While grains are beloved the world over for the tasty, tasty alcohol they create, rice is a grain that requires a little bit more work to turn it into booze. Across Asia, a number of approaches to unlocking rice’s alcohol potential have been devised over the eons. For this fermented rice wine experiment, I went with the colorfully misnamed “Shanghai yeast ball,” known as qu or jiuqu. These are available at most Asian grocery stores, or can be ordered online.
What’s a Shanghai Yeast Ball (Qu or Jiuqu)?
There are yeasts in a Shanghai yeast ball, but more importantly, there are molds and bacteria whose job is to attack the starch in rice (starches being long chains of sugar molecules) and break them into simpler sugars. What do yeasts consume in order to make alcohol? That’s right – those newly liberated sugar molecules. So, to borrow a phrase, it takes a village (of microbes) to turn rice into rice beer or rice wine.
According to Wikipedia, the most common organisms found in Shanghai yeast balls are Aspergillus oryzae (this is koji mold), Rhizopus oryzae (this is one of the molds that creates tempeh), and a yeast called Saccharomycopsis fibuligera. A fuller accounting of the Jiuqu community, including bacterial species common to it, is here.
Making Fermented Rice Wine
Ingredients for a one-gallon batch:
- 2 pounds dry rice. All recipes call for glutinous rice, also known as sweet rice or sticky rice. If an Asian grocery store isn’t close by, Amazon can help. Please note, just because all recipes call for something doesn’t make it law. According to this thread on Homebrew Talk, as well as Sandor Katz’s comments in The Art of Fermentation, any rice will do. When I made a very quick version of this several years ago, I used random long grain rice that I had on hand. Don’t sweat the little stuff.
- Two Shanghai yeast balls.
- Rinse the rice well until the water is pretty clear, then soak the rice for several hours. I’ve seen recipes calling for five hours or overnight. I soaked mine for about three hours.
- Make rice. Most recipes call for steaming it, but I just cooked it as usual in my Instant Pot. As far as I can tell, it works equally well steamed or boiled.
- Let rice cool to approximately room temperature. I put a layer of parchment paper down on a roasting pan and spread the rice out on it, turning it in sections to let it cool. It took about 30 minutes before the pan wasn’t unduly hot to the touch.
- Crush your yeast balls into a fine powder. I put mine into baggies and tapped them with a hammer to do it, but I recall the last time I made this, the yeast balls were very easy to crush up with a spoon in a bowl.
- You want to mix the powdered qu into your rice. There are multiple ways to do it, obviously. I sprinkled a generous amount onto the cooled rice still on the roasting pan, then as I scooped the rice into my fermentation vessel, I put additional pinches of it in, layering it. As long as the rice isn’t excessively hot, any method that disperses the qu throughout the mixture should work fine.
- Cap or airlock your vessel, then wait. Rice wine will produce CO2 as it ferments, so a loose lid approach is wise. Three weeks seems to be a minimum before harvesting, but I’m living large and set my Fermentor App timer for 30 days. There are some risks with treating this as a long ferment. Qu is not a pure-culture entity, and over time, bugs like Lactobacillus or Acetobacter may develop, potentially delivering unpleasant flavors. Life is full of risks like that. Airlocks can prevent Acetobacter (vinegar formers), but in a lot of ways, this process is wild kingdom.
- Liquid accumulating at the bottom of the vessel three days in:
Over time, the molds and bacteria break down the rice, causing it to liquify, then the yeasts take the sugar water they produce and make alcohol with it.
This batch is in pretty early days, but I’ll update with more pictures and a taste test when I decant it in a few weeks.