The LAAW of Shu (Japanese Sake)

Kurosawa_MasuThe Los Angeles Ale Works Sake/Nihon-Shu Project

One of the greatest parts about home brewing is being able to experiment with drinks of any shape, size, flavor, and origin.  From beer, to mead, to wine, as long as you have basic equipment, you have the potential to make a pretty good glass of whatever ails you.  I focus 75% of my efforts on beer and the other 25% on non-alcoholic sodas and carbonated teas/juices.  Part of the 75% beer focus is actually sake, which is beer.  I wrote a while back about my experimentation with sake brewing, black rice sake in particular.  I’m happy to report that I’m getting back into it once again.

What is Nihon-Shu?

Before we go into the brewing process let’s talk about the drink itself.  Calling sake, sake, is actually a misnomer.  Sake literally means “liquor” or “alcohol,” which encompases all drinks with alcohol in it. The drink we know as sake is actually called sei-shu or Nihon-Shu, which translates to “rice beer.”  So there you have it: it’s beer.

  • The alcohol in wine comes from the fermentation of fruit juices (grapes in particular), the alcohol in mead from honey, the alcohol in cider from apples, and the alcohol in beer from grain.  The last time I checked, rice is a grain.
  • Beer is brewed, and so is Nihon-shu–cold brewed, but still brewed.
  • The yeast used in brewing traditional Nihon-Shu is a strain of lager yeast, and the drink itself is lagered during the fermentation process, which can last months.
  • The people responsible for making this drink are referred to as Toji meaning “Brewer or Master Brewer”

NihonShu_Sake_01_BlackRice Historians believe Nihon-Shu first appeared in Japan during the Nara Perdio (~700 AD), but it was likely present far before this date.  In fact, many countries such as China, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines make a version of fermented rice beer. Nihon-Shu was misclassified as wine most likely due to its highly alcoholic nature.  In its unblended pure form, called Genshu, it can be upwards of 21-25% ABV, which falls more in line with wine and spirits.  Still, this drink, originating in ancient China and perfected in Japan, is a subclass of beer. Today’s Nihon-Shu is varied.  Sweet to dry, low to high ABV, sparkling to flat, some diluted with water and others with distilled spirits.  Each one employs a modified brewing process which becomes more refined as technology becomes more advanced.  Brewers use varying levels of polished rice and various methods of separating the rice lees (another wine vocab) from young Nihon-Shu. All of these factors affect the final flavor of the drink we pour into our glass. Maybe it’s just me, but home brewed or small batched sake is in a class of its own.  The best part about brewing this drink is being able to taste it through its many stages.  There is honestly nothing like it in the commercial market, and really the only way you would experience tasting sake in this way would be to visit a brewery making it.

Brewing Nihon-Shu

NihonShu_Sake_03_Steam Let’s start off here by me saying and you understanding that I’m not an expert Nihon-shu Toji… yet.  However, I am an experience beer brewer, and there are many similarities between the two brewing methods.

  • Temperature – Before you even think about making sake, you’ll need to make sure you have a kegerator, fridge, or some other device that allows you to control fermentation temperature.  Nihon-Shu Sake brewing is a very delicate and tedious process when it comes to temperature variation.  Each stage has a different set of temperatures, and you must raise and lower the temperature frequently.
  • Patience and Organization – Making Nihon-Shu is a drawn out process covering almost three months.  After the sake has finished fermentation, pressing, etc., it ages for another 6 months.  You’re going to need to get yourself a calendar or day planner and plot out the process, making sure you aren’t going to be out of town or perhaps have a wedding anniversary during a pivotal point in the process… oops!
  • Sanitation – Like beer brewing, Nihon-Shu requires sanitation.  It doesn’t seem to be as intense as modern beer, but exercising proper sanitation techniques will improve your finished product.  PBW, Star-San, isopropyl alcohol, sanitary gloves, etc.–get these and ensure that all this effort doesn’t go to waste.
  • Making Nihon-Shu – My intent is not to go over each step; Will Auld from does an excellent job at this already. Not only does he have the compiled works of Fred Eckhardt on his site complete with video demonstrations of each step, but he also has a book out called “Brewing Sake: Release the Toji Within” which is available on amazon.  This is one of the only sake brewing books available currently, and it covers everything from brewing practices, equipment, advice, stats, recipes for nihon-shu, and how to make your own koji.  It’s a must buy.

NihonShu_Sake_04_SteamMugen Kurozake

You’ll notice right off the bat that my rice is not white.  Traditional Nihon-shu is made with a highly polished white rice, which is ground down to 80-30% of its original weight, a process called rice polishing.  This is what 99% of sakes available use as their base grain.  Some breweries do experiment with other rice varieties such as brown, red, table, and in my case, Chinese black Forbidden Rice.  These rices varietals are not polished which causes a couple different things to happen.

The first, and perhaps most noticeable is flavor.  Unpolished rice has partial or complete bran covering the center of the rice.  The bran contains vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients the grain utilizes as it grows into a plant.  These extra ingredients make sake taste strong, earthy, and less delicate.

The second most noticeable change is color.  Traditional Nihon-shu is clear or slightly yellowish, but sakes using unpolished rice take on whatever color the rice bran happens to be.  NihonShu_Sake_01_ShuboFor black rice sake, you’ll end up with a beautifully rosey pink sake, very pleasing to the eye.  Brewing with unpolished or heirloom rice varieties will also affect your price point, yield, and potentially your risk of contamination.  It’s very difficult to find polished sake rice if your home brew store doesn’t stock it regularly.  Then again, you can always order online, and has everything you need.

*Note about black rice: Black rice should be soaked longer than sake rice, but not as long as brown rice. I’ve found that organic varieties do well after being soaked for 1.5-2 hours.  This allows the rice to absorb enough moisture for both draining and steaming.  Soaking longer will the cause the grains to rupture and expose the inside, which is not ideal.

The Purikura of Nihon-Shu

Brewing Nihon-Shu is an involved process – both mentally and visually.  The creation and transformation is far more visual, in my opinion, than that of ordinary beer.  Here are various pictures I’ve taken cataloguing the initial steps of making our Nihon-Shu.

Shubo or yeast mash. (preparing the Moto): This stage is essentially creating a yeast starter.  You follow very similar steps as you would in normal beer brewing, but with the addition of koji, which adds the diastatic starch to sugar conversion.  After the yeast and koji cells have become acclimated to their treated brewing water you add your steam sake rice, which starts the fermentation process.


Moromi: Hatsuzoe, first addition / Nakazoe, middle addition / Tomezoe, final addition: The moromi is where the main fermentation process begins.  This is the cold mash.  By building up the yeast starter from the previous step you’ll reach your full volume.  The build up is over 3 steps, Hatsuzoe, Nakazoe, and Tomezoe, each with an increased rice, koji, and water addition.  A typical home brew sake recipe will fill a 5 bucket, yielding about 2.5-3 gallons of sake.


Pressing – Separating the Nihonshu from Rice Lees: The pressing stage is the most labor intensive stage of sake brewing, unless you have a press.  In the past I’ve hand pressed my sake, which is laborious, messy, and inefficient.  You can seriously deplete your yield if you do it incorrectly.  Getting a stainless press, although pricey, is an effective way to ensure you get the most out of your batch.  That being said, pressing can release rice tanins, which are not always desirable.  To make the very best sake, Toji will fill fine mesh bags and let them naturally gravity drain.  This method significantly reduces yield.  You need a sanitary facility in order to do this effectively and it takes time so pressing is likely the best method for home brewing.

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Maturation: Now comes the maturation phase.  Here’s where sake/Nihon-Shu aligns with beer again.  Maturation is essentially lagering.  This sake will rest at 45 degrees for another 2 weeks and will then be dropped down to 35 for a month or more.  It is during this step that you’ll see the fine rice lees separate from the nihonshu.  You can see it happening in the below picture.  By racking off the clearest part you can achieve clear sake, but will sacrifice yield. NihonShu_Sake_24_Stratification

Last Steps Saved for a Later Time

The last steps of sake consist of the Yodan or stabilizing addition, pasteurization, and maturation.  It is at this point that your sake is blended with more koji, water, or spirits to create the specific style you’re making.  If no alterations are made, it’ll remain Genshu, which is Nihon-Shu at it’s purest form. Nihon-shu is later pasteurized and bottled, but can also be bottled unpasteurized.

Pasteurizing stabilizes the product, but also ultimately changes the flavor.  Unpasteurized sake, also called “Nama,” Draft sake, or Orizake (Hefe-Sake coined by Will Auld), has a very short shelf life.  That being said, commercial sake brewers that bottle this kind of sake use a cold filtration process much like macro brewers to remove yeast and all possible biological contaminants.  In my opinion, it’s cheating as no nama sake i’ve ever tasted from a commercial brewery comes even close to what you can produce at home.  Unpasteurized sake is delicate, flavorful, dry, and also slightly carbonated.  You’ll only experience this variety by either making it yourself or visiting a brewery and tasting it on site before it’s processed.

Sake can be consumed after the initial lagering phase or it can be aged (and this is recommended) for 6 months in the bottle. See you in a few months for these final stages which will be accompanied by pictures.

Kanpai! NihonShu_Sake_23_Pressed

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1 Comment

  1. YK:

    Looki’ good, Kip! kAmpai!

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