By Franz Scheurer
The first written references to Sake go back as far as 4800 BC in the Yangtze Valley (China) where fermented rice gruel was consumed at ceremonies. In 300 BC, wet rice production was introduced to Japan and ‘The drink of the Gods’ followed hard on its heels. First Sake was only part of Shinto ceremonies, but naturally fermented drinks, made from fruit (in Europe), sugar molasses (in South East Asia), barley (in Northern Europe) and rice (in China and Japan), were preferable to often-polluted water, and they were soon adopted, produced and consumed by the broader communities. A whole village did the earliest ‘polishing’ of rice: each person would chew rice and nuts and then spit the mixture into a communal tub. The chewing process introduced the enzymes necessary for fermentation. Although it was part of a Shinto religious ceremony, this practice was discontinued when it was discovered that koji (a mould enzyme of the aspergillus family) and yeast could be added to the rice, to start the fermentation process. It was in the 1300s that mass production made Sake Japan's most important drink. In the years that followed the production process was improved, and Sake breweries popped up throughout the nation. All of the early variations of Sake were cloudy, until a 17th century brewery worker (a disgruntled employee who tried to destroy the batch) thought to use ashes to settle the cloudy particles in the Sake, earning himself a place in history.
Types of Sake
All Sake can be divided into 2 groups:
- with added alcohol
- made with rice only
Sake with added alcohol can be further subdivided into 4 groups:
o cheap Sake, the largest group, has lots of alcohol added to increase yields
- The other 3 groups of alcohol-added Sake are all premium and have only a small amount of alcohol added:
The difference between these 3 is how much the rice has been milled before brewing.
There are 3 groups of Sake made with rice only:
Again, the difference between these 3 is how much the rice has been milled before brewing.
Quality Sake is made from rice, koji, yeast and water (the best is reputedly from Kobe). Of over 120,000 rice varieties only 46 are recognized as suitable for Sake production. There is no added sugar or alcohol in good Sake.
Production method: the rice is polished, (sometimes down to 65% of its original size, leaving only the kernel) then the rice is washed and soaked, then steamed to make a mash. After cooling, koji is added to convert the grain’s starch to sugar. Then yeast is added (most commercially made Sake today does not rely on natural yeasts) to start fermentation. Fermentation takes from 18 to 30 days. The fermentation is controlled by the ‘toji’ (brew master); traditionally Sake was brewed during winter by fisherman who had nothing else to do after completing the fishing season. During fermentation, more water, rice and koji are added to keep it going. Then it is filtered and pasteurized.
Your own palate is the best you’ll ever have, so it is natural that each one of us will smell and taste a little different. What we perceive gives us the basis to classify Sake, so that we have a clear picture in our mind to help us remember the flavour profile. One of the easiest ways to differentiate the taste of Sake would be by its inherent sweetness or dryness, which is determined by the sugar and acid levels in the Sake.
Acid dominates sweetness. Knowing this, a heavy and dry Sake has both a high sugar and a high acid content and the presence of lots of sugar and acid means that the Sake will appear heavier overall. Let’s look at the total opposite: Sake in which both the sugar and acid content are low; there is not enough acid to knock out the sweetness, so the Sake tastes sweet, but the low overall sugar and acid content means there is not much texture and flavour and the Sake tastes rather thin.
Unusual Expressions Ultra de-luxe Junmai-daiginjo Hakutsuru Asahigura Sake is made from rice polished down to 38% of its original size. The rice grains are just about round. Cloudy, unrefined Doburoku Sake, with a light sparkling quality, is served natural but is also commonly flavoured. Haposhu, low-malt sparkling sake with low alcohol (5-7%), has been gaining favour and market share. Drunk chilled, Haposhu is similar to Moscato in flavour profile and not unlike Champagne in fizz.
I often get asked why a liquid made from a bland grain like rice and water with barely a flavour ends up being to tasty. The answer lies in the yeast. Yeasts are cultured and kept a closely guarded secret. Professor Hisayasu Nakata (University of Tokyo) has succeeded in isolating yeasts from flowers, which are now used at 33 breweries across Japan.
How to drink Sake
It is important to know that Sake does not age. They younger you drink it, the better. Although you might not be able to read Japanese, the date stamp is always in Arabic numerals. Note that they either use the American format, e.g. 03.21.2005 (21st March 2005) or the Emperor’s Calendar, e.g. 3.18. The last emperor took the throne in 1988, so 18 is the 18th year (2006) and 3 is the third month (March).
Sake also deserves decent glassware and Riedl has developed a Sake glass (similar to their Chardonnay glass). Use a medium sized wine glass. The best way to appreciate Sake is cold (if you want to heat Sake then don’t heat it beyond blood temperature and don’t heat a sweet Sake).