Intro to rice, sake rice – where do we start?

This article gives a brief history of the rice that is important to sake brewers from the beginning to present (10,000BC to now).

OK, so what about rice? Isn’t it all the same? Well, I guess there is brown rice and white rice. Isn’t this all there is to it? No, it’s not, there’s much more. While we are interested in sake rice, I will cover some basic background, history and such to build a foundation we can use to better understand rice, its differences, and what is important for making sake.

The scientific name for the species we call rice is Oryza sativa. Within this species are three subspecies: japonica (short grained rice), indica (long grained rice) and javanica (a medium grained rice). Javanica is now known as tropical japonica. While japonica seems to imply that it originates in Japan, this is not the case. In fact, it appears that its origin is China.

The earliest evidence for rice being eaten as a regular source of food is around 10000-9000 BC in the Yangtze river valley of China. By 8000-7000 BC this rice had been domesticated. During 3000-2000 BC rice cultivation spread from china throughout Southeast Asia and westward to India. Rice made it to Japan somewhere between 3500-1200 BC. However intensive wet-paddy agriculture did not arrive in Japan until circa 300 BC.

It wasn’t until 1694 that rice made it to the US, South Carolina, from Africa. This was the first cultivation of rice in the US. The predominant strain of rice was from Africa and was known as “Carolina Gold.”  Rice cultivation continued to spread in the southeast.

With the gold rush in California came Chinese immigrants and rice. The first commercial production began in 1912 in Butte County. Today, the six counties north of Sacramento produce the second largest rice crop in the US after Arkansas. However, for us, the main point of interest is that this area grows short grain and median grain japonica rice varieties. This includes the cultivar Calrose, which makes up about 85% of California’s crop.  Calrose is a variety of japonica medium grained rice developed in the early 1970s through irradiation of the seeds.

There are at least three japonica short grained rice varieties grown in California: Koshi hikari, Hitomebore and Akita Komachi. Koshi hikari was created in 1956 by crossing two strains of Nourin No. 1 and Nourin No. 22 at the Fukui Prefecture Agricultural Research Facility. This variety demands some of the highest prices for shokumai (that is, rice made for eating) in Japan. Hitomebore was created in 1991 by crossing Koshi hikari with another Japanese variety at Miyagi Prefectural Furukawa Agricultural Experiment Station. Akita Komachi has also been derived from Koshi hikari.

Australia began cultivation of California varieties in New South Wales in the 1920s. Rice cultivation had been tried without success for many years in the north of Australia. However within the Murray-Darling Basin of New South Wales the heavy soil with cheap water for irrigation, provided the needed environment that could not be found in the north.

So what does all this mean for us? Japanese sake brewers use only short grain rice, japonica, for sake. Rice suitable for brewing sake is larger than average with a larger starch core (Shinpaku), as well as less protein and fat. These properties help produce the higher mill ability of the short grain rice. Calrose is commonly available, inexpensive and regularly used by home sake brewers. However, it is a medium grained rice with less shinpaku than the short grained varieties. Koshi hikari, Hitomebore and Akita Komachi, while more expensive, are all short grained and are worth giving a try in your sake brewing.

I see that I have missed discussing what makes for brown rice vs. white and other implications of rice milling. I will hold these topics for a later article since this article is already longer than I like.

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4 thoughts on “Intro to rice, sake rice – where do we start?”

  1. Can you tell me a Calif source for Koshi hikari, Hitomebore and Akita Komachi? Also, does Calrose sell a variety that is specifically suitable for making sake, or for making koji to be used for making miso?

    Thanks!

    1. Doc,

      I don’t have any connections like that for you. Calrose is a variety of rice like these others you have listed. Medium and short grain rice is good for both Sake and Miso and all of the above varieties fall into this category.

      Thanks,

      Will

    1. HC, I have not used sticky rice nor do I know of anyone that has. It is said that sticky rice does not work well but I have no specifics.

      Thanks,

      Will

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