Skip Home-Brewed Beer: Sake Is Easier to Make & Just as Good

Sake Is Easier to Make & Just as Good

Each flavor of sake, the national spirit of Japan, comes with its own fans, not unlike whiskey aficionados here in the States. While sake is often called "rice wine," it is more akin to a malted beverage like beer.

Unfortunately, many people's first exposure to sake comes in the form of "sake bombs," a shot of sake dropped in beer. Yuck: this is a disservice to a top-notch drink. The various flavors in a great sake should be enjoyed on their own or paired up with many kinds of food, not just Japanese.

What many people don't know is that "rice wine" is easy to make and has been brewed in homes for centuries all across Asia. In Japan, sake can be sweet (nigori) or dry. And you can make your own with just two ingredients and a glass container. By mastering this easy home-brewing technique, you can starting paring your homemade sake with your next meal or have a sweet boozy syrup for your next dessert.

Before making your sake, it's important to understand how alcohol is made. Alcohol is basically fermented sugar. The simple formula to remember is sugar plus yeast equals ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide. By adding yeast to sugar, the sugar will be broken down and become booze and carbonation. And since the fermentation process you'll be undergoing requires no oxygen (called anaerobic fermentation), we will store our homemade sake in an airtight glass container.

This conversion of sugar into alcohol is one explanation of why harder spirits with higher alcohol contents are less sweet than other spirits. You'll know this if you've had, say, tequila and dessert wine. In alcohol production, if you stop sugars from being converted and keep the sugars, the result is less alcohol and a sweeter taste

So where is the sugar in our homemade sake? For that, we'll begin with the starch in the rice. According to Brew Your Own, the mold inside a fungi-infused yeast cake (one that you can easily get at an Asian supermarket or online) will metabolize the starch from the rice into sugar. The yeast then goes to town on the sugar and within days you have your "rice wine." This double fermentation happens instantaneously and doesn't require a second fermentation process.

You can also use regular beer-making yeast plus one common ingredient, ginger root, according to Stephen Harrod Buhner, author of Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation (via The Brew Site. Buhner writes, "The simple addition of crushed gingerroot [sic] to any cooked starchy grain will result in starch conversion and the subsequent growth of Saccharomyces yeast and the beginning of fermentation."

Pro Tip: Before You Start, Clean Your Equipment Thoroughly

Before you embark on your sake-making journey, make sure that all your equipment is clean and sterilized. When making anything that involves fermentation (yogurt, bread, booze), it's important that no other bacteria be present to interrupt the process or kill off the fermentation process. Usually putting your equipment in a pot of boiling water for a few minutes will do the trick.

Step 1: Cook Your Rice

You'll need glutinous rice, also known as Thai sweet rice or sticky rice. You can find it in many Asian supermarkets or online. Cook it like you would any kind of rice, in either your rice cooker or on a stovetop. Use four cups of uncooked rice for every two-liter jar. Some recipes have called for rinsing the rice before cooking but it's really up to you. Let it cool by spreading it out on a baking sheet.

Use only Thai sweet rice.

Step 2: Get Your Yeast On

As mentioned before, there's a specific yeast that you'll be needing. It's a staple of most Asian supermarkets under the name yeast balls or rice cakes, or more specifically, qu (pronounced chu), jiuqu, or jiuyao (sometimes written as chiuyao). You may even have to tell whoever works there that you're making rice wine. You're looking for solid ping pong-like balls of yeast, fungi, and rice flour. Grind up one ball into a powder and now you're ready.

Yeast balls powdered

Step 3: Layer Rice with Yeast

Add some rice (about ¾ of an inch) and sprinkle some yeast on top. Repeat this a few times, leaving about an inch of space in-between the top of the your rice and the jar lid. Remember, you'll be creating CO2, so leave space for it to go somewhere otherwise your jar will pop! Mix it together and the yeast will do all the work.

Cooked rice layered with yeast.

Step 4: Find the Right Spot for Fermentation

Temperature is important in this process: too warm or too cold, and you kill off the yeast that you need for fermentation. Many home sake brewers recommend temperatures of 55-65°F, which usually means a cool-ish corner of your garage or basement. Just keep in mind that cooler temps mean that the fermentation process will take longer.

Make your sake sweat!

In most houses (unless your place is very warm), room temperature should suffice. You might want to take the precaution of wrapping your rice jar in a towel to make sure it doesn't cool off too precipitously, which might also stop CO2 from forming.

Step 5: Wait, Taste, & Wait Some More

You should see liquid forming within a day. Give it a taste. It should be sweet. At first the carbon dioxide released from the fermentation will give a little effervescence to your sake. After a few days, you'll notice the flavor profile developing. You may detect notes of fruit or even sourness. Stop and serve when you achieve the flavor you're going for. At first the sake will be cloudy, but left to its own devices it will clear up by separating and developing a layer of sediment at the bottom.

Your sake will be cloudy at first, but will clear up eventually.

Step 6: Drink or Use Wisely

Now you've got a sweet wine that you can drink straight or use for cocktails. You can even play around with the flavors by steeping fruit in it. Additionally, it makes a great addition to any recipe. Try drizzling it on your sorbet or adding it to your next pasta sauce. If you find a nice bottle to store it in, you've got the perfect (inexpensive) gift for the next housewarming, dinner party, or any occasion where you want to impress your friends!

More Boozy Hacks...

Learn three tricks for getting your cheap wine to taste better and how to drink without getting drunk. Plus, you need to know these five reasons why you should cook with more booze.

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Photos by Mario Hernandez/Food Hacks


This recipe is for the wrong product. The yeast balls pictured produce Chinese rice wine, a very different product from sake. Chinese yeast balls include a mixture of molds that turn the rice starch into sugars as well as yeast that does the fermentation of the sugars.

In contrast, sake uses a mold inoculated rice called Koji (which is also used in miso making) to convert the starch to sugar and then uses a more refined yeast (like champagne yeast) to ferment the sugars into sake.

You will get a very different product. Chinese rice wine tends to be very sweet, cloudy, syrupy and with a relatively low alcohol content. Also the lees are often edible as well and are sometimes served with the liquid as a dessert. Sake on the other hand is often clear, watery and dryer (less sweet).

Since you seem to know about this kinda thing, would it mess it up if i put green tea in with the rice while it cooks?

Just finished a batch and starting a second. Love the recipe, super easy to make. Cant wait to try it.

So, mead brewer here... do we add any water to this? Or does the yeast somehow pull it from the rice?

I'm ridiculously excited to try this, btw. Thank you for the recipe.

The water is in rice. The yeast eats the starches in the rice, farts co2 and piss alcohol. Enjoy!

Loving your short and sweet description of how alcohol is created by yeast, Aaron—funny and true.

I'd love to hear how your sake turns out, Michael: please update!

so My 1st batch was pretty good. nice taste and a little thick. I suggest pasteurizing and Using bentonight powder to help clear it up. Bentonight powder is about 99 cents.

hope this helps you guys. did this to my second batch. going to try it here about an hour. let you all know how it turns out.

Thanks for the update, Zacheriah! Can't wait to hear you Batch #2 turns out.

The second batch was amazing. used a turkey baster to get the sake out so i didnt disturb the sediments on the bottom. It tasted perfect

Ok so this is batch 3, 4, and 5. the smaller two are test. I put Jasmine green tea and acai tea in the first two. extra sugar in the second one to see how it turns out. and the last one is just a normal batch. all have been pasteurized. waiting till the wife gets home to try them.

Ok so the green tea cooking with the rice was a great idea. adds a sweetness to it and gives it a great flavor. almost like sake mixed with a green tea liquor

How did you infuse your green tea?

Awesome! I've got my first ever batch going. I'm having fun each day looking for more change. Today is day 5. I plan to go get some more mason jars and start batch 2 this weekend. I'm gonna use Koji Rice this time around to see the difference. I'm not a big drinker. I drink maybe 2 beers a year but I'm really excited about this.

Hey guys i just started my first batch and i have a couple of questions

  1. Is it bad for the yeast if i start putting them into the jar with the rice right after its done steaming(still piping hot)? I received a sake starter kit that said that if you made the koji rice the yeast would have to be surrounded in a heat of 89 for 30 hrs and then cooled to 65
  2. Im in the south and believe it or not its hot most year round(even in the winter imagine that!) and i had to put my jar in my mini fridge at setting 1(lowest setting).Normally its 70 degrees in my apartment so i thought the fridge would be the best place. Was this a good idea?
  3. How long is the wait usually for the rice to ferment to produce alchohol? I have heard estimates as early as 2 weeks to long as three monthes.
  4. Where can i find some food thermometers? Seriously i have scoured all of walmart and all i have found was meat thermometers.

I just started sake but I have made beers before and other beverages of the adult variety but I have had mine going for a few days and am getting results, as for your situation I put my rice in after the cooking and it is working it stayed warm for about a full day and that should be good enough and I got lcd sticker temperature gauges to put on my bottles that would work for you to know your fridges temp, stick-on digital temperature thermometer is what I got from amazon 10 for $7, other than all that look over the text again the yeast it cheap on amazon too got 24 yeast balls for $20.

Can you add more rice after a day or so of putting it in the bottle? I didn't have enough rice and want more.

So wait... ferment with the lid on or off? Lid off, and it dries, lid on, and it explodes... yes? No? I've got lids off with cheesecloth and kitchen twine on top.

Tried this 5th attempt haven't produced any yet through the rice away what in the world am I doing wrong

this is all so bad i seriously felt compelled enough to make an account.

do not use jars. use a growler, carboy or a bucket or anything non-porous that can be topped with an airlock. otherwise you'll have a mess or a potentially contaminated product.

second, you need to use /koji/, not any of the yeast cakes they mentioned.

third, always sanitize /all/ your equipment. with an actual sanitizer that is properly diluted, and be sure to rinse your equipment, too.

finally, this article mentions nothing about taking gravity readings or anything of the sort so that you may calculate the ABV. this should always be done when making alcohol of any sort, especially if you're sharing with someone else.

honestly, i suggest just going elsewhere for info. this article is just irresponsible.

Totally agree and also with the suggestion of going somewhere else completely to get info on making Rice Wine

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