Japanese Sake

Japanese Sake

With a rich history spanning over a millennium, sake holds a special place in Japanese culture. However, the variety of alcoholic beverages, including sake, can be overwhelming, even for locals. Gaining basic knowledge is essential to fully appreciate this unique beverage. From understanding key terms to deciphering labels, a deeper world of sake awaits those willing to explore.

In this beginner-friendly guide, we'll delve into the definition, brewing process, and types of sake. Whether you're a curious enthusiast or an aspiring connoisseur, the article provides a comprehensive introduction to the world of sake.

What Kind of Alcohol is Sake?

Sake is a brewed alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice. The Japanese call this alcoholic drink not sake but “nihonshu” (日本酒), meaning “Japanese alcoholic drink.” 

Importantly, beverages made from rice grown outside Japan or produced overseas using Japanese rice cannot be officially labeled as sake.

Today, nihonshu has an alcoholic content between 13% and 18%.

How Sake is Made

Understanding how sake is made can deepen your appreciation for this beverage. Rice and water are the base ingredients. But there are other processes and human touch, and each of these steps is what creates the taste of nihonshu.

The Type of Rice for Sake

Only 2% of the 90 rice varieties cultivated are used for sake production. Sake rice requires large grains for optimal results. Furthermore, selected varieties feature a unique white spot in their center, known as shinpaku, rich in starch.

Rice also helps cultivate Koji Mold, a beneficial microorganism. It grows on steamed rice, aiding in protein breakdown. Rice is also crucial in creating the yeast starter shubo or moto. Breweries use specially processed white rice.

While standard white rice has 10% of its outer layer removed, sake rice goes through further refinement, resulting in a distinctive shine. After that, grains undergo automated or manual washing, soaking for moisture absorption, and steaming before their use in the brewing process.

Sake Brewing Process 

  1. Rice Polishing
    Removing unnecessary substances aside from starch
  2. Washing and Steeping
    Rice is washed and steeped in water
  3. Steaming
    Penetration of heat into the grain helps the fermentation process
  4. Koji Preparation
    Koji growth and extraction
  5. Shubo Making
    Making yeast (moto) for growing yeast
  6. Main Fermentation (Moromi)
    Sake mash, steamed rice, koji, and water are mixed to achieve alcoholic fermentation
  7. Filtering moromi mash
  8. Adding water
    Sake is diluted with water to the appropriate alcohol content
  9. Pasteurization
    Pasteurization kills yeast, harmful lactic acid bacteria, and enzymes.
  10. Storage and Bottling

Did You Know?

Japanese Sake

Sake undergoes an aging process that affects its color, taste, and aroma, typically aged for a short (6 months) period before being distributed.

Nihonshu gradually changes in color and flavor while maturing. A six-month-old beverage will typically be clear, while a three-year-old sake will have a light-yellow color. The older the product, the darker the color it will have.

Long-aged sake, which has been aged for several years or more, develops a distinctive sherry wine aroma and a smooth, mellow taste. Some aged alcoholic beverages may even have a chocolate-like color, and complex flavors and tastes.

Types Of Nihonshu

The differentiation between various types of sake primarily lies in the level of rice polishing. The outer layer of grains is removed via polishing to prepare them for brewing.

Honjozo sake, with a 70% polishing ratio, has 30% of the rice grain removed. The next level is Ginjo (60% of polishing ratio), and then there's the premium quality and the most expensive Daiginjo (50% and higher).

Junmai is pure nihonshu without additives, containing rice, water, yeast, and Koji. It typically has a 70% polishing ratio. The higher the polishing ratio, the more refined and delicate the sake will be. Junmai can also be classified as Ginjo or Daiginjo, which have higher polishing ratios than regular Junmai.

The polishing ratio directly impacts beverage quality and cost. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn't affect taste, and the Junmai label doesn't guarantee quality. Manufacturers often achieve pleasant aromas and flavors by adding pure distilled spirits.

There are other varieties, such as Amazake - non-pasteurized rice and Nigorizake – cloudy sake. Shoboritate is a freshly pressed and shipped product without a standard six-month storage period.

Sake and Food

Sake, a versatile alcoholic beverage, pairs well with a wide array of dishes, including traditional Japanese cuisine like sushi, sashimi, and tempura, as well as cheese, shrimp, vegetables, and even enhances the flavors of ramen and steak more effectively than other alcoholic beverages.

When dining at a restaurant, don't hesitate to ask your waiter for recommendations on the best nihonshu to pair with your meal.

Strong and Weak Options

When it comes to strength, nihonshu can vary significantly, with some types being stronger than beer and wine. Most are brewed to an alcohol content of around 20% and then diluted with water before bottling. 

This dilution process results in sake with a typical alcohol content of around 15%, higher than most beers and wines. Undiluted drink, known as Genshu, has an alcohol content exceeding 20% and is considered stronger and more aromatic.

In recent years, there has been a growing trend towards weaker alcoholic beverages. One example is Sparkling sake, making it a great option for those who prefer a lighter and easy-drinking experience.

Nihonshu Cocktails

Nihonshu is enjoyed not only on its own; it serves as a versatile ingredient in inventive cocktails. From the Samurai Rock with ginger ale and lime to the Orange Breeze featuring sake and orange juice, Japanese bartenders have showcased their creativity in crafting unique and nuanced cocktails.

The use of sake in cocktails has become mainstream, and it is now an indispensable part of Japanese nightlife, gracing the menus of luxury hotels and trendy bars alike.

Seasonal Sake

Sake production requires low temperatures. Centuries ago, it used to be brewed in winter. With the advent of refrigerators, breweries gained the ability to operate throughout the year.

Despite the shift towards year-round production, some premium makers adhere to the tradition of brewing during colder months. Namazake, for instance, is only available in the winter season, while warmer months witness the production of beverages with longer aging.

In the spring, the Japanese drink slightly cooled nihonshu while enjoying Hanami cherry blossom. Cold sake is the way to go on a hot summer beach day. And hot atsukan will warm up anyone when skiing on a cold winter day.

How to Drink Sake

In official settings, sake follows strict etiquette. You will never find yourself in an embarrassing situation if you know the following – never pour yourself a cup, and always keep adding a drink to other ochoko (cups) on the table.

When pouring a cup for a superior, hold a flask (tokkuri) in your right hand while supporting the bottom with your left hand. When a superior pours sake for you, lift the cup off the table and hold it with two hands. Once the cup is filled, take a sip before setting it down.

The rules are more relaxed in everyday situations. However, when serving sake, beer, or tea, it is always polite to pour for others first.

Local Varieties

Sake is brewed in almost every prefecture. Some regions boast their famed varieties called jizake (local). Many produce nihonshu with a particular palate that blends well with local dishes. For example, Kuramari Ripe Treasure Junmai has a light and dry test that perfectly suits the fresh seafood from Hokkaido. Shirakawago Junmai Nigori from Kanto has a sweet and light flavor that goes well with the region's traditional cuisine, like Gydon, Taiyaki, or Shoyu ramen.

Whatever region of Japan you are visiting, make sure to sample local jizake to appreciate the richness of flavors.

Sake Tours

In Japan, sake breweries offer tours to give visitors a behind-the-scenes look at how sake is made. You can learn about the different steps that go into making nihonshu, from selecting the right rice to fermenting and sake aging. The best part of such tours is an opportunity to sample different types of beverages. Some breweries even allow for hands-on experiences like rice washing and moromi pressing.

What are Those Round Balls You See Hung Outside of Shops?

These globe-shaped objects made from Japanese cedar branches are called sakabayashi or sugidama. Initially, they announced the start of the brewing season. When sugidama became brown, it signaled the progression of nihonshu production.

If you see it hanging outside a shop or restaurant, you know that the business specializes in sake production.