Experiments in sake making: From simple to syruping and doubling (Part 1)

By Christopher G. Prince

Making a simple alcoholic rice beverage

My father fed me some of his home-made sake when I was a kid. This was nigori — unfiltered sake. So, I have fond memories of this beverage. In this new pandemic age, we keep mostly to ourselves. I’ve not been into a liquor store since this started. But, I do like an alcoholic drink, and so I’ve been home brewing these past months. I’ve gradually been developing my own techniques for brewing sake at home.

I started off simple. Why put in more energy into something unless you need to? Searching on Google and YouTube for “sake making recipes” you’ll find lots, not surprisingly. It’s tempting to feel overwhelmed at this point, give up, and just buy some sake from someone who has spent years honing their technique! That is, just get some sake from a liquor store or if you are like us and seriously don’t want to be around other people in this pandemic age, perhaps mail order. Because of my history with home brewed sake (from my father) and because I’ve been wanting an additional hobby, I kept going.

But, I wanted something simple. Sorting through the various recipes you’ll find that some of them are pretty simple, and some are more complicated. Some of the simplest recipes involve the use of Chinese yeast balls (more complicated recipes follow in Part 2 and Part 3).

On YouTube, this is one of my favorite recipes:

This gentleman calls his product rice wine. I’m not really particular about terminology. I’m just looking to make an alcoholic beverage from rice. Initially, as I’ve been saying, I wanted it to be simple too. I’ll let you watch the video I’ve linked or find another — there are numerous on the interwebs.

The secret ingredient is Chinese yeast balls. These are easily purchased online. I recently found them in an H-mart in Aurora, Colorado. Not that I’m advertising for Amazon, but that’s where I’ve purchased mine. I’ve had success with these.

The basic recipe:

1) Cook your rice. Let it cool. I’ve been using 4 cups white rice, 8 cups water for a batch. This doesn’t fit in my rice cooker. I see a bigger rice cooker in my future!

2) Crush the yeast ball into powder. E.g., using a mortar and pestle. I’ve just been using one ball for a batch.

3) Layer the rice and crushed yeast ball, like lasagna, starting with rice, into a jug with a lid. I’ve got a 1-gallon glass jug with a big opening, and lid.

4) Let sit and ferment in a cool place for 10–14 days. Don’t attach the lid too tightly during this time. Carbon dioxide gas is produced in the fermentation and needs to escape. Here’s what it looks like towards the end of the fermentation:

Chinese yeast ball recipe towards the end of fermentation

5) As I mentioned, I wanted Nigori, unfiltered sake, so I just pressed the result through our colander. It’s a fine metal mesh. The semi-solid “pudding” (sake lees) that doesn’t make it through the strainer, I take one step further — I have a cotton cloth that I put this in and wring out the rest of the liquid.

6) Voila! A rather strong rice-based alcoholic beverage. I don’t seal these because they are still fermenting a little — I put it in a bottle with a bubbler (I like this type). You can also pasteurize and stop the fermentation if you want. Here’s some results:

Chinese yeast ball recipe final result

Note that these containers of sake are sealed. Beware of a tight seal! I’ve not pasteurized and you can get a shaken-soda-can effect, and lose much of your precious beverage. I usually serve this chilled, or (gasp), with ice.

It takes a couple of weeks, and you need the Chinese yeast balls, but it’s pretty simple. Notice I’ve not been fussy about the rice I use. I just used whatever white rice I had on hand. Which happened to be white Jasmine rice. I’ve not tried it, but I’ve heard that brown rice will not lead to good results. And it probably pays to keep things clean. You are fermenting and if you get the wrong types of fungus involved, things may not go well.

Depending on your motivation if you get to this place, you may just keep going with this process. It definitely makes alcohol. It’s simple. Downside? Well, it has a pretty sharp flavor, and you don’t get much control. You can experiment with different types of rice. With how long you let the fermentation proceed. With different kinds of yeast balls. I’ve not observed much variation with the flavor though. For me, it’s drinkable, but I’ve wanted to play around. For example, to see if I can get other, perhaps better flavors in the resulting beverage. Part 2 and Part 3 of this article cover my further experiments.

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