This parallel-universe beverage started as a chance encounter on the Mozilla #zymurgy Slack channel. It is as much an expression of a physical principle as it is anything else. But it turned out tasty.
The alchemy involved in turning barley into beer is fairly straightforward. Barley is full of starches. Its husk contains enzymes—alpha-amylase and beta-amylase—that when soaked in water at the right temperature convert the starches to sugars. Then yeast in turn converts these sugars to alcohol.
But there are alternative pathways to the same end. The starch in rice is used to make sake; but rice doesn’t have the benefit of being covered with useful enzymes. The chemical end-run used by our friends in the sake world: Aspergillus oryzae, or kōji mold. Kōji is an essential contributor to east Asian cuisine, being responsible for the umami pastes miso and gojuchang, as well as beverages like sake and souchu.
Like yeast, kōji is a culinary fungus, but it does different jobs. In the presence of starches and proteins, it pumps out amylase and rapidly breaks them down into sugars and other compounds. Also like yeast, kōji has been cultivated into myriad varieties that express themselves differently, giving rise to an interesting universe of sake flavors that are beyond the scope of this blog.
Brian from #zymurgy shared his experiments brewing sake with his wife’s leftover kōji rice. What primarily caught my attention was how quickly rice treated with kōji liquified and turned to sugar water—in mere days, if not hours. This got me reflecting on how little apparent efficiency I had gotten the brews in which I had added rice to my mash, counting on the barley enzymes to do the saccharification work. Maybe treating the rice with kōji would be more efficient.
And if I were to use Forbidden Rice—and it liquified—maybe I’d finally get my purple beer?
Now, of course the gloves were off, and I was dead set on creating this sake-beer Frankenstein. I kept the recipe basic—half barley malt (mostly pilsner) and half Forbidden rice treated with kōji. I’d throw in a bunch of hops aimed at enhancing the sweet and citrus flavors I hoped to extract from the kōji. I chose a Kolsch yeast—a strain that doesn’t have much of its own character. Whatever the kōji was doing would be the star of the show.
While the recipe was simple, the process was circuitous. The Forbidden rice was dosed with kōji and water and then kept in a 130-degree hot water bath for about a day. During this time, the kōji broke down the forbidden rice into a soupy beverage known as amazake, a sake precursor. Amazake is sold in its own right in Japan as a health beverage; it tastes a little like a watery rice pudding. The amazake I achieved from the Forbidden rice was a pastel lavender. This excited me.
At this point, I strained the amazake, dividing it into pure liquid and solid components. I mashed the solids with my barley malt in the standard process. The liquids—full of sugar and presumably amylase—I reserved and added to the fermenter a couple of days later, after I had achieved a vigorous primary fermentation.
I wasn’t prepared for what came next. Kolsch yeast is not known for being a speedy fermenter; but once the amazake went in, it seemed to stomp the pedal to the floor. The beer fermented out in less than two days, and the specific gravity fell to .992; to translate beer nerd for you, it is extremely dry, closer to my Ionization Brut IPA than anything else I’ve brewed. My working hypothesis is that the amazake remained chock full o’ amylase that just kept on chewing away at the sugar, and the yeast obliged. Crazy.
During the roil of fermentation, the beer remained an intriguing cloudy lavender color. Alas, once again it appears that this was entirely rice solids; once decanted from the trub, the beer’s color remains perhaps a bit rosier than your average draft, but it’s basically brown.
The taste: it’s a bit rustic and mysterious. I shared some with Hal and he agreed there was a character to it he couldn’t identify. Perhaps a bit of umami from the kōji? Brian was in turn inspired by me to make his own kōji beer, but he chose a different path: lower alcohol, white rice, noble hops. I got the opportunity to taste his at a Mozilla event—it was refined and subtle. Another example of the tremendous variety of the beer world, and further confirmation of the viability of this alternative pathway. Son Henry and I have been dreaming up another kōji beverage—but that will be a story for another day.
A ”crash blossom” is a syntactically confusing sentence. Most often they are found in news headlines that chop off unnecessary words for brevity, but in the journey become a little confusing.
Announcing a story about the success of a musician who survived an airplane catastrophe: “Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms”.
Or the UK Labour party’s incoherent Latin American policy: “British left waffles on Falkland Islands”.
Or this sign I saw driving home from Eagle Rock one evening: “Flip houses will train.” Who’s Flip? What kind of vehicle is a will train, and does he house it in his garage?
Crash Blossom felt like an apt name for a beer that is ambiguously a sake, and it suggested artwork inspired by Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, which Khalid from Bangladesh was happy to provide.
An early summer day in Princeton, New Jersey. Sophomore year exams are over and we’re getting ready to move out of the dorms for the summer. Among our chores: making an OUT OF ORDER sign for the stolen New York Times newspaper box that we’ve repurposed as a liquor cabinet.
The box will be placed next to the elevator on the dorm’s ground floor—where there has never before been, and there has never been meant to be, a newspaper box. There it will sit throughout the summer—untouched because the OUT OF ORDER sign clearly designates it as Somebody Else’s Problem—for us to retrieve at the start of Junior year.
That afternoon I desperately want to hear some Steely Dan and I manage to finagle a Steely Dan: Gold CD from Rob Tsao, if I’m remembering correctly.
And the rhyming couplet, “Is there gas in the car? / Yes, there’s gas in the car” becomes the most eloquent line of poetry anyone has ever heard before, or since.