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Traditionally, pure rice sake, Junmai-shu, has been made with rice that has had as much as half of its grain surface milled away. This process removes, in addition to the husk, much of the protein and fatty acids in the grain, which can contribute undesirable flavors to the finished beverage.
However, since about 2005 a specialty sake has emerged, known as Teiseihaku-shu. This style is made with rice that typically retains about 80% of its volume, producing a drink that presents more of the charateristic rice flavor. As the proportion of amino acids rises, the result is an increase in aminosan-do, the taste of umami or savoriness.
The example here is made from the short-grain rice variety Kokuho Rose, from California. This premium rice is mist-polished to remove bran dust, and is well-known for making excellent sushi. Steamed in the manner required for sake making, it comes out firm and tender without excessive stickiness. The addition of a lacto culture means that the brewer need not wait weeks for a natural souring process to take place in the moto starter, with the potential for infection by unwanted organisms.
The photo here shows the sake in a clear state, but it is actually nigorizake, that is, unfiltered. The cloudy grain particles have settled to the bottom of the bottle, but can be shaken up into suspension to provide the additional flavor and characteristic look of the style. As the clear presentation shows, this sake is slightly golden in color, a result of it having been aged for two years at cellar temperature.
Finally, this is a Jizake, or microbrewed sake. Obviously, because there are only six bottles in existence, it is among the most micro of the microbrews. Warning though, homebrewing sake is illegal in Japan, so if you’re there, take advantage of your proximity to those out-in-the-boonies sake microbreweries instead.
Amazake can be considered a “precursor” to sake. In sake fermentation, steamed rice starches are converted to sugar with the use of a catalyst named kome koji–fungus-infected rice; then the sugar is fermented using conventional saccaromycetes.
And as is with the unfermented barley-based soft drink Malta, there is a Japanese version using rice: amazake. Amazake is, theoretically, the sugary mash that is formed when the fungus A. oriazye saccarifies starches in the rice, but before yeast turns those sugars into alcohol. Amazake is refrigerated or consumed shortly after the conversion is comeplete.
However, if the mash is allowed to continue sitting at room temperature, it will start to bubble and fizz, as sugar is metabolized into alcohol and carbon dioxide. You get a mild sake anyway: hard, “Hakkō” amazake if you will.
If you make amazake out of brown (chairo) rice you get a drink that is much more flavorful than the traditional recipe that calls for glutinous white rice. Sweet glutinous white rice forms the key ingredient in the Japanese dessert “mochi.” This sweet rice is available in a brown version too, with all the more rounded umami flavor characteristics you would expect.
Because koji has fermented out all the sugar that is in a conventional amazake, this version adds back a bit of rice syrup solids to balance the tartness of the citric acid used to prevent wild yeast infection. The drink is back-sweetened, then pasteurized in bottles. Served slightly chilled, the flavor is a sweet-tart burst, balanced with umami flavors of toast, caramel and mushroom.
Chhaang is the refreshingly tart, lightly-alcoholic drink popular in Tibet and Nepal. It seems to be a close relative of rice wine, although it can be made from rice, millet or barley, whatever’s handy. As I understand it, Tibetan chhaang is usually made from rice, and Nepali chhaang from millet. In the “whatever’s handy” spirit I used rice, millet, barley and wheat.
The fermenting agent in the Himalayas is a mysterious ingredient known in English as “yeast balls.” Evidently these are highly revered, and perhaps passed down in the family, though they are said to be available in ethnic grocery stores. I tried to find a source for them through the internet, and a Chinese variety is now manufactured by Toronto’s Onto Yeast Company. A bag sufficient for 10 liters of rice wine—if my simplified Chinese translation can be trusted—costs about $10. Sous Chef also sells a smaller bag online at considerably less cost, depending on where they ship to.
According to my research, Himalayan yeast balls are made with local ginger, grain flour, and water. The ginger is said to have the necessary organisms residing on it’s skin–yeast and Aspergillus oryzae . This fungus is able to convert the starches in grains into sugars without the need to sprout or malt them, and is used to ferment soy beans for tamari, and rice for sake.
I tried mixing shredded store-bought organic ginger with barley flour and water, formed this into cakes and proofed them for 3 days under a damp cloth. I got a smelly mess. I guess the ginger just isn’t the same. Probably too clean for one thing. So instead I steamed some rice, added koji-kin, and made myself a moto starter as I would for sake.
I mixed mold-coated rice with Windsor Ale yeast, known for its estery, fruity contribution to a brew. After three days this starter was nicely soupy, and so I added a culture of two strains of lactobacillus bacteria and let it ferment for another day.
The main mash consisted of malted barley, to which was added pearl barley, millet, rice and dark wheat, all of which had been boiled for 20 minutes in a ginger-root tea. This was mashed for two hours and cooled to room temperature. The moto starter went into the mash soup with all the grains, and fermented for three days.
Traditionally, the mash would at this point be placed in a bowl or mug, warm water poured over, and the drink sipped through a bamboo straining straw. More water would go in until the drink was too weak to continue. Because I wanted to keep the chhaang for a while, I strained it, bottled it, and kept these bottles refrigerated. At this time the chhaang has been aging cold for about 2 years.
Aged Chhaang is a dark creamy color, opaque and has a nice layer of bubbles on the surface. The moto/koji/sake aroma is very prominent. It is very slightly sweet, with a mostly tart flavor. Sugar may be added to taste. Full-bodied and lightly carbonated, it finishes with a mouthwatering tang. I don’t know what Nepalese chhaang tastes like, but this one is certainly an interesting and mildly inebriating beverage. I would be proud to serve it to a visiting yeti.