Sweet Moldy Grains

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

The peoples of eastern Asia developed their own distinctive form of alcohol, one that the rest of the world is coming to appreciate more and more. It’s not exactly a wine, because it’s fermented from starchy grains, mainly rice. But it’s not exactly a beer either, because the grain starch is not digested into fermentable sugars by grain enzymes. Instead, Asian brewers use a mold to supply the starch-digesting enzymes, and the mold digests the grain starch at the same time that the yeasts are converting the sugars into alcohol. The resulting liquid can reach an alcohol concentration of 20%, far stronger than Western beers and wines. Chinese mi chiu and Japanese sake don’t have the grapey fruitiness or acidity of wine, nor the malt or hop characters of beer. Because it’s made from only the starchy heart of the rice grain, sake is perhaps the purest expression of the flavor of fermentation itself, surprisingly fruity and flowery even though no fruit or flower has come near it.