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Unveiling the Art of Rice Washing and Steaming in Sake Making

Hello, sake enthusiasts and curious readers! Today, we’re diving deep into the fascinating world of sake making, focusing on the art of rice washing and steaming. If you’ve ever wondered how your favorite Japanese rice wine is made, you’re in for a treat.

Before we get started, let me introduce myself. I spent several years working as a sake advisor at a bustling restaurant in Carmel, CA. This wasn’t just any restaurant, mind you. It was renowned for having one of the largest selections of sake in all of California. Imagine a library, but instead of books, we had bottles of sake from floor to ceiling. It was a sake lover’s paradise!

As a sake advisor, my job was to navigate this vast ocean of sake. I was responsible for ordering new bottles, liaising with representatives, and most importantly, recommending the perfect sake to our customers. It was a challenging role, but it was also incredibly rewarding. There’s nothing quite like the look on someone’s face when they take their first sip of a sake you recommended and their eyes light up. But enough about me, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of sake making.

The Basics of Sake Making

Sake, often referred to as Japanese rice wine, is a beverage steeped in tradition and craftsmanship. It’s made from four basic ingredients: rice, water, yeast, and koji (a type of mold). But don’t let the simplicity of the ingredients fool you. The process of turning these humble components into the complex and nuanced drink we know as sake is anything but simple.

In the world of sake, rice is more than just a staple food; it’s the star of the show. The type of rice, how much it’s milled, and how it’s washed and steamed can all have a profound impact on the final product. If you’re interested in learning more about the different types of rice used in sake making, check out our guide on sake basics.

But today, we’re focusing on two key steps in the sake making process: rice washing and steaming. These might seem like simple tasks, but in reality, they require a great deal of skill and precision.

The Sake Making Process

Before we delve into the specifics of rice washing and steaming, let’s take a quick tour of the overall sake making process. This will give us a better understanding of where these steps fit into the grand scheme of things.

Rice Milling

The journey of sake making begins with rice milling, also known as rice polishing. This process involves gently removing the outer layers of the rice grains to expose the starchy core. The extent to which the rice is milled can greatly influence the taste of the final product. For more on this topic, please visit our page on rice polishing.

Washing and Soaking

Once the rice is milled, it’s time for washing and soaking. This step is crucial for removing any residual powder left on the rice after milling and for achieving the optimal water content for steaming. The soaking time can vary depending on how much the rice has been milled. The more the rice has been polished, the faster it absorbs water, and the shorter the soaking time.


After washing and soaking comes the steaming process. Unlike cooking table rice, sake rice is not boiled with water. Instead, steam is brought up through the bottom of the steaming vat to cook the rice. This results in a firmer consistency, with a slightly harder outer surface and a softer center.

Koji Making

Next up is the koji making process. Koji is a type of mold that plays a crucial role in sake brewing. It’s sprinkled onto the steamed rice and allowed to propagate in a warm, humid environment. The koji breaks down the starches in the rice into sugars, which will later be fermented by the yeast. For more on this, visit our page on koji making.

The Yeast Starter (Shubo or Moto)

The yeast starter, or shubo, is a small batch of sake mash that’s teeming with yeast cells. It’s created by mixing koji, steamed rice, water, and a concentration of pure yeast cells. Over the course of about two weeks, the yeast population explodes, creating a potent starter for the main fermentation.

The Mash (Moromi)

The yeast starter is then moved to a larger tank, where more rice, koji, and water are added in three stages over four days. This main mash ferments for 18 to 32 days, during which the temperature and other factors are carefully controlled to create the desired flavor profile.

Pressing (Joso)

Once the mash has fermented to perfection, it’s time for pressing. This step involves separating the clear sake from the lees and unfermented solids. The clear sake is then allowed to settle for a few days to let any remaining solids sink to the bottom.

Filtration (Roka)

The sake is then filtered, usually through charcoal, to adjust the flavor and color. The degree of filtration can vary from brewery to brewery and can significantly influence the style of the sake.


Most sake is then pasteurized to kill off any remaining bacteria and deactivate enzymes that could affect the flavor and color of the sake. Sake that is not pasteurized is called namazake and must be kept refrigerated to protect its freshness.


Finally, the sake is left to age for about six months. This aging process allows the flavors to meld together and mellow out, resulting in a more rounded and balanced drink. After aging, the sake is diluted with water to lower the alcohol content, usually to around 16%, and then it’s ready to be bottled and enjoyed.

The Art of Rice Washing and Steaming in Sake Making

Now that we have a good understanding of the overall sake making process, let’s delve deeper into the art of rice washing and steaming. These steps might seem straightforward, but they require a great deal of skill and precision.

Rice Washing

Rice washing is the first step in preparing the rice for sake brewing. The goal here is to remove the powdery residue left on the rice grains after milling. This powder, known as nuka, can significantly affect the quality of the steamed rice and, consequently, the final product.

The washing process involves rinsing the rice under running water until the water runs clear. This might sound simple, but it’s a delicate balancing act. Over-washing can strip the rice of its natural flavors, while under-washing can leave too much nuka on thegrains, leading to off-flavors in the sake.

Rice Soaking

After washing, the rice is left to soak for a specific amount of time. This step is crucial for achieving the optimal water content in the rice before steaming. The soaking time can vary depending on the type of rice and how much it has been milled. The more the rice has been polished, the faster it absorbs water, and the shorter the soaking time.

Rice Steaming

Once the rice has been soaked, it’s time for steaming. Unlike cooking rice for a meal, sake rice is not boiled in water. Instead, it’s steamed in a process that results in a firmer texture, with a slightly harder outer surface and a softer center. This texture is ideal for sake brewing as it allows the koji mold to penetrate the grains and convert the starches into sugars while maintaining the grain’s structure during fermentation.

The steaming process also plays a crucial role in creating the ideal environment for the koji mold to propagate. The heat from the steam kills off any unwanted bacteria on the rice, ensuring that the koji has a clean slate to work on.

The Evolution of Sake Making

Sake making is a tradition that has been passed down through generations, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t evolved over the years. Technological advancements have brought about significant changes in the sake brewing process, making it more efficient and consistent.

For instance, modern breweries often use machines to wash and soak the rice, ensuring a consistent result every time. However, many traditional breweries still prefer to do these steps by hand, believing that the human touch brings something special to the process.

Despite these advancements, the heart of sake making remains the same. It’s still about transforming simple ingredients into a beverage that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s about patience, precision, and a deep respect for tradition.


Rice washing and steaming may seem like simple tasks, but they are crucial steps in the sake making process. They require a great deal of skill and precision, and the quality of the final product greatly depends on them.

Working as a sake advisor, I’ve had the privilege of tasting a wide variety of sakes, each with its own unique flavor profile. And every time I take a sip, I’m reminded of the craftsmanship that goes into each bottle. From the careful washing and steaming of the rice to the meticulous brewing process, every step is a testament to the art and science of sake making.

So the next time you enjoy a glass of sake, take a moment to appreciate the journey that the rice has taken from the field to your glass. And remember, just like a good sake, life is full of nuances. So savor each moment, one sip at a time.

For more information on the different types of sake, check out our guides on Junmai, Ginjo, and Daiginjo.







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