The first time I visited a sake brewery (or kura, as its called in Japanese) I worried I wouldn’t be able to drive home afterwards. The owner wouldn’t let my glass drain. Every time I thought I could get away with sneaking into the next part of the tour without a refill, he would appear, smiling, generously pouring more liquid into my sample cup.
Later, I discovered he wasn’t just trying to get me drunk, but was following the Japanese tradition called oshaku, where it’s impolite to fill your own glass, and equally as rude for your host to let your glass sit empty. Sake is a social drink, so oshaku is seen as a way of making new friends.
In America, this social custom hasn’t caught fire when it comes to sake consumption (and for future reference, the polite way to refuse additional servings during traditional Japanese social engagements is to leave a tiny bit of sake in your glass, to not encourage refills). In fact, sake has long been considered a cheap, boozy beverage only suitable for sake bombs and cheap sushi dinners — an image many sake enthusiasts and certified specialists are working to change.
Sake Education Council founder John Gauntner believes American misconceptions about the beverage stem from long-term unfamiliarity with all things Japanese. “Americans have had a centuries-long relationship with Europe, so wine has been easy to assimilate. The relationship with Japan has been shorter, and the lack of understanding that is the result that has led to many misconceptions.”
Gauntner, who has lived in Japan since 1988 and is called “the world’s leading non-Japanese sake expert” by the Sake Education Council, believes these widespread misconceptions are finally on the decline. This is mostly thanks to Japan’s recent efforts to market effectively outside of the country, increased exposure to the beverage, and new educational efforts made by groups such as his own.
How it’s made
Sake is one of the oldest beverages produced and consumed in Japan. It’s delicate, nuanced, and comes in a spectrum of styles, strengths and grades.
To start, it’s important to know that sake is not a wine, even though it’s commonly referred to as “rice wine.” It’s not a beer or distilled spirit either. Sake holds its own unique category as an alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice. It’s one of the more complicated beverages to create, thanks to a myriad of different ways a toji (brewer) can approach the process using many tricks of the trade, and the need for attention to detail through each step of production. On the other hand, it’s also quite simple, as only a few natural ingredients are required: water, rice, yeast and mold.
The rice required to make sake isn’t your average table rice, but rather a special kind called sakamai. Sakamai is generally a larger grain with a heavier starch center that is less sticky and has fewer proteins and fats than table rice. There are over 100 varieties grown throughout Asia. Gauntner is quick to point out that the connection between the variety of rice and the final flavor of the sake is not as strong as the connection between grape variety and wine, but the rice does still have a strong impact on the quality of the final sake.
To make sake, the rice is first polished or milled down to scrub off the proteins and fats on the outer layer and reveal the pure starch in the center. It is then washed, soaked and steamed before a mold, or koji, is introduced. The koji is arguably the most important ingredient in sake production. Unlike with grapes and other grains, rice won’t naturally ferment with yeast alone, so sake brewers must introduce this mold to begin the brewing process, converting the starches into sugars needed to ferment into alcohol. ‘Everything from sweetness to dryness to umami” is affected by the mold, Gauntner said. Many large sake companies might use a koji-making machine where the process is automated, but smaller independent breweries often craft their own to control more of the process. “Just how much sugar – and when – is released into the mash depends on how the koji was made. It provides amino acids, too,” Gauntner said. “Nothing influences the flavor of the sake more than the koji.”
Once the yeast catalyst is introduced, fermentation takes place over the course of a few weeks. After fermentation, the liquid is pressed to separate the rice particles from the liquid and left to age for several months. At that point, different styles of sake take different next steps. Most sakes are filtered, diluted, pasteurized, and bottled in the 15% to 17% ABV range. Others, like Genshu, or full-strength sake are bottled at around 18%-20%.
Nigori, a less common style of sake, is unfiltered, creating a fuller body than its filtered counterpart, with a cloudy appearance and robust rice flavor. Sometimes sediment can be present in the bottle, which is natural. Smaller kuras also make Nama-zake, an unpasteurized style. Sake this fresh must be consumed more quickly than pasteurized sakes, and must be kept in the refrigerator so it doesn’t spoil. Then there’s the two other styles of sake determined by how the sake’s yeast is made – Yamahai-shikomi and Kimoto. These often taste wilder or gamier than the others.
A little bit of polish
Unlike how wine is classified by grape variety and region of origin, and beer is classified by the ingredients used in production, sakes are either classified by the styles above, or into categories based on another technical aspect of production. The percentage of polish the rice endures before other stages of production mandates this alternative classification.
Sake rice can be polished or milled down to anywhere from 35% to 80% of the original kernel size before brewed into liquid. What are known as “premium” sakes – the ones that range from 35-60% polish – yield clean and understated flavors because much of the original fat and protein has been stripped from the surface. Rice that isn’t as polished will create a more bold, flavorful sake thanks to those same proteins.
There are four basic classifications for sake grades:
Futsu: The equivalent to “table wine.” Futsu is an average industrial-grade sake that accounts for around 80% of all sake that is made. It often includes extra brewers’ alcohol and sometimes additional sugars and acids to boost the flavors, which are typically inferior to those of Junmai and other premium sakes.
Junmai: Sake made from just the basic ingredients (water, rice, yeast and koji). Junmais are typically more robust and flavorful than other categories, and pair well with all kinds of food.
Junmai Ginjo: The rice must be polished to 60% of its original size to fit into this category, making it more “premium” than simple Junmai. This sake will be lighter-bodied with a cleaner mouthfeel.
Junmai Daiginjo: One step above Ginjo, Daiginjo sake is polished or milled to between 35% and 50% of its original size. Since the rice kernels will be significantly smaller than the other grades after polishing, larger amounts of rice must be used in the process, which makes these sakes generally more expensive. Because the sake is more delicate, it is best sipped neat.
If the name of the sake is preceded by “Junmai,” that means it is made with only the simplest, most necessary ingredients. Others, like Futsu, Honjozo, Ginjo, and Daiginjo (without the prefix) can have additional brewers’ alcohol added. This increases the alcohol percentage, and brewers claim it brings out the aromas and flavors of the natural sake more so than in sake without the added alcohol. While the naming conventions can be confusing, just remember: the rice polish that determines the grade, and the name or prefix “junmai” indicates less additives are used.
One sip at a time
Taking the official sake grades into consideration is one way to decide what might appeal to your palate more than others. Keep in mind that just because a sake is designated as “premium,” doesn’t mean it will necessarily taste better or worse than another grade level.
Gauntner says the Daiginjo and Junmai Ginjo are the best-quality grades, but both are aromatic and light. “If you want a fuller sake, or one with more rice-like flavor or power or presence, very often a less expensive Junmai is your best choice,” he said. “It is all about preferences, and Diaginjo is just one style, albeit an expensive one.”
One of the biggest American misconceptions about sake is how it should be served. Contrary to what many casual sushi joints around the country might serve it, sake should not always be consumed hot. In fact, since sake is usually fairly delicate with layers of nuanced flavor, most are best enjoyed slightly chilled, just as one might keep a good sauvignon blanc in the fridge before serving. Gauntner says a good rule of thumb is to drink premium sakes slightly chilled, and only heat sakes like Yamahai or Kimoto, which are gamier sakes that are very often suited to warming.
Since sake is traditionally served with sushi in America, it might seem like that’s the only way to consume the beverage. However, while sushi and other Japanese dishes make an easy match, funky cheeses and salty foods also pair well with the often floral, sometimes tropical flavors inherent in sake. Gauntner suggests trying filtered Junmai with grilled fish or a cream-based pasta dish, or pairing a smokey Yamahai with lightly grilled meat. And to stave off the endless refills of well-meaning friends, just remember to resist the temptation to drain your glass.
Photos by Shinsuke Ikagame via Flickr (Creative Commons), S.H. via Flickr (Creative Commons), TokyoFoodcast.com via Flickr (Creative Commons), Cristian Kaden via Flickr (Creative Commons), and Allan Chatto via Flickr (Creative Commons).