I’ve always been intrigued by the concept of rice beer – not the Budweiser/Miller/Sapporo type of rice beer, but the cloudy drink made from rice or millet in parts of Asia. In some Himalayan regions it is known as chang, and that is the name that I had it under when I was visiting Darjeeling some years back. It was opaque, cloudy, and full bodied with a complex, floral sweetness and a little sourness, and while I had a commercially produced imitation, there are lots of homebrewers in the region still making it the traditional way.
There are lots of recipes on the internet for making this, but the quality varies quite a bit. One key issue with this type of drink it that it doesn’t keep for long when made the traditional way – it’s low alcohol, without the preservative qualities of hops, and rarely fermented to dryness, as a sake can be. Rather than fighting this trend, I’ve decided to go with it. I started the process on a Saturday, expecting to drink it the following Friday.
For inspiration I used a couple of sources. One is Sandor Katz’s incredible new book The Art of Fermentation. It covers a huge array of fermentations, including sake and rice beer. I also took another look at Bob Taylor’s excellent website on sake-making. Taylor is a regular and tireless NB forum poster and an authority on homebrew sake.
The basic challenge with rice beer or wine is how to get the starches into sugar for the yeast to ferment. In beer we use the natural enzymes present in malt to covert the starches – this is the purpose of the mash. Those enzymes don’t exist in rice, so we need an alternate source. A cheap way to do it is to use commercially available amylase enzyme. From what I’ve read this is, like many cheap solutions, not that great-tasting. I decided to go a more traditional route by using koji, a strain of aspergillus mold used in making sake and miso, among other things. I used a sake kit to make the koji. I’ve always been intimidated by the process, but it turned out to be pretty easy. I soaked some rice for a couple of hours, steamed it using a metal vegetable steamer I had lying around, let it cool to about 90 degrees F, then sprinkled the koji spore powder from the Sake Kit onto it. Then I made it into a mound on a cookie sheet, covered it in tin foil, and left it in the turned off oven to incubate. By 24 hours the mound was generating its own heat, so I spread it out across the cookie sheet and covered it again. 24 hours after that and the whole thing was covered with a white mold and smelled pleasantly sweet and floral.
At that point I just cooked up some rice, let it cool down, and mixed the koji with the rice and a bit of water. A day later I added some sake yeast and some cultured lactobacillus to add sourness (ok, in truth it was a bit of kraut juice). Within 48 hours it was a bubbling alcoholic goop. I pulled a ladle full of it and had an unfiltered taste. Surprisingly I got a lot of the bubble-gum flavor that some Belgian yeast produce, it could be because I’m fermenting at a higher temperature (about 73) to speed things up. It had noticeable alcohol flavor but not overwhelming, some very floral aromatics (like lavender or oil of bergamot), a bit of fizz, and smooth, lingering sweetness. An interesting drink, not how I remember it at all from my travels, but fun to make and something entirely different.
One thing I’ve picked up from Sandor Katz’s book is that alcohol fermentations need not be shelf-stable. I’ve put so much effort into aging meads for months or years, making sure to attenuate beers well, and using fancy corked bottles for optimal long-term storage. It’s nice to throw all that stuff to the winds and just enjoy a ferment young and active. This way I’ll have to invite a bunch of friends over to share it with me while it’s still good. There’s something alluring about the short life of it, too – this is a one-time experience, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. I can always make it again, though 🙂