As a Sommelier, we are expected to know about all types of beverages. One that I haven't written about is Sake. I just don't run out to the store in search of sake, but a large part of the world does. This weekend, I will be discussing alternate fermentations, which includes beers, ciders and sake. So, I thought I would share some of the discussion here.

So what is sake? Is it wine, or is it beer? Wine is made from fruit (typically grapes), and beer is made from grain. Well sake is made from rice, and rice is a grain, so shouldn't sake be considered a beer? Also, sake is brewed, whereas wine is not. The challenge is that sake has a much higher alcohol level than beer (on par with wine), and is not carbonated. For our discussion, let's just say that sake is something in between a beer and wine.

Sake is actually a pretty complicated beverage to produce. The Chinese and Japanese cultures have been producing it for over 2000 years. What started as a mushy porridge type product, with low alcohol, has developed into a quite refined product. The word "sake" can refer to any type of alcoholic beverage in Japan, so in Japan, to clarify that we are talking about the rice beverage, it is called "nihonshu".

The main ingredients for making sake are: rice; water; koji mold, and yeast. Additionally, alcohol can also be added. The rice is not your typical dinner rice. First, all rice is brown in color. It is then milled, to get to the white core of the grain. When making sake, the type of rice used affects the final flavor, fragrance and texture of the sake. Also, the rice grains of sake rice (sakamai) contains a higher concentration of starches in the core. Surrounding the starches are fats, proteins, and minerals that are generally detrimental to the sake brewing process, so they are milled down, or polished (seimai). The amount that is polished off determines the degree of seimaibuai, or amount of remaining grain size. This will be labelled on the bottle of sake. The finer the milling, the higher the potential quality. Ginjoshu is rice that has at least 60% of the original grain remaining, and daiginjoshu has least 50% to 35% of original grain remaining.

Since Sake is 80% water, the source and quality of the water is very important. It is used throughout the sake brewing process. The most famous water comes from the city of Kobe, filtering slowly through the nearby Mt Rokko. It is known as Miyamizu (“Shrine Water”).

Koji Mold on rice grains
As with beer making, the starches in the grain must be converted to usable sugars. In the case of sake, the rice is mixed with a mold, called koji mold  (aspergillus oryzae), which produces the necessary enzymes to  break down the starches in glucose and sugar. Yeast is then added to the rice creating moromi (a porridge like substance). The moromi fermentation takes place in large tanks where the yeast reacts with the newly formed sugars to create alcohol.

After sitting for 18 to 32 days, the moromi is pressed, and the fermented liquid is charcoal filtered, pasteurized, blended, and alcohol level adjusted to about 16% (by the addition of water). Undiluted sake is referred to as Genshu.

Some other terms you might see on a bottle of sake are: 
  • Nigori – unfiltered sake
  • Honjozo – small amount of pure ethyl alcohol added for lighter, drier taste
  • Namazake – unpasteurized sake – making a somewhat fresher and livelier sake. Must be kept and stored in refrigeration. There is a variation called Namachozo– a sake that is only pasteurized one time (most is pasteurized twice: once after brewing, and once before it is stored for maturation)
  • Taruzake – sake that has been aged in cedar casks (taru)  
  • Tokubetsu – “special” – somewhat nebulous – anything that might be special about the rice, brewing method
  • Nigorizake – when the moromi is pressed, the white rice solids that did not ferment are separated from the clear nihonshu. Nigorizake is sake in which some of this white stuff (sake kasu) is left in the sake.
When it comes to pairing sake with food, the same "rules" that we use for wine pairing apply. Since sake varies, just as wine does, each Kura (sake brewery) creates it's own style. Also, most Americans are used to warm sake. The finest sake is served chilled, similar to a fine wine.

This short blog about sake doesn't do justice to the complicated processes involved in creating the beverage. My hope is that you will at least consider picking up a bottle, and exploring these interesting beverages. There is a whole new world awaiting your exploration!

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