Role of Rice in Sake

Role of Rice in Sake

The primary function of rice in sake is to provide the starch that is turned into fermentable sugar to achieve alcoholic fermentation.  But of course it does more than that, and there is more to a grain of rice. In addition to starch, rice also contains proteins and fats that can give both distinctive character and/or off flavors to to sake.  The concentration of these three components (starch, protein, fat) is probably the most important aspect of what makes a good grain of sake rice. After that, how well the rice can be milled and how well it dissolves in water are other critical factors.

In sake production there are three main categories that any kind of rice might fall under:

  1. Rice that is rarely or never used for sake production
  2. Food rice that is also used to make sake
  3. Rice that is ONLY used to make sake

Rice that is rarely or never used to make sake would be most any kind of long grain varietal.  They typically are high in unwanted protein and fat, difficult to polish (this is another way of saying “milling”) due to their shape, and the starch is more evenly distributed in the grain instead of being concentrated in the center.

Food rice that is also used to make sake would be a large number of the japonica varietals and japonica/indica hybrids such as Calrose.  Their rounder “short grain” shape makes them easier to mill down to lower percentages. However they are still high in protein and fat. This makes for more nutritious and flavorful food rice, but it means this rice is more likely to contribute rough flavors to sake.  It should be noted that this is not always the case, and some food rice also makes excellent sake.

Rice that is ONLY used for sake is a subset of japonica varieties that have been cultivated for decades or centuries for the sole purpose for making sake.  There are some exceptions such as Omachi and Wataribune that were used for both sake and food, but at some point fell out of favor on the food side. Each grain of good sake rice has lower amounts of fat and protein, high amounts of starch, and that starch is usually concentrated in the center so it can remain after fats and proteins are milled away.

Introduction, Rice Cultivation, and Rice in Japan Culture


Nothing is more essential to making sake than rice.  It is the heart of both the beverage and the culture of the country that brought it to prominence.  Rice’s influence on the final product in sake is not as pronounced as grapes are to wine, but it is still critical in every way.  Learning about rice, its components and role in the brewing steps, is critical to understanding sake.

Rice Cultivation

In the world of rice there are two main species.  Oryza sativa was cultivated in Asia along the Yangtze River in what is now China 10,000 – 14,000 years ago.  And Oryza glaberrima was later cultivated independently along the Niger River in West Africa between 1,500 and 800 BCE.  Oryza sativa is by far the dominant species, being grown throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas. It’s two subspecies indica (long grain) and japonica (short grain) and their hybrids make up the bulk of the world’s sake production.  And of those two subspecies, japonica is the base of “sake rice”. However not all japonica is well suited for making sake even if it is used that way. There is food rice that is also used for brewing and then there is dedicated SAKE RICE.

Rice in Japan Culture

It is hard to overstate the importance of rice in Japan’s history and culture.  Grown for over 2000 years, rice in Japan has historically been a scarce and highly valued commodity.  Typically farmers would grow rice to pay tax to the samurai class, which left barley and millet as the primary grains in their own diet.  But improvements in agricultural techniques in the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) allowed for rice to become a regular part of the general population’s diet.  Japan has hundreds of rice varietals and a rating system for the quality grown in each field. Most varietals are local with a few sold all over the country with reputations for great flavor and quality.  Examples of these popular food varietals are Koshihikari, Hitomebore, and Akita Komachi.

Rice and sake consumption in Japan have been declining in recent decades as food and drink options become more varied and tastes become more globalized.  But both remain a critical part of Shinto rituals and popular culture. It is well worth noting that the proper name for sake, 日本酒 or “Nihonshu” literally means “Japanese alcohol”.  And until the 1970s, it was the most consumed alcoholic beverage for hundreds of years in Japan.