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Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Just Brew It, Part Two: Making Sake

If you haven't read Part One: A brief history of Sake then go ahead and check it out. Or not. It's not required reading for this article, but Sake's history is a fascinating one.

In the next two parts of this trilogy I'm going to give you a run-down on the things that you NEED to know if you want to start getting into Sake while I consciously leave out the things you don't (unless you want to become an expert), and here's why:

Sake is actually not a hard thing to understand, and learning about it has felt the least like work than anything else in my alcohol related education. What makes it hard is the words and terminology. Myself as an English-only speaking person, at least with wine I'm mostly dealing with languages that are also based on Latin like French and Italian, so learning things like Methode Champenoise is not a big deal. However, Japanese is a whole other thing and the terminology can be pretty hard to grasp. For example: Seimaibuai. See what I mean?

I have thoroughly enjoyed this Sake adventure that I've been on and I want you to get as interested in this category as I am, so I'm going to do my best to provide some Sake education without scaring you away with an overload of information. But that also doesn't mean we're not gonna get nerdy. So let's begin! Welcome to the world of Sake!


Sake is an alcoholic beverage made from rice. And you know what's funny? It's not even really called Sake. The real name for it is NIHONSHU and Sake is just a general Japanese term for liquor. BUT! Sake is what nihonshu is called pretty much everywhere! So, naturally, that's what we call it.

There are five main ingredients in Sake: rice, a fungus called koji-kin, yeast, water, and a lot of hard work. It's often referred to as "rice wine" because, as different as it is from wine, they do have many similarities such as mouthfeel, body, ABV%, and being a fermented product. But if you want to get technical, it's actually a beer because it's fermented from a grain; rice. But if you REALLY want to get technical, because of the way it's fermented, Sake is like nothing else. Sake is Sake. Or, pardon, nihonshu.


It all happens in the KURA, AKA the Sake House. The master brewer is called the TOJI and the brewing staff that he bosses around are the KURA-BITO. The toji calls all the shots. How much rice to buy, what rice is used for what kind of Sake, and exactly when to start and stop each process. Traditionally kuras are family owned but the owners won't do a damn thing except fund the operation. Their toji, who is usually kept for their entire career, basically runs the whole show (including figuring out the taxes). But today there's a trend of toji owners, as the younger generations find it too risky to put the fate of their long family legacy in somebody else's hands.

Rice plant and grainsIt all starts with the rice. In case you didn't know: all rice is grown and harvested brown. But to make white rice, the brown part is taken off by grinding it in a mill. You can taste the difference between brown rice and white rice, can't ya? Brown rice is more flavorful while white rice is more versatile to its entrees and inclusions. But that's just for eating! There's also a big difference between the rice used for food and the rice used for Sake!

Since this is a wine blog, let's use wine as an example here. The grapevine species of vitis labrusca, native to North America, produce what you buy at the store as "table grapes". They're so delicious and perfect for a sweet and juicy snack that it's ridiculous. Vitis vinifera, native to the Middle East and Europe, is not a good snack... but it has all the right chemistry and characteristics to make, by far, the best wine out of all of the grapevine species. Vinifera produces "wine grapes".

Rice has it's own thing just like that going on. "Table rice" is more suited for eating because there's more protein and fats on the outer part of the grain, while "Sake rice" is more suited for Sake because there's less of those things on the outside and more starch on the inside. Starch is what you want for Sake because that's where the alcohol will be coming from, and those proteins and fats on the outside of the grain contribute some unwanted characteristics.

Rice paddy
Both Vitis labrusca and Vitis vinifera have many many varieties within their own grapevine species, such as Concord and Niagara for labrusca, and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for vinifera. Rice has it's own varieties within table rice and Sake rice. YAMADA NISHIKI is the most popular and prized of the Sake rice varieties. Second is GHOHYAKUMANGOKU, while OMACHI is another popular variety. There's a lot more and they do have regions where they each grow the best... but, like I said, I don't want to overload these posts with too much information.

So the more you mill the grain, the less unwanted characteristics you'll get from fats and proteins and the more cleanliness and "purity" you'll get with more starch. The degree of which rice has been milled is the SEIMAIBUAI  (there's that word again). If the seimaibuai is labeled as 60% then 40% of the outer grain was milled away. (FYI, the stuff that's milled away isn't wasted. It's used for stuff like animal feed and whatever.)

Today's machines make it much easier than it used to be but you've still got to be careful, because milling those grains creates friction and heat and hardens the rice, which will effect the final product too. So it needs to be done slowly. Time is money, another reason why premium Sake is more expensive (yet in most cases still easily affordable).

Remember, GENERAL RULE: the more you mill, the better the Sake. That does not mean less milled Sake is bad, or that what the brewer does after milling doesn't matter. We'll be returning to this briefly at the end of this article and more in depth when we get to the different kinds of Sake in Part 3: Understanding Sake.

Koji, aspergillus oryzae
Now I'd like you to meet KOJI-KIN. He's a fungus also known as aspergillus oryzae. He's a pretty cool dude because he's the guy out there working hard to make Sake and soy sauce for us peasants.

So what does koji-kin do? First I need to explain the act of fermentation. That is when yeast cells eat sugar and poop out ethanol (alcohol) and carbon dioxide. Things that already contain sugar like grapes and other fruits just need some yeast and time to ferment. (for more about this process read my article The Chemistry between us... and wine)

You can ferment starch products like grains to make beer but first that starch has to go through a process called saccharification. By malting (heating) the grains you can break down the starch molecules that are too big for yeast to eat into the smaller sugar molecules that they love. (for more about this process read my article Barley and Potatoes and Rye, OH MY! - The Starch That Spirits Are Made Of)

However, koji-kin does something special with rice and no saccharification is needed. Rather than doing two conversions in separate steps like beer, the koji-kin converts the starch to sugar while the yeast converts that sugar to alcohol all at the same time in the same place. This is what really makes Sake unique. It's the only alcoholic beverage where this happens all together, and because of this it also has the highest alcohol of any fermented beverage.

Sake kojiBut this fermentation still has to be done in steps. First you steam rice and sprinkle that koji-kin on and let it cultivate for about two days. That koji-kin cultivated steamed rice is now called the KOJI. In a small vat you create a yeast starter, AKA MOTO, to get the process moving. The moto contains koji, regular steamed rice (about 80% more than the koji), water, and yeast. Once you've got an active fermenting product, you put it in a bigger vat and add more koji and rice and water. You keep adding rice and water and koji-kin for four days and doubling the size of the additions each day, only skipping the second day so the smaller yeast starter can have a chance to effect the initial larger portion just added. Now you have a mash called MOROMI.

It sounds easier than it is. There are many variables at play that have to be watched closely by the toji, especially moisture and heat. And heat is the reason why the Sake making season is in the colder six months of the year. Fungus loves heat and moisture and grows like crazy in hot and moist conditions, so it's easier to control the koji-kin when it's naturally colder outside. Because of this, generally a kura starts making their lower quality sake to start the season when it's warmer out and produces their premium sake when it's coldest.

Sake moromiAfter fermentation is complete, the moromi is put in a big mesh bag to be pressed, separating the liquid from the rice. There's different options for the sizes of the holes in these mesh bags so you can control how much of the rice particles make it through, because some Sakes are purposely made with the intent of being a cloudy white and need more rice particles included in the final product. That style is called nigori and there will be more on this in Part 3 when I break down the different kinds of Sake.

If you press Sake and then filter it then you'll have a Sake that's amber in color, but to get it to the more desired clear color you must first turn it black before you filter. Powdered carbon is added, which clings to certain things and makes them unable to pass through a filter. So when the Sake is filtered, it's much clearer and cleaner than before. After filtering it's time for pasteurization, which the Japanese have been doing to their Sake since before Louis Pasteur. Pasteurization is simply the process of heating a product, whether it's milk or beer or wine or Sake, enough to kill off bacteria that will make it go bad faster. Traditionally this wasn't done until after bottling, and bottles would be put into boiling water for the required amount of time. Nowadays they pass through heated pipes after filtering and before bottling. Unpasteurized Sakes are called Namazake. They are not common, they get hazy and go bad quickly, and must always stay refrigerated.

And so now we've hit the crossroads of Part Two: Making Sake and Part Three: Understanding Sake. Throughout this entire process steps and decisions have been made, from even the selection of the rice itself all the way to filtering, for this next part. But first we need to ask: what kind of Sake are we making here? Because there could be another step to this process depending on that.

Will this Sake be a Futsu-shu (lower quality Sake) or a premium Sake? And if it's premium then will it be a Honjozo or a Junmai? We need to know! Because if it's a Junmai then we're all set and ready to bottle!

If it's a Futsu-shu or a Honjozo then we've got another step to go! A little bit of neutral alcohol is added to the Sake and then it's cut with water to bring the ABV % back down again. We learned about the origins of this style in Part One. Some people think that Junmai is superior to Honjozo because it's a "pure Sake" without this step, but the addition of alcohol kicks up the aromatics and the water gives it a lighter body weight. I have yet to find a Sake that I haven't enjoyed, but I've found that I've actually enjoyed the Honjozo style more than Junmai style.

And that's where I'm going to stop Part Two of this series. I hope that I included enough information to give you an understanding of how Sake is made while also not frying your brain with too much information. But this isn't the end because we still have a lot to learn in Part 3!

- Joey Casco, CSW/CSS

Part 1: A Brief History of Sake
Part 2: Making Sake
Part 3: Understanding Sake

The reason rice is polished
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