Let's travel with us to see how rice wine is made around the world. The first one we'll explore is something called makgeolli.

#1. Makgeolli

Makgeolli is a Korean rice wine. It is made from rice, water and nuruk (a yeast developed on wheat or grain). Traditionally, this drink was made for farmers who were working hard on the fields and needed something full of energy to fill their stomach.

Makgeolli tastes so amazing and is really nutritious that more and more people are making it at home and enjoying it.

The fermentation process starts from the rice, a beginning step which could lead folks who've tried their hands at making this drink to wonder the question below. It is also one common mistake of is beginners:

Why Is My Makgeolli Sour?

Sour makgeolli could be because the rice is watery. The rice for making makgeolli should be firm so that when it goes into fermentation, it doesn't turn sour. If we cook the rice like how we eat it (soft and more moist), the makgeolli will turn a bit more tart. In mixing the rice with nuruk, clumping could make the batch go sour.

To make the makgeolli less sour, folks add more rice to the same amount of water. It will make the brew sweeter for those who like a sweet wine. Also, keep the temperature not too high so it won't turn too sour by a lot of Lactobacillus activity in the rice and nuruk. People then add some more nuruk to digest the starch, as not-yet-broken-down starch could turn the liquor sour.

>> For more info, check out Makgeolli turning sour why & how to fix:

>> For more info, check out Makgeolli turning sour why how to fix

Makgeolli Alcohol Content

Makgeolli alcohol content is around 3-10%. Makgeolli is often not distilled and people drink it as is after the alcohol is done fermenting. Folks who like it mild usually water the makgeolli down to make it less strong. By watering down cheongju (another type of rice wine at 15-21%), makgeolli can also be made at the similar lower range ABV.

If you're a heavyweight drinker, you may not get drunk on makgeolli. However, if you're lightweight, you may get a bit light-headed. By using nuruk as the fermentation starter however, makgeolli won't give you headache, hangover or an upset stomach.

What Does Makgeolli Taste Like?

Makgeolli tastes sweet and milky with a hint of alcohol to it. The aroma is floral, fruity and light, kind of like icewine and overall very pleasant. When you drink it, you'll feel the warmth flowing through the throat and into your stomach. Some only drink the clear liquid while others stir and drink the liquid and rice residue together. It gives them good energy and it can also be served as a sweet dessert wine.

In some makgeolli bars, makgeolli is mixed with soju + cider to create a sweet combo that is also very palatable. Flavoring the makgeolli is also possible. Homebrewers have experimented flavoring their rice wines with fruits (cherry, raspberry), herbs (rosemary or wormwood), flowers (hibiscus, saffron, chrysanthemum), black pepper, boricha, etc.

The length of the fermentation will also determine the taste. With the CO2 produced during ferment, some makgeolli can get quite fizzy. Taste differs day by day and continues to develop as the wine ages.

Nuruk & The Fermentation

Makgeolli uses nuruk as its fermentation starter. This differs from sake starter in that it contains Aspergillus, Rhizopus, and yeasts whereas the sake starter only has Aspergillus.

One of the enzymes found in nuruk is amylase, which helps break down the starch in rice into sugar. Chemically, there is also something quite complex called 2,6-Dimethoxybenzoquinone in nuruk, a component which is often found in wheat germ extract.

Although we could ferment the rice with the amylase enzyme powder alone, by comparison it'll be losing out on a lot of flavors. Nuruk as such is more complex, it's more than just an enzyme because it contains a wide variety of enzymes, which can be used in different environments to create deeper, richer flavors.

The ferment in makgeolli, similar to that of sake, happens in parallel. That is, the amylase-producing bacteria convert rice starch into simple sugars, then the yeasts get to work to transform that sugar into alcohol at the same time and in the same batch.

There is a short wait for the first conversion and between conversions, from then it happens more synchronously. This is one difference from other brewing techniques in which the conversion is done in series.

Where To Buy Makgeolli

You can buy makgeolli at Korean grocery stores and restaurants. If you don't have the time to drive and find it, you can just order some on Amazon. Nuruk, the fermentation starter, is also available.

The next type of rice wine we'll be seeing is:

#2. Sake

Sake, the well-known Japanese rice wine, is made from sweet rice, water, koji (the Aspergillus spores), and yeast. Sake though just means liquor in Japanese.

The sake many know of differs from makgeolli in that it is usually more clear, watery and less sweet (more dry). The alcohol content of sake is often higher. It's usually from 10-20% ABV whereas makgeolli is usually less than 10%.

There are two types of alcohol derived from the sake making process: nigori and doburoku.

But a question many people ask is:

Can You Use Bread Yeast To Make Sake?

Bread yeast alone may not turn the rice into alcohol. This is because the sugar available in rice is in a long complex chain, or starch. The yeast is better at working with simple sugar or glucose and turning it into alcohol. Starch is a chain of connected glucose that is not yet broken up. Because of this, a mold called koji is usually added to break down starch into sugar, then the sugar is fed to the yeast to make sake.

The Sake Fermentation Process

Sake is made by adding rice, water, koji and yeast gradually in smaller quantity multiple times as they go instead of adding everything in the full amount all at once in the beginning.

If we add the ingredients all at once, too much sugar may be produced while the yeast haven't had time to catch up, that is, consume the sugar, produce alcohol and multiply. The high osmotic pressure from the extra sugar may also make it difficult for the yeast to keep the fermenting process. When overworked, them yeast actually gradually die off.

Similar to making higher alcohol beer or the multi-stage makgeolli, starting with a not too high gravity wort or starch amount and feeding sugar in stages make it easier for the batch to keep producing alcohol and give the yeast time to do their job. When the liquid reaches the alcohol level we want or to the level the yeast can tolerate, the brewer can decide then when the fermentation can stop.

The fermentation is often done in a cool dark place so it happens gradually and not too fast like in a warm place that the liquor may turn sour. In about 10-14 days, the sake will be done. Sake is then filled in bags, finely pressed and filtered out from the rice residue (sake kasu) to get the clear sake liquor that we often see.

When it is coarsely pressed, meaning bits of rice residue is still available in the liquid, it makes nigori - the cloudy version of sake and slightly sweeter. Doburuku, the other sake variety, is made by mixing the ingredients all at once from the start. For some reason unclear to me, this type of sake is banned since the Meiji era and is rarely brewed in Japan today.

Is There Non Alcoholic Sake?

There is a type of non alcoholic sake, it's called amazake or sweet sake. Amazake is sweet tasting. It can be served warm or chilled. In the wintertime, people drink amazake with a few ginger slices to keep the body warm. In the summertime, it is used to give extra energy on hot days thanks to its high content of vitamins and minerals.

Now on to something that most would find disgusting to say the least...

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  • Cover image source: Makgeolli and Kimchi at a makgeolli reststop in South Korea
  • Pin cover image: (1), (2)