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A Guide to Amazake: Japan’s Non-Alcoholic Sweet Fermented Rice Drink

Amazake (甘酒, あまざけ) is a traditional Japanese drink that is just as important to understand as sake and shochu. Literally meaning “sweet sake,” it is a sweet, low- or non-alcoholic fermented rice-based drink.

The history of Amazake dates all the way back to the Nihonshoki (日本書紀, にほんしょき) or the “Chronicles of Japan,” one of the earliest and most important sources of Japanese history and mythology. In it, there is mention that in the year 289 the people of Yoshino in Nara Prefecture prepared overnight a cold drink called Reishu (醴酒, れいしゅ, believed to be the origin of Amazake), and gave it to the Emperor as a rejuvenating summer beverage.

In the year 927 during the Heian Era, the Engishiki (an important administrative text documenting Japanese laws and customs of the time) again references Reishu, noting it as a sweet beverage made using rice, rice koji and sake.

Come the Edo Period (1603–1868), the drink evolved and became known as Amazake, and Amazake shops appeared in several Ukiyo-e (a genre of Japanese folklore art depicted on woodblock prints and paintings) as a nutritional and popular drink.

Dried rice koji that has been broken up into chunks and arranged on a bamboo mat. To the right is a clear glass cup with a handle which is filled with amazake (white in color). The rice is clearly visible in the liquid. Behind it all is some green foliage aesthetically placed on the table.
Get ready to understand the ins and outs of this special sweet, fermented rice drink /via Shutterstock.

While it can be served hot or cold, these days it is most commonly consumed hot as a winter warmer over the cooler months. Amazake is typically offered to shrine visitors over the New Year’s holiday, especially on New Year’s Day when the chilly wait to make one’s first shrine visit of the year can be several hours.

This is usually Sake Kasu Amazake (酒粕甘酒, さけかす・あまざけ) made with Sake Kasu (a byproduct of sake making), water, and sugar. Sake Kasu Amazake is easy to make and has the aroma of sake as well as some alcohol content (although this can be cooked out if you cannot consume alcohol or wish to give it to children).

A plastic lined barrel of amazake with two people either side using large ladles that almost look like cooking pots with long handles to pour some into cups for visitors to a winter event.
You’ll often find amazake at temples and shrines over New Year, and at other winter (especially outdoor) events. © Hiroshi Fujii

But here, we will be deep diving into the non-alcoholic type called Koji Amazake (麹甘酒 or 糀甘酒, こうじ・あまざけ), which is made using Koji rice (featuring kōji mold or Aspergillus oryzae, a key ingredient in the sake making process), rice and water.

Both types have different health benefits and while we can’t really say which is healthier than the other, in Japan, Koji Amazake is gaining more popularity of late due to its zero alcohol content and natural sweetness.

Why drink Amazake? The Health Benefits of Koji Amazake

Amazake is commonly referred to as a drink version of an IV drip. Here are some nutritional facts about Koji Amazake:

  1. It contains glucose that can convert to energy efficiently. Thanks to the koji spores that turn the rice starch into glucose, it will immediately absorb in the stomach and convert to energy. Some soccer players drink Koji Amazake as an energy charge when they are tired. 
  2. It contains all 9 types of essential amino acids that the body needs, which has the effect of recovering from fatigue, lessening stress, and improving the immune system. 
  3. It is rich in Vitamin Bs ーthe metabolism will not work smoothly without the help of Vitamin Bs. It promotes beauty and healthy skin.  
  4. It supports healthy intestines with dietary fiber and oligosaccharides – the rice itself contains fiber but amazake is rich in oligosaccharides so it can create a better intestinal environment.  

For more health benefits of Koji Amazake, please see Hakkaisan Sake Brewery’s collaborative research studies with various universities and institutes.

Types of Amazake

There are 3 different types of Koji Amazake in terms of how it’s made:

  1. Katazukuri Amazake (かた作り甘酒, かたづくり・あまざけ) or Kataneri Amazake (かた練り甘酒, かたねり・あまざけ) – Thick type, more like paste. The ratio depends on the producer, but a typical recipe uses 180g (cc) uncooked rice and 150g (cc) of Koji rice, plus just enough water to produce a thick drink. It contains less liquid, so it is sweeter than Usuzukuri (below), but can be diluted with water or milk to taste.
  2. Usuzukuri Amazake (うす作り甘酒,うすづくり・あまざけ) – Thin type, more liquidy. Generally speaking, you can use the same ratio of uncooked rice and Koji rice as Katazukuri Amazake (above) and then add 50% warm water (about 60 Celsius degrees or 140 degrees Fahrenheit).
  3. Hayazukuri Amazake (はや作り甘酒, はやづくり・あまざけ) – Use only Koji rice and add the same amount of 60 degree Celsius warm water (50:50 ratio). Since it only uses Koji rice, it brings out the Koji flavor best and is very delicious. I usually make Hayazukuri Amazake at home. I’ll share my method for making it at the end of this article.

Do note the importance of water temperature during preparation. The uncooked rice will be soaked and cooked first, and then allowed to cool before adding the Koji rice. Once the Koji rice and additional water is added, the temperature should not exceed 65 degrees Celsius (149 degrees Fahrenheit); do not allow it to boil. This is because a higher heat will kill the Koji spores/enzymes, which are required to convert the rice starch into sugar.

Amounts of solid ingredients may also vary depending on whether the rice has been pre-soaked or not, or whether the Koji rice is ‘nama‘ (raw) or dried. As enough Koji is imperative to creating this sweet beverage, some people raise the amount of Koji rice by 10-20% or even double the amount. Consult the particular recipe you are using for specific guidance.

Here, we will be focusing on the typical Koji Amazake – made with Koji rice (or Koji brown rice), rice (or brown rice or mochi glutenous rice) and water. But it’s important to note that there are many variables that affect the taste of the resulting product.

Koji rice is usually made with Yellow Koji (aspergillus oryzae). However, it may also be made from Black Koji (aspergillus luchuensis), White Koji (aspergillus kawachii) or Red Koji (Red Koji or Monascus is a different category of fungus, originally from China). Black Koji and White Koji create a different taste profile and will have more acidity than regular Yellow Koji.

Even within Yellow Koji there are various types. There are yellow koji varieties suitable for miso making, soy sauce making and sake making, so the taste can be different depending on the producer.

In addition, the type of rice used – whether it is polished rice, or unpolished rice like brown rice – can bring different consistencies as well. Brown rice Amazake tends to have more texture since it has more fiber. In fact, the grainy consistency of the not completely broken down rice is one of the notable characteristics of this unique fermented beverage.

A close-up shot of amazake in a large dark-colored bowl. The liquid is an off-white color and the not fully broken down rice can be seen, giving it visible texture. A spoonful is being held up with a wooden ladle coming into the image from the right.
This fermented rice drink often has visible texture from the rice that hasn’t fully broken down, which also gives it a distinctive mouthfeel. /via Getty Images

Where to Buy Amazake

The fact that there are so many different producers and types is one of the very attractive parts of delving into the world of amazake – there is always something new to try! There are about 600 producers of amazake (sake breweries, miso producers, soy sauce producers, and others) that make over 1200 products.

My geeky business partner at Hakko Farm and well-known amazake researcher, Hiroshi Fujii has tried 500 products so far. He runs the website あまざけ.com (Japanese language only) where you can read his amazake reviews and find something you might be interested in.

Hiroshi Fujii sits cross-legged facing the camera at the back left of the image wearing black pants and a white and blue striped long-sleeved top. His left hand rests on his left knee, while he leans on his right hand (brought up to his face) with his elbow on his right knee. He has short, black hair and wears black-framed glasses. He peers to his left looking at a lrage amount of plastic puches and bottles that have been lined up on the floor.
Hiroshi looking at a selection of the amazake he has drunk to date. © Hiroshi Fujii

If your plan is to buy amazake from a local supermarket, the two products below, Koji Amazake on the left (blue) and Sake Kasu Amazake on the right (red), are typically available.

The drinks section at the supermarket, with two amazake products pulled out and tilted up against the others to highlight them. The one on the left (a blue and white tetra pack) is Koji Amazake and the one on the right (the red and white tetra pack) is Sake Kasu Amazake.
Typical amazake offerings at the supermarket. Koji Amazake (blue) on the left and Sake Kasu Amazake (red) on the right. © Kyoko Nagano

Some large department stores and big supermarkets in Japan do carry Hakkaisan’s Amasake (Hakkaisan Sake Brewery calls it ‘Amasake’ (product name) instead of Amazake).

Four amazake (amasake) products lined up on a wooden bench at the Hakkaisan Brewery Tasting Room in Niigata. White labels with the product name and description are next to each of them. The room is dimly lit.
Hakkaisan’s Amasake products at their Sake Brewery tasting room in Niigata. © Kyoko Nagano

There are some Koji Amazake products made by local sake breweries that you won’t see at local supermarkets. Sake breweries usually use polished rice so compared with miso or soy sauce makers who produce Koji Amazake, it has a more clean and elegant taste, and is mostly the thinner Usuzukuri type. Miso and soy sauce makers often make the thick Katazukuri type.

Eight types of Koji Amazake made by local sake breweries all lined up in a row on a wooden table in a Japanese-style room. The first one is a pouch and the others are varying size bottles. All the containers (pouch and bottles) are clear showing the light porridge-looking contents.
You can find a range of interesting and specialty amazake products at local sake breweries. © Kyoko Nagano

There are also Amazake mixed juice versions such as Amazake mixed with juices or herbs (like lemon grass). When I went to Niigata, at Echigo Yuzawa station, I found a whole bunch of Amazake products and varieties at the station store. If you want to make your own Amazake mixed beverage, you can always try adding some to your favorite juice or smoothie. I sometimes make my green leaf veggie smoothies with it in the morning.

A shopping basket filled with a selection of amazake products, including mango and berry flavored versions.
Why not try mixing it up with some flavored versions or trying out your own concoctions at home? © Kyoko Nagano

Special Amazake Products

Here are some impressive and unique Amazake products to add to your wishlist.

Senjo Sake Brewery in Nagano makes three different kinds of Amazake. The one on the left is made from germinated brown rice, the one in the middle is typical Yellow Koji Amazake, and the one on the right is made from White Koji. It’s interesting to taste them all and enjoy the differences between them. 

Three short and fairly stout bottles of amazake all of the exact same height and width lined up in a row on a wooden table. The first one has a yellow label, the second one pink and the third light blue. They are all amazake products from Senjo Sake Brewery in Nagano Prefecture.
Amazake products from Senjo Sake Brewery in Nagano Prefecture. © Kyoko Nagano

The products below are from Buyu Sake Brewery in Ibaraki Prefecture. The one on the left is typical Amazake made using Yellow Koji but the one on the right uses Red Koji (Monascus). Not only is it a pretty pink color, it’s delicious as well.

Two glass bottles on a table - Regular yellow koji amazake on the left (which produces a white product) and red koji (monascus) amazake on the right (which produces a pink product).
The incredible pink color that comes from Red Koji amazake at Buyu Sake Brewery, Ibaraki Prefecture. © Kyoko Nagano

A special Black Koji derived product is this one from Okinawa. Only Chuko Shuzo in Okinawa makes this impressive Black Koji Amazake. When you pour it into a glass, it looks a bit gray-ish in tone. 

A bottle of Kuroamazake ('black amazake' derived from black koji). The bottle cap is red and the label is black with white writing. The liquid can be seen through the clear bottle and is a golden yellow color.
A one-of-a-kind ‘Black Amazake’ derived from black koji in Okinawa. © Hiroshi Fujii

Another impressive Amazake is Koji no Ochichi made by Sado Hakko on Sado Island, Niigata Prefecture. It is made using the Kimoto method of sake-making so it contains lactic acid. Usually Amazake can be made overnight, but it takes 3 weeks for the producer to make this special product. It has a great mix of acidity and sweetness like a rich yogurt.

A bottle of Koji no Ochichi from Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture. The bottle is clear with a metal cap and has a white label with red writing. It is set on a white surface in front of a white background.
The complex yoghurt-like Koji no Ochichi from Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture. © Hiroshi Fujii

An interesting related product is Koji water. You just dip Koji rice into water and enjoy drinking it as a beauty tonic. It is not Amazake but a very simple way to enjoy the benefits of Koji rice.

A sachet of koji rice packaged as a beauty product. Next to it is a glass jar with a glass lid that is about 2/3 full of the beauty tonic (koji rice plus water) and next to that is a small glass cup about 3/4 full with the tonic. In front of that is some more koji rice on a small white plate. It's all sitting on a round wooden tray on a wooden table.
Koji water pack made by Buko Sake Brewery in Chichibu, Saitama. © Kyoko Nagano

How to make Hayazukuri Amazake

Lastly, I want to share a very simple but delicious recipe for making Hayazukuri Amazake, using just Koji rice and water. 

First, warm your Thermo bottle (250ml (cc) capacity bottle) with boiling water, cover it with a lid and leave it upside down for about 10 minutes.

Discard the hot water, then add 60g (cc) of Koji rice and 180ml (cc) of 65 to 68 degree Celsius (149-154 degrees Fahrenheit) water into the water bottle. Close the lid tightly and wait for 5-6 hours. I sometimes make it in the morning before work, carry it in my bag and drink it around 2 to 3 pm for my beauty dessert. It is super easy and delicious!

You can use any kind of Koji Rice but Iseso’s Miyako Koji (みやこ・こうじ) is easy to find at nearby supermarkets. 

A Japanese supermarket shelf showing Iseso's Miyako Koji product. It is a clear sachet packaging that shows the white rice koji inside. The text on it is red with some blue design elements. The price is listed as 322 yen before tax and 348 yen inclusive of tax. On the product/price label is also an easy recipe for Shio Koji (salt koji).
Iseso Miyako Koji at a Japanese supermarket. © Kyoko Nagano

Have you tried Amazake? What’s your favorite type/way to drink it?

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