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Homebrewed Sake: The Challenge

Homebrewed Sake: The Challenge

There’s a truth universally acknowledged among boozemakers, that once in a while you need to make something that the people who share your home will like. This hobby can involve weird explosions and permanent stains; if you’re going to keep doing it, you need to brew some for the team.

Mr. Small Batch is a big fan of sake, and for a couple of years he’s been asking me if it’s possible to make some at home. I have been collecting books, reading online, and watching a lot of YouTube: advice ranges from ‘chuck some Chinese yeast balls in with some cooked rice, she’ll be right’ to ‘move to a cold mountain in Japan, give up your family for six months, and stir the fermentation every two hours night and day while singing folk songs to the rice’.

Tales are told of how difficult sake is to make, and my first attempt at a simple Korean rice wine (makgeolli) was not heartening.

However. I am game. I love this man and I am also a sucker for a big fat ridiculous brewing challenge. After a full year of indecisiveness and feeling very unsure about the whole thing, I just decided to start, muddle along, and do my best.

First, I listed out some of the things I’ve read you’re ‘supposed’ to do. Then, I reasoned, I could do as many of those things as seemed reasonable, and find out if that would make a drinkable sake.

  1. Start with specially milled rice: First thing that’s called for and unfortunately, the ‘right’ rice milled down to remove the husk is a fat no for this project. Can’t get it. I am trying with the regular Calrose ‘sushi’ rice that is widely available in supermarkets. I fear this will be the biggest hurdle to a quality sake, but there simply isn’t a commercial source of this where I live. Apparently you can buy tiny home rice mills that only take several days to polish enough rice for a small batch. I love Mr. Small Batch, but not that much.
  2. Make or buy a koji culture. Yes, and I made my own. It’s simple enough to buy either the spores or the ‘finished’ culture; I went with spores.
  3. Steam the rice correctly. Yes, at the small batch size it’s pretty easy to do this with a large bamboo steamer.
  4. Control the temperature. Yes, I can keep the fermentation cold. Last year I turned an old standalone fridge into a fermentation chamber, so we are OK on that front. If I didn’t have one, winter would be the time to attempt this, as the main fermentation needs to be kept cool at 10-15C.
  5. Buy the right yeast. Yes. I found White Labs WLP705 Sake Yeast at ibrew along with the koji culture, and they shipped it over to me. I’m told lager yeast or a similar cold-fermenting yeast is the next best choice.
  6. Build a ten-day moto. Yes – this was easy to do in the fridge. More on that later.
  7. Use pure mountain spring water. No. I used Melbourne tap water, which is tasty stuff.
  8. Add the rice and koji in steps. Yes. Although this is considered an ‘advanced’ technique over just putting everything together at the start, I think it’s actually easier to cook and add the rice in stages rather than steam and add many batches on one day.
  9. Stir every two hours. Heck no. I went into this project intending to stir whenever I could, but I already have two kids who wake me up in the middle of the night because their blankets are on wrong. I don’t need another dependent.

There are many, many other things you are ‘supposed’ to do: this is just a list of the major bits. Intimidated yet? I was. There are far too many variables to test, in any reasonable way, the individual impact of any one item.

My project here is therefore to make a batch on a kind of middle road that can be maintained between work, kids and making sure Mr. Small Batch doesn’t watch the finale of Bosch without me. We will see if we get something he and I enjoy, and note down any ways we might change it up next time.

First things first: the koji.

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