Saturday, February 7, 2009

Sake Brewing Part One

I have been bad.  

About a year ago we received a sake brewing kit from a couple we are very tight with.  I had been lazy.  The brewing kit laid on our kitchen shelf for a long time.  So today, I decided to go ahead and make sake with it.

Above is the kit.  Looks pretty simple -- right.  The directions that came with it were just as simple.  Pour the rice/koji/yeast mixture into the growler, add hot water, keep it at a steady 100 F degree temperature for 5 hours, then let it set at room temperature.  

Turns out, after further research, that this is an unconventional sake recipe.  A few websites I checked out revealed different approaches to the subject.  

The common factor in all of the above approaches -- you cook the rice BEFORE you put them into their fermentation vessel.  Except for the upscale recipe at the Taylor Made site, these recipes don't involve temperature control.  

The package we used is both simple (no cooked rice) and complex (temperature control and timing).  The directions said to keep the mix at 100 degrees F for 5 hours.  This was a LOT harder than I thought it would be.  That temp isn't boiling water, but it isn't room temperature water either.  It also isn't a temperature that is easy to maintain.  This wasn't like braising meat (low heat on a gas cooker) or letting a cake cool (leave it on your kitchen table).  You couldn't just put it somewhere and just ignore it for several hours.  After you are done with the 100 degree F treatment, you let it sit for 2 weeks at room temp, strain the rice out, let it sit for another 2 weeks.  The other recipes using cooked rice take only 2-3 weeks, then you can start drinking.  

At my wife's suggestion (she is Japanese after all), I placed the growler full of sake mix next to our kotatsu.  A kotatsu is a heated table that Japanese people use in winter to eat, read, and stay warm, in their unheated living rooms.  My wife said that this was the same approach they used with Natto, stinky fermented soybeans.  Unfortunately it heated the growler unevenly.   One section might be very warm, but the other would be quite cool.  I resorted to putting the whole thing into a large stockpot with very hot tap water to keep it at something close to 100 F degrees, +/- 20 degrees.

After 5 hours in the stockpot I yanked it out of the hot water bath.  There were still issues, if you look closely at the photo below you'll see this unusual dohickey at the top of the bottle.

That dohickey is a combination air seal & gas release valve.  I didn't realize till much later you are supposed to add water to that thing!  That was also the reason I couldn't tell if fermentation was occuring or not.  When there is water in there, you will see bubbles coming out.  I called the male half of the couple that gave us this gift -- he's a homebrewer.  He told me to expect this thing to start pumping out gas over the next few days -- lots of bubbles coming out of the water. 

The other thing that also caused some panic was the fact that all the water had been soaked up by the rice.  I had assumed that there would still be some some water on top of the rice.  I freaked out thinking that my rice & water ratios were off.  Some research on the web revealed that even with the cooked rice sake recipes the rice will soak up the water early on, and the fermentation process will cause the liquid to be released again.

It's early in the game.  I need to give this thing at least several days to ferment.  At that time I will see whether or not the mistakes of the first day have killed this thing.  If it has -- I start over with an old school recipe.  If not -- I ride it through, see where this sake experiment leads.  

Either way -- in early March, there will be rice wine.  Under the ideal circumstances, I'll get a cloudy nigori-zake like they drink in Japan.  Under the worse circumstances, I'll get something resembling Vietnamese rot-gut.  Either way, I get a rice wine/liquor that I can use as a building block for more experiments down the road.

Maybe this will be my next culinary obsession.


  1. It will come out just fine, Stan. Be patient and let fermentation take its course. Fermentation is your friend....