Sake Making – Part 1

It has been a while since we last wrote about brewing anything. Rest assured, there is plenty of recipe experimentation and medal-winning brewing going on in all of our kitchens.  In fact, we have a special type of beer brewing up at my place, and that beer is sake. Sake? Beer? Yes!  Sake IS beer my friends.  It’s cold brewed with grain (beer) rather than fruit (wine) using a strain of lager (beer) yeast.  That being said, there are many different types of sake; some are carbonated, most are flat, some are aged, and some even have distilled spirits added to them in order to drive up the alcohol percentage!  There is a lot to learn about this ancient Japanese tradition, and I’m finding it very similar to falling down the new home brewer rabbit hole.  It’s an exciting adventure.

I’m no stranger to sake.  I remember the cold days in Kashihara sipping delightfully warm Hakutsuru brand sake with my buddy Dave while we watched anime.  I’m constantly reminded of a quote from Samurai Champloo where Mugen downs his glass and doesn’t have enough money to buy another one.  A monk offers him some of his and says, “The beauty of sake lies in its slight high.”  It’s a cool scene.  It points out two things – 1) Sake is meant to be savored and 2) If you meet a shaolin monk in a bar and he offers you sake, he probably wants to fight you to the death – You Better Win!  (Watch it Here @ 7:45)

I digress.  The point I wanted to make is that sake has a special place in my heart, but for as much as I love it, I know almost nothing about it’s production, history, and modern day iterations other that it’s Japanese and it’s good.  I’m going to try and change that for myself and hopefully you can glean some of the this information from me as I go through the sake brewing process.

The sake I am making is called Nihonshu or Seishu (Rice Beer).  I’m following a recipe from Will Auld’s website Home Brew Sake.  This is a great reference for anyone interested in the subject.  Will is also available via email if you have any questions.

Sake’s main ingredients are sake rice, koji, brewing water, and yeast.  Sake rice is a special type of highly polished rice ground down to 30 – 70% of its original weight, exposing the inner rice grain.  Typically the higher the polish, the more refined the sake.  The second ingredient is Koji, a rice covered with a special bacteria, Aspergillus Oryzae, which replaces the malt enzymes found in beer.  Koji produces beta, alpha, and gamma amylase which converts the rice starches to fermentable sugar.  It is essential for making miso, amazake, Japanese pickles, and other fermented products.  Water is important and must have very little iron.  Will and Fred recommend using distilled water that has been treated with Epsom Salt, Potassium Chloride, and lactic acid.  If you’re familiar with brewing water chemistry at all this might sound familiar.  The goal is to add the right amount of salts to synthesize the brewing water used by famous sake breweries in Japan: this water is called Miyamizu or “Heavenly Water.”  Last, and certainly not least, is the sake yeast.  This lager yeast will work simultaneously with the Koji as it creates digestible sugars.  As with beer yeast, it’s also responsible for the CO2, alcohol, and many of the flavor compounds in the final product.

I must confess that my “homebrewer excitement” has led to me to alter this recipe with an addition of one of my favorites – Forbidden Rice.  Because rice is one of the most important ingredients in sake, this will be interesting.  Black Rice Sake is very, very rare, but it does exist.  I have seen it called Kuroimaizake, Kuromai and Keukmeeju.  This sake is probably not available in the USA, however you can easily find a sake made with red rice called Kikusakrai Asamurasaki by Kiuchi, which is the same brewery that makes Hitachino beer.  It has a very unique flavor that is quite a bit stronger than other traditional sake.

That being said, I’m making this sake and I’m already about 20 days into the process.  At a very high level, I have completed the Shubo yeast mash phase and I am at the tail end of the Moromi main mash stage.  After I’m done with the Moromi, I will be separating the main sake from the rice leese to clarify it and will be storing it at a cold temperature for an extended period of time.  This process remind me a lot of lagering.  A lot of temperature control and I don’t really see how anyone could do this accurately without having a temperature controlled kegerator/fridge of some sort.

I’ll follow up once the Moromi is over and we’ll go over some more sake knowledge tidbits.


–Kip B.
Los Angeles Ale Works™
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