron rice. But no short grain rice! The closest I found was Homai California Calrose rice, which is a medium grain rice. Feeling a bit defeated, I stopped in the Family Fare in Zeeland to grab some lunch. I wandered down the rice isle, and what did I find? Bags of Fancy Pearl Rice!

The Prep: The instructions refer to “steamed rice.” Almost every reference you will find in a cook book, or on the internet defines this as adding 1 to 1.5 cups of water to 1 cup of rice (depending on type of rice), bring it to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. This rice is unacceptable for making sake. Rice for sake is prepared by rinsing the rice thoroughly, soaking the rice for an hour or so in cold water, draining, then steaming it in a basket above the boiling water for 15 minutes. This produces a translucent, al dente rice grain with the proper kind of structure to hold the koji-kin mold, and allow access to the starches without turning into a sloppy, gloppy mess.

Now let’s talk about the water. You think water is important for beer? Water is crucial for making sake.  No iron or chlorine can be present, or the sake is ruined. You can make this same argument for beer as well, but beer is much more forgiving of water quality (in terms of mineral content) than sake is. So the best water to use is distilled water that has some salts—magnesium chloride (Epsom salt), potassium chloride (KCl)—and yeast nutrient added to it.

OK. If you’re still with me after just barely covering those basics—and believe me, I’ve condensed about 14 pages of details so far—now we finally get to the overview of the actual process.

Koji: The koji is made by steaming 3.5 cups or so of short grain rice. Once this is cooled, you inoculate it with the koji kin spores. The inoculated rice is then incubated at 35.5˚C (96˚F). The rice is held at this temp for 48 hours, and has to be stirred, or broken up every 10 hours, or it will form one solid useless mat. Once you’ve prepared the koji, you can store it in the fridge (for a few weeks), freeze it (for a few months) of dry it for long term storage.

Incubating the koji
You are now ready to start making your Sake. I will label each stage with the Japanese word for the process:

Moto (analogous to the yeast starter)

Combine 2.5 cups of water that has been amended with the yeast nutrient and Epsom salts and a half-cup of koji, and put it in the fridge. Steam 1.5 cups of rice, and combine it with the koji mixture from the fridge in your fermenter—a 5-gallon bucket works best. After two days (and lots of stirring) this is cooled to 50-60˚F, and you add the sake yeast. Tweve hours later, bring it back to room temp and stir twice a day for three days. Chill it back down to 50-60˚F and let it rest for 5 days.

Hatsuzoe – First addition

The fermentables are added in steps in order to build up the alcohol slowly and avoid shocking the yeast. Add another cup of koji to the fermenter, and steam 2.5 cups of rice. Add 1.25tsp KCl to 2.75 cups water and combine with the steamed rice. Stir it up to break up the any clumps, and add it to the fermenter. Now the fermentation is maintained at 70˚F. This is stirred every 2 hours for the next 12 hours, then twice a day for the next two days. 

Nakazoe – Second Addition

Do the same thing with 1.5 cups koji, 6 cups rice, 8.75 cups cold water, but only stir after the first 12 hours. 

Tomezoe – The Final Addition

Add three cups of koji to the fermenter, steam 5 pounds (dry weight) of rice, combine it with 1 gallon + 1 cup of water. Once you’ve stirred all the clumps out, add it to the fermenter. Each addition—the Hatsuzoe, Nakazoe, and Tomezoe—double the volume of your fermentation. It should be at about 3.5 gallons now. Stir it. Stir it good. Let this sit at room temp (70F) overnight. Then, lower the temperature of fermentation to 50F and let ferment for three weeks. This will complete the primary fermentation, and produce 18-20% alcohol. 

When primary fermentation is complete, strain out the lees and rice solids using cheesecloth or a straining bag. Secondary fermentation can take place in a glass carboy at this point, since you don’t need access for stirring or adding rice or koji, etc. You have a few options here: You can dilute the sake to whatever alcohol level you want; you can sweeten it with another dose of rice and koji (OK, I just said you don’t need to add any more rice or koji, but this is your choice); you can bottle it right away for a nigorizake or cloudy style sake; or you can fine it and let it clear. Another two weeks in the secondary should finish things up, and then it’s time for packaging, consumption and/or pasteurization. Unpasteurized sake can easily sour, as all the opening and stirring allows lacto bacteria and other organisms to get in. I have had good luck bottling in capped bottles, and running the bottles through the dishwasher for sanitizing.

Having said all this, I am only now starting into my first sake. I have made my koji, and will shortly begin making the moto. I can post follow-ups on my progress and experiences along the way, if anybody is interested. Below is a list of online resources I found and used in my sake research and writing this article:

Stay tuned to The Buzz for more updates on the sake-making process!

The Primetime Brewers are a West Michigan homebrew club, based in Grand Rapids. Members include first time brewers to national award winners. They are an American Homebrewers Association sanctioned club. They participate in AHA functions, such as Learn to Homebrew Day, Big Brew and Mead Day. Dues are $15 for the first year and $20 after that. Membership in Primetime Brewers gets you 10% off homebrew supplies from our local vendors, including Siciliano's Market. Check this website for times and dates of meetings and functions. You do not have to be a member to attend meetings.

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