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Permaculture rice wine

January 3, 2012

Due to tremendous problems with alcoholism, wine making at home is illegal in Thailand. It was illegal in Sweden too during the transition stage from superstition and poverty to education and welfare. Today wine making is legal in Sweden again.

Of historical reasons it would be interesting to know how the Thais produced rice wine in the past. When Dokmai Garden owners Khun Densak and Khun Nived Seehamongkol were young some 40 years ago, this is how they produced rice wine (sato, pronounced ‘saa-too’) at home in Esan in northeastern Thailand:

1. Steam sticky rice (a staple food rice containing sticky amylopectin and hardly no amylose).

2. Mix the cool rice with fungal culture (the moulds Aspergillus oryzae and yeast) and make balls with your hands. Nived and Densak referred to these fungi as ‘pang tum loau’. The fungal culture looked like ‘a white egg’ and was never produced at home, only bought. The ratio for production was ‘two eggs per five litres of rice’. A local illegal producer of this fungal culture was recently caught by the police.

2. Put the inoculated rice balls in a terracotta or clay jar and seal the lid.

3. Incubate for ten to fourteen days. During this process rice starch is transformed to sugar via the amylase enzyme of the mould Aspergillus oryzae.

4. Add water (five litres for each of ten litres of rice) and ferment for another three to seven days. Now the sugars are transformed to alcohol.

5. Filter the liquid before bottling or drinking.The leftover rice was fed to the pigs.

The resulting alcohol strength was low. However, even a tall Thai man gets seriously drunk from 60 cl 5% beer so this was probably strong enough for parties. There are illegal rice spirits factories where they distill and concentrate the alcohol using laboratory equipment. However, there are many legal factories too, they just need a governmental permit, so sometimes I think tax is more important than health, although a poor and uncontrolled distillery may produce spirits contaminated with toxic methanol.

For a permaculture situation, it was important to save the Aspergillus oryzae culture. This was done by taking out a piece of the mouldy rice (see step two above), before adding the water. The culture could either be inoculated on a new substrate, or kept dry to induce spores, which could be used in a future production. As with all fungal cultivations at home, there is a risk the wanted organism dies and is replaced by another useless or toxic fungus.

Fruits contain sugars and can be fermented straight, producing wine. Rice (see picture above), is a cereal like barley, and contains starch instead of sugar. The starch has to be transformed to sugar first, and then fermented by yeast. Starch transformation and sugar fermentation are done in two steps in western beer making, but in one step in Asian rice wine making. Strictly speaking, ‘rice wine’ is an alcoholic rice brew.

Text & Photo: Eric Danell

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