Rice was first cultivated in Japan over 2000 years ago, although it took a few hundred years before saké developed. A brewery was established within the Imperial Palace in the country’s then capital of Nara in 689. It was not until around 1000 that the recipe became similar to what we know today but saké was not sufficiently filtered to be clear until 1578. The process was refined during the Edo period (1603-1868) and more industrial scale production began. Following the Meiji Restoration, saké breweries sprang up across Japan and improvements in technology and equipment led to huge increases in quality and production into the 20th century. Although fewer than 2,000 saké breweries remain in existence in Japan today, the drink has grown in popularity across the world.Wondering how to make sake at home? There are five crucial steps to successfully brewing saké.
- Meet a master brewer who’s studied saké-making in Japan.
- Wear his Japanese bandana (Me: “What do the characters mean?” Him: “Victory…I think.”)
- Source koji-kin, saké yeasts, soybeans, a large bamboo rice steamer, an instant-read thermometer, aquarium thermometers, citric acid, two large food grade containers with fermentation caps, quality Japanese rice, fine cheesecloth and a dehydrator wrapped in plastic or another small, well- insulated space. A siphon is optional.
- Brew in fall or in a temperature-controlled fridge.
- Worry constantly. Sebastien prefers “be mindful,” as he says worrying will make the saké sour.
Sebastien Bureau’s apartment is a treasure trove of fermenting wonders. The microbiologist turned kombucha guru is the flavour master behind Montreal-based RISE Kombucha and a founder of MannaNova Solutions, a food development and innovation company. His mothers – slimy sheets of scoby that turn sweet tea into kombucha – are growing in large containers and his canning cupboard is stocked with pickles and tomato passata. While we prepare to make koji – aka the first step to make saké – he offers me a home-brined olive and a jar of honey from his bees.
Tonight we have to inoculate steamed rice with koji-kin, a type of mold called Aspergillus oryzae used to make koji, which breaks down the starch in rice and helps turn it into alcohol. Then after three days of fermentation, we’ll combine our koji with more cooked rice, water and special yeasts.
That’s the simplified version, but I initially gave up on making my own Japanese rice alcohol because it’s slightly more complicated: there are three fermentation periods where you add more koji and rice and keep the liquid at cooler and cooler temperatures. Without temperature controlled vats, that sounded hopeless.
But Sebastien had faith. Sake has been brewed in Japan for millennia – long before the invention of thermometers and plastic fermentation caps. It’s used in Shinto ceremonies and comes with its own sacred social etiquette, such as never pouring your own, and demonstrating your generosity by placing your guest’s cup in a small wooden box called a masu then overflowing the cup as you pour.
“I think what I realised about saké brewers,” said Sebastien, “is it doesn’t matter how you do everything. It’s really about keeping a close eye on your brew.”
At the breweries he visited in Japan, the brewers happily shared diagrams of their processes. The only room he couldn’t visit was the koji room, which might be as much about contamination as secrecy.
So, dreaming of a cold, clear, dry glass of artisanal rice wine, I wrapped Sebastien’s Japanese bandana tightly wrapped around my head for luck (and victory), and we started making saké. [img “sake-koji-victory-bandana”] How to Make Koji Soak 1.5kg short grain Japanese rice for 24 hours. Older rice should soak longer than young rice, so 24 hours it is.
Drain rice. Line the bottom of a large steamer with dry soybeans or chickpeas in cheesecloth. This is “dummy rice” to absorb excess steam. Add the rice and steam for 2 hours, or until all of the rice is cooked and has turned translucent.
Sterilise your dehydrator parts, a spoon and a spatula with sanitising solution (boiling water or a commercial solution) or in the dishwasher. Place four damp towels in the microwave for 1 minute.
Cool rice to 88˚F-89˚F (30˚C).
Stir in 1.5g koji-kin. Don’t breathe it in if you have a compromised immune system – it can cause aspergillosis.
Divide between three dehydrator trays, keeping rice less than 2cm thick, and place in the incubator. Place towels on trays between each tray of rice to maintain humidity and a temperature of 30˚C. Cover the dehydrator in plastic and place a thermometer inside set so the dehydrator turns off when the temperature reaches 30˚C.
Leave for 2-3 days, until a layer of white fuzz appears on the rice.
If the rice is hard on top after fermenting overnight, spray with water. If there’s any trace of green, remove it immediately. If during this fermentation the temperature goes up when the koji becomes exothermic, replace the towels with wet, freshly sanitised ones. Humidity is the most important factor in successful koji – too much and the results are sour mush; too little and the yeasts won’t grow. The koji should smell sweet and mildly of vanilla and alcohol (Sebastien: “And mozzarella and a hint of feet”).
Store the koji in the fridge if using immediately or dehydrate or freeze for later.
How to Make Saké
This makes two batches of saké – one with Saké yeast #7 and the other with #9. Sebastien says he’s read that everybody uses a few basic yeasts that have been found to be the best. We ordered these and two 20L food grade plastic containers with fermentations caps from Mouts International. We used half a vial of yeast in each container. For each addition of rice, we added koji the day before to kickstart the fermentation. The taste will get smoother as the saké ferments and become less sweet, acidic and bubbly.
Makes 20L saké
Day 1: Boil 700g rinsed Japanese short grain rice with 4L water. Cook, stirring often, until porridge-like consistency, about 20 minutes.
Divide the rice between the containers and cool to 37˚C. Add a sprinkle of koji to each while cooling. When cool, add 250g koji and 1 tsp citric acid to each. The citric acid will lower the pH to 3.8-5.5 (“4 is ideal and standard bio-protection,” says Sebastien). Once the temperature reaches 30˚C, add half a vial of sake yeast #7 to one container and half a vial of #9 to the other. Stir 500mL water into each. Cover with the fermentation cap half open and ferment 5-7 days at ~21˚C.
Day 7: When the saké stops bubbling between days 5-7, you need to add more sugar in the form of rice to feed the yeast. Add 185g of koji to each container. If one container is still active, only add koji to the inactive one and push back the schedule for the second container.
Day 8: Cook 1kg rinsed rice with 2.5kg water to make rice porridge. Cool to room temperature and divide between the bins. Move containers to a cooler area (17-18˚C).
Day 11: Add 185g koji to each.
Day 12: Taste the sake. Our #7 had a stronger alcohol flavour, was very sparkly and was sour from the citric acid. #9 tasted less yeasty with fruit flavours and softer bubbles.
Boil 2kg rinsed rice with 6kg water to make porridge. Cool and divide between the containers. Ferment at 6-7˚C. We moved our containers outside.
Day 16: #7 tasted now sparkly and oxidised, though Sebastien liked the banana flavour. This may have been from being too warm (it was a mild fall). So we did two extra fermentations – a koji addition today, a rice addition on day 17 and another koji/rice addition on days 23/24. But if you’re happy with the saké at this point, skip to day 37 and bottle immediately. The saké shouldn’t be too sweet, sour, fizzy or yeasty. It may smell like bananas or lychees.
Day 37: Pour the saké through a sieve. Then squeeze through a scent-free pillowcase or fine cheesecloth.
Bring the liquid to 70˚C (on our thermometer, that’s the beef setting) to kill harmful bacteria but retain flavour compounds.
Pour into hot, sanitised bottles to the rim to prevent oxidation, stop fermentation and to make shelf-stable.
Place in ice bath to cool. Tighten lids and store in a dark cupboard. For clear saké, store sieved liquid overnight to separate from the lees and siphon before pasteurising and bottling. Reserve lees for sake kasu.
If you’re looking for an alternative to saké then shochu might be to your taste. Japan’s most popular spirit, less than 1% of shochu production is exported internationally so it’s not widely known outside the country. Find out more about how it’s made, how to drink it and what to eat it with here.