The definitive guide to making sake

Sake, a traditional drink made from fermented rice, has been brewed in China and Japan for thousands of years. Sake is often referred to as “rice wine”, but sake experts would cringe at that comparison.

 

According to Brandon Doughan, the brewer behind New York City-based sake brewery Brooklyn Kura, “While there is some crossover in techniques and methods with beer and wine brewing, it’s not accurate to think of sake as just a beer or wine made with rice instead of barley or grapes. Sake has a unique fermentation process that sets it apart from nearly all other alcoholic beverages.”

There are many varieties and grades of sake, but they all contain the same basic ingredients: rice, yeast, water, and a special fungus called koji. There are a number of elements that affect the taste and quality of sake, and there are some small differences in the way these varieties are brewed.

It all starts with the rice, and not just any rice will do. White rice harvested specifically for sake, called “sakamai,” is milled so that the husk and outer layers of the grain are removed. This means all of the fats and proteins are stripped from it, leaving just the starchy inside. The rice is typically milled so at least 30 to 40 percent of the outer part of the grain is removed, but it can be milled, or “polished” as some prefer, even further, so that 50 or 60 percent of it is removed.

How much the rice is polished is one of many factors that determines how the finished sake will turn out. The starch in the middle of the grain is what ferments and brings a light fragrant taste to sake. Leaving any remnants of the harder outer layers on the rice can impede the fermentation process and add unwanted flavors in the finished product. As a general rule, the more the rice is milled, the higher grade the sake will be.

Once the rice has been milled just right, or purchased pre-milled as Brooklyn Kura does, the rice is soaked until it reaches a desired moisture content, drained, and then steamed for about an hour. This turns the grains of rice into more of a starchy gelatin.

When the rice is ready, a portion of it is brought into a special fermentation room that’s kept hot and humid. There, the koji fungus is added to the rice. Koji, or Aspergillus oryzae, is the same fungus used in the making of other fermented foods like soy sauce, miso, or rice vinegar. The koji grows on the wet rice for about 48 hours, producing enzymes that kickstart the initial fermentation. These enzymes are what will allow the starch in the rice to turn into sugar, which will later be turned into alcohol by yeast. It also imparts that certain “umami” savory taste to the sake.

More rice and koji is added slowly, along with yeast and water. This mixture will sit at a low temperature for about a month while it ferments and turns into alcohol. Once it is ready, the remaining rice is pressed to separate the liquid. Overall the process can take around 4-8 weeks to complete. From there, some sake is aged for longer, while some is ready to drink immediately.

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The liquid sake that the brewers end up with is usually diluted with some more water because it’s so strong. The sake can be filtered or remain cloudy and unfiltered. Sometimes additional distilled alcohol is added as well and the finished sake may or may not be pasteurized.

All of these different moving pieces, from the pressing method to the strain of yeast, to the amount of or even the type of water added can result in different flavors and styles of sake. Brooklyn Kura does their best to replicate the traditional methods of sake brewing and aims to make a classic drink with the techniques they picked up in Japan. Some other modern American breweries like Ben’s American Sake, based in Asheville, North Carolina, put their own spin on the traditional drink. They brew several different flavors of sake, infusing fruits and spices in it making a drink that is more familiar for U.S. audiences who may not have had traditional sake. These are just two of about 20 or so different sake breweries in the United States who are paving their own path to delicious sake.

Much like beer, there is seemingly no limit to how many different ways you can make sake and what type of unusual flavors and styles you can create.

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