I will admit I don’t know a lot about Chinese Rice Wine. What I do know is (a) it is not the same thing as sake and (b) it is ridiculously easy to make – the simplest fermented product I have made other than sauerkraut. Three ingredients – rice, water, and a yeast/mold culture. If you can cook a pot of rice you can make rice wine.
Most of what I have learned about rice wine I learned from the community at Homebrewtalk via this epic thread so I would first like to give credit to all who contributed to that still-ongoing 4000 post discussion. I also learned a lot about the history, diversity and science of rice wine from this article on the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization site.
First a little background. Rice wine has been made since perhaps 4000 BC in China and has also been made for millenia in most other East Asian countries. Each country in the region has its own traditional rice wine and while the methods and ingredients vary, the basic process is much the same across the region. Rice wine production is actually much closer to brewing beer than winemaking; grains are saccharified by way of an enzymatic process and then the resulting sugars are converted to alcohol by yeast. While saccharification in beer is accomplished by malting the barley (or other grains), which activates the alpha and beta amylase enzymes contained in the grain, saccharification in rice wine is accomplished by introducing a mold or fungus. The “yeast” balls used to make rice wine are actually a blend of the fungus needed to saccharify the rice and the yeast needed to ferment it. As a beverage, though, rice wine is without a doubt much closer to wine than beer – dry, still, and high in alcohol.
The ingredients are quite simple but it is important to get them right. First you need rice, and you need to use a rice with a high carbohydrate content. Sweet or Glutinous rice (aka sticky rice) is the most traditional rice to use. Jasmine rice is less traditional but ferments (and tastes) great. Sushi rice and Black Sweet Rice are other good choices. Ordinary long grain white rice is NOT a good choice and will not work well. Same goes for for brown or wild rice.
Second you will need to find the yeast balls. This is the hardest part for a lot of people. Luckily there are some great Chinese markets where I live so this has never been an issue for me. You MUST use a yeast specifically designed for making rice wine – ordinary brewer’s yeast will not work. Remember, the yeast balls are actually a combination of yeast and the fungus needed to convert the starch from the rice into sugar. The yeast balls I use were actually labeled “rice cakes” so be prepared for bad translations and guess-work.
The first step is to cook a pot of rice as you normally would – boil it, steam it, use a rice cooker; it really doesn’t seem to matter how you do it, just cook it. You should use less water than usual, about 1.5 cups of water per cup of rice or even a bit less. Soaking or rinsing the rice is not necessary but will not hurt (if you are steaming the rice, you should soak it as usual). Once the rice is cooked, leave it in the pot with the cover on until it cools to 90-100’F.
Once the rice is cool, transfer it into a large glass jar or crock. Sanitizing the vessel and spoon will help prevent infection/contamination but is not critical. If you don’t have a brewing sanitizer like Star-San on hand, just rinse the vessel in very hot water and that should suffice.
Crush the yeast balls and sprinkle into the rice as you layer the rice in the jar/crock. For every 4-5 cups of uncooked rice you used, a couple yeast balls will suffice. Once you are finished filling the fermentation vessel, cover it loosely and put it in a cool, dark place. You can place a cheesecloth or paper towel between the jar and the lid if you are worried that the seal will be too tight to allow gas to escape. As with all fermentation processes, carbon dioxide will be produced as a by-product and will need to be allowed to vent. The ideal temperature for fermentation seems to be between 60-70’F – higher temperatures can produce a hot, acetone-like alcohol flavor while lower temperatures will take longer to complete.
After a few days, the rice will smell sweet with hints of vanilla and cinnamon, and liquid will be visible. At this point you can sneak a taste if you like – in fact you can eat this as a sweet, slightly alcoholic rice porridge which is apparently a popular breakfast food in some places.
The rice will continue to liquefy over the next couple weeks until all that is remaining is a blob of rice floating on top. After about three weeks it should be ready – although you can wait an additional week or so without any problem. Once fermentation is complete, separate the liquid from the solids using a strainer, mesh bag, cheesecloth or t-shirt. Again, sanitation is not critical but recommended.
Once you have strained out the liquid, bottle it and store it in the refrigerator to ensure fermentation stops or at least slows down. After a few days the solids will settle to the bottom of the bottle and you can strain off the clear liquid for a clear product. The glass at the top of the post and below is from a batch I made from half black sweet rice and half jasmine rice which I strained off for purely aesthetic reasons.
If you leave the solids in the bottle, shake the bottle before serving to re-suspend them. Some prefer the taste with the solids, some prefer it strained, so it is purely a matter of personal preference. Below is an unstrained glass from a batch made from half glutinous and half jasmine rice. The unstrained versions seem more likely to continue to ferment so keep that in mind – you may want to pasteurize the bottles, leave the lid a bit loose, or use beer or champagne bottles which can withstand pressure.
Like I said I am no expert on rice wine but have had fun experimenting with the process. It is really interesting trying out different blends of rice and seeing the differences in flavor and color that results. The taste is not for everyone (especially when you are a newbie and not quite sure what you are doing) but some people love it. It is strong enough that you can pass it around at a BBQ and do shots – and strange enough that most people will appreciate the novelty if nothing else. All in all I recommend anyone with the urge to at least give it a try.
I brought some of my homemade rice wine to a home brew club meeting and shared some with a Vietnamese homebrewer who told me that they do indeed make something similar in Vietnam. They make a big crock-full when their daughter is born and then bury it and let it age until her eighteenth birthday. Feel free to age this as long as you like but it tastes just fine fresh after three weeks of fermentation. Although I do have a few bottles tucked away in the back of my fridge, I don’t think they will make it for eighteen years….