If you’re familiar with Japanese cuisine and culture, you probably know about sake. This alcoholic beverage has been around for thousands of years, making it one of the oldest drinks in human history. Much like whiskey or rum, sake comes with a vibrant history as full-bodied as the drink itself.
But, while you might enjoy a cup of hot or cold sake, can you make your own at home? The short answer is yes, and we’ll even show you how to do it. Best of all, you can benefit from the centuries of refinement techniques mastered by Japanese brewers to get the best beverage possible.
So, let’s break down how to make sake.
What is Sake?
Sake is also known as rice wine because rice acts as the base ingredient. Brewers use rice that’s been scrubbed to remove the bran from the outer layer. However, the brewing process is much more akin to beer than wine, so this term is a bit misleading. Wine is made by converting the sugars in fruit (usually grapes) into alcohol. On the other hand, beer is made by converting starch to sugar and then into alcohol. Since rice is a starchy ingredient, it’s impossible to make wine from it.
Another element to point out is that sake refers to Japanese beverages. However, turning rice into alcohol is common in Asian countries, such as huangjiu in China.
A Brief History of Sake
Since sake is made from rice, its history is intrinsically linked to the crop. When rice cultivation techniques arrived from China in the 2nd century BCE, farmers quickly learned how to use rice to make alcohol. The first mention of “sake” officially is from a document dating back to the third century C.E. Over the centuries, manufacturers refined their techniques until the Imperial Court got involved, starting in the late 7th century C.E.
Starting in the 12th century, religious groups got in on the action and started creating their own sake brewing practices. However, it wasn’t until the 1400s that commercially-made sake became available. As commerce grew throughout Japan, sake became a hot commodity since it was already part of Japanese culture. By the time the industrial revolution rolled around, sake brewers were eager to utilize new production methods to bring the beverage to the masses. By 1698, there were over 27,000 sake brewers across the country.
In modern times, sake has continued to thrive, especially as a primary export. Japanese sake brewers ship their beverages worldwide to be consumed by people from all walks of life. Between 1943 to 1992, the Japanese government tried to institute a grading system so that consumers could identify higher-quality sake brands. However, it fell out of favor and was discontinued. The grading system was replaced by the sake brewing quality labeling standards in 1990, which became the default measure of high-quality blends.
How to Make Sake
Now that you know more about the history of sake, you might want to try your hand at making your own. Thankfully, in the U.S., home-brewing is legal as long as you don’t have to distill your spirits. That said, the process is still relatively complex and time-consuming because you need to source high-quality ingredients. The best sake comes from the best water and rice, so you need to do some prep work ahead of time. Let’s get started.
What You’ll Need to Make Sake
- Two gallons of cold filtered water
- 10 pounds of white rice (for best results, use sushi rice)
- 40 ounces of koji kin (a Japanese mold)
- 1 pack of sake yeast (you can use brewer’s yeast instead if necessary)
- 3/4 teaspoon of yeast nutrient
- 1 pinch of Epsom salt
- Bamboo steamer
- One-gallon glass jars with stoppers
- Fruit press
- Plastic bucket
How to Prepare Your Rice
Sake brewing is divided into three steps: moto, moromi, and yodan. During the moto step, you’ll need to steam your rice. However, there is a unique process for this, which goes as follows. First, you need to rinse the rice until it’s no longer cloudy. Then, cover it with three inches of water and put it into the refrigerator.
Store the bowl in the refrigerator for eight to 12 hours. In most cases, storing it overnight is the most convenient. You’ll know the rice is ready when it’s only a little crunchy and breaks up easily. However, the rice shouldn’t be mushy. Strain the rice in a colander and let it sit for 30 minutes to allow all the water to drip off.
Take the soaked rice and put it into a bamboo steamer lined with cheesecloth. Steam for 45 minutes, adding more water to the steamer as necessary. Once you’re finished, you can use this rice for the next three steps.
Step One: Moto
As you’ll discover, sake production requires many steps across six weeks. While each step is relatively easy on its own, it can be hard to keep track of everything. So, we recommend getting a calendar and writing down a checklist so you don’t forget anything. You don’t want to start from scratch because you forgot a step in week three.
Put 2.5 cups of cold filtered water into a container. Add 3/4 tsp yeast nutrient and a pinch of Epsom salt. Stir until they’re fully dissolved, then add half a cup of koji. You can find this ingredient at Japanese grocery stores, but you might have to do some searching to locate it. Once the koji is mixed, cover the container and put it in the refrigerator.
You must also prepare 1.5 cups of rice using the above method. Rinse it until it’s no longer cloudy, then put it in a bowl with three inches of water. Cover the bowl and place it next to the koji mix. Let both bowls sit overnight.
The next day, steam the rice in your steamer. Once it’s finished, remove the rice and put it into your fermenting bucket. Add the chilled koji mixture and use your hands to mix. It will be hot at first, so let it cool down before starting. Make sure no clumps are remaining.
Then, keep the rice mixture at room temperature (ideally 70 degrees Fahrenheit) for two days. Stir the mix twice per day, and after 48 hours, the rice should be fully liquidized.
On the third day, cool the mixture to 50 degrees, then add your sake yeast. You must keep it at 50 degrees for 12 hours, so it helps to put it in a refrigerator or cooler. Use a brewer’s thermometer to check on the liquid. After 12 hours, you can bring it out and let it get back to 70 degrees.
For the next three days, you need to stir your mash twice per day, then once per day for the following three days. By now, you should be at the nine-day mark, and the moto fermentation is basically complete. Then, you need to bring the liquid back down to 50 degrees and let it rest for another five days with no stirring.
Step Two: Moromi
This step can be broken down into three sub-steps: Hatsuzoe, Nakazoe, and Tomezoe. Here is where your checklist and calendar will come in handy.
You will need to prep 2.5 cups of rice using the same steaming method. However, once you’re ready to steam it, add 1 1/4 teaspoon of Morton’s salt substitute to enough warm water to dissolve it. Then, add cold water until you have 2 3/4 cups total. Chill in the fridge until the rice is ready.
Once the rice is steamed, add the salt water and mix it with your hands as you did during the moto phase. Once the rice dips below 85 degrees, you can add it to the moto mix.
You must keep your mix at room temperature and stir it every two hours for 12 hours, then twice a day for the next 36 hours.
You must start this step on the evening after you began Hatsuzoe, the same night you make your steamed rice mixture. Prepare another six cups of rice for steaming (rinse and cover with three inches of water), and add 1 1/2 cups of koji to your moromi mash.
The next day, steam the rice and mix it with 8 3/4 cups of cold filtered water (using your hands again). Once it reaches room temperature, add it to your moromi mix.
Once you’ve mixed the Nakazoe rice to your mash, let it sit for 12 hours. Then, add the rest of your koji (there should be 20 ounces) and stir it in. Prepare five pounds of rice as you have with the other steps.
The next day, steam all the rice. You’ll have to work in shifts because your steamer can only hold so much. Overall, you need to mix the rice with one gallon and one cup of cold filtered water. Again, use the hand-mixing method. Once all the rice is cooled to room temperature, add it to your moromi mash. Chill the entire mixture (it should be about four gallons) to 50 degrees and let sit for three weeks.
Step Three: Yodan
After three weeks, you need to separate the liquid from the rice. The best option is to use a siphon to draw the liquid into one-gallon fermentation containers. Keep doing this until you can’t do anymore. Then, remove the rice and use a fruit press (or your hands) to extract as much liquid as possible). Fortunately, you don’t have to aerate your sake.
Seal your secondary fermenters and let them sit for another two weeks. Sediment will collect on the bottom, allowing you to siphon the clear liquid into sanitized holding containers. The liquid will be slightly yellow, so you must filter it using activated charcoal or bentonite. Once it’s filtered, you can bottle the sake or pasteurize it.
As you can see, making sake is a long and relatively complex process. We recommend doing a practice batch to ensure you don’t miss any steps. From there, you can refine your techniques and make notes of any tips or tricks to help it along.
P.S. If you make beer or have ever wanted to I recommend you pick up my top 5 recipes from my brewpub. Details are on the side of the blog or at the bottom if you are on your smart device.