by Fred Eckhardt
I first started homebrewing saké in 1972. At that time I was researching primitive beer styles, and very little information was to be found about what seemed to me to be a fascinating alcoholic beverage. Made from rice and only rice, it had to be beer -- hence it was within the parameters of my chosen field of research.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]As I discovered, the main difficulty with homebrewing saké was (and still is) obtaining koji, a major element in brewing saké. I discovered that commercial koji was available in almost any Japanese grocery store in the States. Of course, you can also grow koji at home.
The only other item I needed was a rice steamer, which I soon found in the same Japanese grocery store. Today, we can get good quality koji and the highly polished rice necessary to brew a classic saké or seishu (refined saké) at home.
How Saké Is Made
Saké is the product of a simultaneous two-way ferment. First one needs to prepare the rice, which is composed mostly of unfermentable starches. The process of steaming the rice prepares that grain, but it is still missing a conversion of that starch to sugar. That is what the koji is for. Koji is rice impregnated with the mold Aspergillus oryzae (related to penicillium), which changes those unfermentable starches into fermentable sugars. But there can be no ferment, by yeast to alcohol, until those fermentable sugars are presented in a mildly acidic medium. In old Japan, this was accomplished naturally by the growth of lactobacillus, but these days we simply add a little lactic acid, and presto, we are on our way about three weeks sooner! Presently, the water, steamed rice and koji meld into a medium that is ready to receive yeast. Thus we have a yeast starter similar to that used in beer, wine or mead making.
This is preliminary to what comes next: a triple doubling of the volumes -- the real beauty of the whole process. You start with a yeast mash and go from there to three more mash buildups.
In the process of brewing saké, I found that the finished product could be very high in alcohol content: up to 20% abv (alcohol by volume). Now that's as strong as a natural ferment can manage! The Japanese call that genshu (full) strength, but normally they add water to bring it down to a more reasonable 16% abv.
I want to see this great beverage become American. I want everyone to make saké at home. The ingredient list is not extensive, the normal beer and winemaking equipment is not difficult to acquire (although the rice steamer is sometimes hard to find). What is holding everyone back?
Well, for one thing, brewing saké has the appearance of being a complex job. Every time you do one of the four major buildup procedures to construct your ferment, you must first prepare the koji (by adding it to the previous step). Then you must wash and soak each of those four additions of polished short-grain rice (no basmati or long-grain rice allowed) for a period of time, after which it is drained, steamed and cooled, before being added to the mash. It all sounds complicated, and even more so when described on paper. The four-step mash buildup is what makes the high alcohol content possible, but it's also what complicates the process. As a comparison, we note that Japanese doburoku (homebrewed farm saké) is a very simple single-step arrangement that brews weak (6% abv) saké and not the 20% product we produce here.
But, truth be told, I have been my own worst enemy for the last 30 years. The recipe was a good one, and it adhered strictly to time-honored Japanese methods (since at least 1599). However, it was VERY poorly organized. My instructions convinced everyone that this was one very involved process. Wrong. The process wasn't really that difficult, but my outline of the procedure definitely was. Finally, after 30 years, I understood what was turning people away. We've changed all that!
Saké Brewing Demonstration in Portland
Jim Parker, Oregon Brewers Guild director, and I recently offered a half-day seminar on brewing saké at home. I had reorganized the recipe, and we had a new harvest of highly polished rice and brewery koji, from nearby saké maker SakéOne, available through Steinbart's, a home beer and winemaker supplier here. As noted above, the process is seemingly complex, and we wanted to demonstrate the simplicity of it all by doing the last major step as a public demonstration.
For this we had started the yeast mash some 12 days earlier by first soaking 10% of the rice koji overnight in cold water spiced with lactic acid and yeast nutrients. The next morning we warmed the saké yeast tube (from Wyeast) for about two hours while we washed and soaked a small portion of the highly polished rice for an hour and then drained it for another hour. Next we steamed it for an hour before cooling it with ice water and adding the yeast tube contents. This, the yeast mash, was stirred twice daily for five days and allowed to rest for three more before proceeding.
Next, we started the main mash buildup, three days (Days 9-11) of a four-day process, wherein we doubled the volume of the yeast mash twice, rested a day, and then continued on the 12th day for a final doubling as a public demonstration. We did this the same way we constructed the yeast mash, the only difference being in adding the new koji (20%, 30% and 40%, successively) the night before each addition of freshly washed, soaked, steamed and cooled rice.
The ferment had been allowed to rest the day before this final act in building the magnificent saké mash. The new recipe was passed out, and folks were allowed to touch, smell and taste the ingredients. This was a prelude to about 35 more days of ferment, after which we will press, fine and dilute the finished ferment for bottling, modest aging and consumption. It's not rocket science, although if one wanted a simple ferment, one would be well-advised to make wine.
The new recipe's procedures are much easier to follow, as a day-by-day calendar delineating what must be done and when. There is no space here to present the whole 6,500-word brewing procedure. I'll e-mail a text version of it to you for free if you request "recipe" to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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To Learn About Saké, You Need a Good Book
Frost and Gauntner are back arguing their way through a new edition of their fine book, Saké Pure + Simple. Grif Frost is CEO of SakéOne, Forest Grove, Ore., and president of the International Saké Institute headquartered in Hawaii. John Gauntner is a world-renowned authority on saké and saké appreciation. His two previous books, The Saké Handbook (1997) and The Saké Companion (2000), are chock-full of good information on all phases of saké appreciation. The reader may subscribe to Gauntner's very informative monthly newsletter, Saké World (it's free -- simply e-mail join-sakénl@mh.databack.com).
Saké Pure + Simple also has an introduction by Dr. Andrew Weil, who tells us that he can't really enjoy most alcoholic beverages because they cause "-- headache, sour stomach, and nasal congestion -- [but not] saké (which I sometimes consume immoderately) with Japanese friends."
The book is actually a pleasant improvement on the first edition, and I still think that the pro-and-con exchanges between the authors are the best part of this book, too. Gauntner speaks Japanese like a native, and usually he is expounding on his very favorite subject: Japanese saké. Frost, on the other hand, offers strange marketing strategies, which may be necessary, because Japanese saké brewers seem to have no concept whatsoever of how to market their product in the States.
The book has many appealing features, including sidebars on such pleasantries as readers' "Saké Moments" and an excellent and thorough explanation of the ins and outs of Japanese saké labels, complete with the Chinese characters the Japanese use in their language.
If you are even slightly interested in saké, you MUST get this relatively inexpensive book.
Saké Pure + Simple
by Grif Frost and John Gauntner
Revised Edition, 2003
Berkeley, Calif.: Stone Bridge Press Paperback, 128 pages, illustrated
Fred Eckhardt lives and writes about saké and beer in Portland, Ore.
Copyright 2003, Celebrator No material herein may be reprinted without permission of the Celebrator Distributed On the W3 For personal, non-commercial enjoyment and use only. Cheers!
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