Sake – Essence of Japan

This article originally appeared in Drinks Network December 2007
By Shirley Booth

“Shin nen omedeto gozaimasu ! ”

It’s New Year’s morning and families all over Japan are gathered together, the ladies in their best kimono, to greet the new year. The alcove in the corner of the room contains a small ceremonial table holding seasonal offerings, including round white cakes of mochi – pounded rice. These pounded rice cakes are offered to the gods and are said to contain the spirit of the rice God. In Japan rice is more than a food: it is considered a sacred grain, that harbours spirits.

As the family toasts ‘“Akemashite omedeto gozaimasu!” to welcome the new year they drink a Japanese sake, poured from exquisite lacquer pots, and sipped, at room temperature, from tiny cups. As rice represents the soul of Japan, so sake, brewed from rice, is its essence.

And as rice is more than food, so sake is more than just a drink. It’s an essential part of all religious ritual and celebration. When a sumo fight is fought, a new building consecrated, the seasons celebrated or a deal struck – it is done with sake. In the Shinto wedding ceremony the marriage bond is sealed by the exchange of a prescribed number of cups of sake.

However, in spite of this strong traditional and cultural significance, or maybe even because of it, sales of sake as a daily drink in Japan have been in decline for a number of years. The number of breweries (called kura) most of which are small family-owned going back generations, has halved in the last fifty years. Now numbering around two thousand, it is here in these kura that the best hand-crafted Premium sakes are to be found, and the most forward thinking of the breweries are looking overseas to new markets, which are not hidebound by tradition.

We’ll look at some of those later, but first let’s take a closer look at the drink itself.
Sake (or Nihon Shu) is made from rice and it’s brewed, but it’s not a beer. It’s not a wine either. Nor is it distilled. Its alcohol content is around 15-17 percent about the same as, or slightly more than, wine. It is not always drunk warm, and many of the best, i.e. Premium sakes, never are.

Categories of sake and milling/ The seimaibuai
Sake is made from rice in which the outer layers have been milled away, and the degree to which the rice is milled, or polished, is the biggest factor in its categorisation. The outer layers of rice contain bran, fats and proteins – all of which are detrimental to the taste of sake. The more polished, the more refined. To qualify as a Premium sake the rice used must have at least 30 percent polished away. This leaves 70 percent of the grain remaining – and it is this remainingpercentage that is indicated on the bottle, and called the ‘seimaibuai’ (polishing rate).

The strains of rice used in sake brewing differ from table rice in that they are more difficult to grow, with lower yields, and the starch is more concentrated in the centre of the grain. This starchy centre is what the brewer wants, as it will become sugar, and eventually alcohol.

Honjozo is the bottom of the best – (translated it means ‘the original brewing method’) and indicates a sake made with a 70 percent seimaibuai, and which always contains a small amount of brewer’s alcohol, but only ever up to 10 percent.
Moving up the milling scale we have Ginjo (or Ginjo Shu, shu meaning drink) – which must have a 60 percent seimaibuai (40 percent removed) and is fermented at specially low temperatures. Ginjo is characterised by its fragrance – which is often fruity, and can also contain aniseed, liquorice and spices.
Dai Ginjo Shu is luxury sake, which sits at the top of the pyramid – here the rice must be polished to at least 50 percent but is often much more. The very best Dai Ginjo, such as Asahi Shuzo’s Dassai which has a seimaibuai of 23 percent, is naturally expensive as so much of the rice is wasted. Apart from cost Dai Ginjo Shu is characterised by lower levels of acids and amino acids, a lighter and refined taste and lighter colour, and is nearly always drunk chilled,

The other important classification is whether brewer’s alcohol has been added or not.
A sake with no added alcohol, sometimes called ‘pure rice’ sake is called a Junmai.
Ginjo and Dai Ginjo may or may not be Junmai, so you can have a Junmai Dai Ginjo – no added alcohol and made with rice polished to at least 50 percent. Honjozo, because it always contains added alcohol, can never be Junmai.

Further categories include:
Nama Zake is live and unpasteurised, giving a lively and fresh taste, often with a young grassy element to it. However, nama zake needs to be stored at carefully controlled temperatures to avoid spoilage, so is rarely exported outside Japan.
Nigori Zake is partially filtered sake, where some of the rice solids remain, giving it a cloudy milky appearance, and a sweet coconut ricey taste.
Genshu is undiluted sake – brewed to an alcohol strength of 20 percent abv. Most sake is diluted with water before shipping to give a strength of around 15 percent, but occasionally some is sold as it is. Genshu can be drunk at room temperature or warmed,

Koshu is aged sake, in special cases like Fukumitsuya Brewery’s Momotose, up to thirty years. Unlike wine, sake as a general rule does not improve with age, and should be consumed within a year of bottling. However, a small percentage is created with aging in mind, and koshu is now a growing category. The denser richer tastes of koshu make it suitable as either an aperitif, or an after dinner drink, not unlike a sherry.
Taru zake is sake which has been kept in cedar casks which gives it a pronounced woody spruce-like aroma and taste.
Yamahai and Kimoto are both additional categories to the above, meaning that a sake labelled with either will have been made using a traditional and natural method of making the yeast starter. The resulting sake tends to be higher in amino acids, and with a rich complex taste. Philip Harper in The Book of Sake (Kodansha) says “ the yamahai yeast offers a more complex dense and earthy set of aromas – yogurt and spice, cloves and nuts – and some of these are carried on to the finished sake”.

All these Premium sake together make up only a quarter of all sake production in Japan. The rest is futsushu – ordinary or everyday sake, which can have any amount of added alcohol. Some of them are acceptable, some particularly so, and some dreadful, but these are sake for quaffing, not tasting, and generally do not suffer if warmed. In the past when the brewing of sake was less precision controlled, and off flavours more apt to make an appearance, warming sake helped to disguise faults, and it still does.

Light and heat are the enemies of sake, which is why it is never sold in clear bottles. Opened bottles must be refrigerated and drunk within a week.

The Brewing Process
Sake is made by a unique process called multiple parallel fermentation, where saccharification and fermentation happen at the same time in the same mash. The secret is something called koji – rice which has been treated with the mouldaspergillus oryzae. After milling, soaking and steaming the cooked rice is divided up: and about a fifth is used to make koji, a process which takes place over a period of two days. Aspergillus oryzae is sprinkled over the cooked rice which is then left to grow, in a warm cedar-clad room (rather like a sauna) which is constantly monitored to maintain a temperature of around 30C.

The koji rice itself will reach a temperature of around 43C to 45C and, to stop it overheating, and to keep the rice from clumping together, the brewery workers, stripped to their waists and working in teams in the warm koji rooms, turn the rice by hand – sometimes working during the night. On the third day the koji rice is now hard, not sticky, and covered in a fluffy white coat.

Some of the cooked rice which was put aside is mixed with koji, water, yeast and lactic acid to make the starter yeast called shubo. The enzymes in the koji convert the starch into sugar and the result is a sweet sake, called amasake, the sugars of which help the Saccharomyces cerevisae yeast multiply. The type of yeast used, and there are several, is one of the features that gives sake its character. The process of creating the shubo takes around two weeks, until all the sugar has been consumed by the yeast. Then it’s time for it to get to work on the main mash, and let fermentation begin.

In three stages over four days the shubo starter mash, full of sugar-hungry yeast, is combined with the koji and the rest of the steamed rice to make the main mash – the moromi. This is where the delicate balance of multiple parallel fermentation is crucial – Philip Harper again “sake brewing is walking a tightrope – the two elements must be perfectly balanced”.

Fermentation lasts between two to four weeks – when the toji (head Brewer) decides it is ready, and alcohol content is around 18 to 20 percent. The finished brew is kept in tanks for a few days to settle until the next stage where brewer’s alcohol is added (except for junmai),which traps volatile fragrances, stabilises the sake and lightens the flavour, after which it is ready for pressing.
Traditionally pressing was done by filling cotton bags and stacking them in a hand-turned press- an extremely labour intensive process which is now done in only a handful of breweries . More usually the sake is pressed by machine, to separate liquid and solids. The left over sake lees, called kasu, is used in food preparation, particularly to pickle fish and vegetables, and imparts a fermented yeasty taste.
Filtration, usually through carbon, is the final stage of creating the clear liquid which is sake.

As temperature control is so crucial to sake making, it’s always been a winter activity, as this allows for slow fermentation. So in spring, when fermentation, pressing and filtration are completed, the sake is pasteurized then kept in tanks before it is diluted and bottled ready for shipping in the autumn. Most sake is designed to be drunk within a year, and this historically has been one of the obstacles to its transportation overseas.

London’s Knightsbridge, playground of the rich and beautiful, and home to the original Zuma, one of the capital’s most fashionable Japanese restaurants. Moving amongst the chic interior of frosted glass, bare wood and stone, explaining the list of forty five premium sakes to a celebrity clientele, is the world’s least intimidating sommelier, Sayaka Watanabe. Sayaka talked to The Drinks Network about the difficulties in importing sake ‘Quality control is difficult, the short shelf life, fragile quality. It’s probably an importer’s worst nightmare, and we on the selling side have to be extra careful in storage too. That’s a risk not every restaurant would like to take” She also points out that the concept of a sake sommelier is only a couple of decades old, and this lack of depth of knowledge fails to attract connoisseurs. However Zuma is now taking the message to its new restaurants in Dubai, Arizona, and Hong Kong where the Asian staff, familiar with rice, have learned quickly.

From the Japanese side, selling overseas may one day no longer be a choice but crucial to survival. Hannah Tokumine of London’s newly-opened dedicated sake shop in the Japan Centre in Piccadilly says “ “Those that embrace selling to export are confirming their longevity

Haruo Matsuzaki, Chairman of the Sake Export Association in Japan, is in the forefront of persuading sometimes reluctant traditionally-minded brewers to export their product. A prolific writer in Japanese, and expert taster, Matsuzaki works closely with Philip Harper, writer on sake and master brewer – the only non-Japanese ever to have attained the rank, and also with John Gauntner, an American resident of Japan who devotes his time to writing and lecturing on sake to foreigners, both in Japan and overseas.


Akiko Ito from Dewatsuru Brewery in northern Akita prefecture, one of the forward looking breweries, was recently in Europe expanding the market for the company’s premium sakes, and she believes that the United Kingdom is a promising market “unlike European countries with their strong indigenous wine industry, Britain is open-minded about new things, and has a reputation for appreciating quality.”

Xavier Chapelou of the small independent importer iSake, agrees:
The UK palate is more accepting of new things” he says “ we can accommodate many tastes here in the UK” “Sake is more sophisticated than wine, and the reason people don’t understand that is simply because haven’t been introduced to the tastes

Umami is the latest buzz word in the world of gastronomy and, apart from the fact that the word, and the concept, comes from Japan, it has a lot in common with sake. Umami is often referred to as the fifth taste, alongside sweet sour salty and bitter, but also translated as deliciousness or savouriness. It’s what makes food tasty, and it’s all because of amino acids –the naturally occurring glutamates in certain foods. Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, meat extracts, dried shiitake mushrooms and dashi, the basic stock used in all Japanese cooking, are all rich in amino acids and umami. And so is sake. Which is why, as Xavier Chapelou explained to Drinks Network, sake goes so well with so many different foods, not just Japanese.

In fact iSake have been pioneers in taking sake into places it’s never been before. In 2004 they introduced a sake menu at Cinnamon Club in Westminster – pairing modern Indian food with Premium sake, and the following year did the same with Italian cuisine.
Xavier explains “In wine and food matching you try to match the flavours – but in sake it’s not a normal pairing. Sake is lighter, but higher in alcohol, so we use the sake to complement the food, to announce the food. To boost the flavour”. As John Gauntner puts it “Sake supports the flavour of food, rather than marrying with it “ In other words, the glutamates enhance the flavour of what is there.

ISake’s most recent collaboration has been with Marc Demarquette, a Chelsea-based chocolatier with the same open mind and sense of adventure as Xavier, with whom he worked over several months developing a sake-infused hand made chocolate. The result ‘Sugidama’ is a spherical choclate made with sake brewed from red rice, and marketed as a luxury product in London’s top stores.

Traditionally strongly flavoured Japanese foods such as pickles and salty food were always drunk with heavier sweeter sakes with a pronounced rice presence. Lighter sakes, lower in acidity, are the perfect match for sashimi. Oily dishes such as tempura demand a more astringent sake, high in acidity.
Junmai, which has a higher level of acids and amino acids is good with cheesy, creamy foods, and Akiko Ito recommends Akita Seishu’s organic Tamaki (made with the Yamahai method, as a good match with cheeses and pasta in a cream sauce .
Ayako Watanabe of London’s award-winning Saki restaurant recommends the exotic combination of Ono Shuzo’s ten year aged sake with Black Cod and Truffle sauce.

Although many premium sakes should be drunk chilled or at room temperature, there’s no getting away from the fact that drinking it warm is comforting and convivial. Philip Harper recommends comparing certain sake at different temperatures, and observing the differences. Certain Yamahai and Kimoto brewed sake for example are often better warmed than cold “ Kimoto school sake often has prominent bitter/astringent elements and a grainy feel. These features, rough-edged when the sake is cold, blossom into a rich, round, full flavour when it is warmed”. As a general rule warming often suits the fuller bodied junmai and honjozo.

Chilled (reishu) 5-10 C – for top quality Dai Ginjo
Room temperature 15-20C The temeprature for tastings, and for honjozo, and nice earthy sake, such as some junmai
Warm (kanzake) 30-55 C for full bodied sake such as junmai, yamahai and kimoto styles, as it draws out sweetness and body.

Although for many purists the idea of drinking sake in any way other than on its own is anathema, many in the industry feel that however people want to drink it is fine
Sayaka Watanabe again “ “Sake has been hugely helped by the creative cocktails using sake over the last few years, they really make it an easy entry” and Akiko Ito agrees “ As long as people enjoy drinking it we are happy”.

Hannah Tokumine is equally enthusiastic ” It can be appreciated as a purely social drink mixed with flavoured sodas, used in cocktails, drunk hot or cold”

The British Sake Association was founded in response to the growing interest in sake, to educate and inform consumers. Joint sponsors with the Japan Sake Brewers Association of the Second Annual London Sake Fair in September 2007, the association holds tastings, food and sake matching dinners, lectures and talks, and plans to instigate an annual award in 2008, to recognise excellence in the trade. Working with pioneers such as iSake, long established importers such as Tazaki foods, The Japan Centre, and educators such as Wine and Spirit Education Trust, and enthusiastic restaurateurs and sommeliers Britain’s sake enthusiasts believe that ‘the taste of the past is the taste of the future”.
As Sayaka says “The attention to detail that goes into sake making and the world around it is truly the real beauty of what Japanese culture is all about”.
Shirley Booth

Nihon Shu Do
Often indicated on the bottle
A plus + figure indicates dryness,and a minus – sweetnesss, where
+10 is very dry and –10 very sweet.

The traditional vessel for tasting is not a glass, but a white ceramic cup with blue concentric circles inside on the base, (called a snake’s eye cup) snakeeye
so the contrasting colour enables the taster to asses the clarity of the liquid. Tasting always takes place at room temperature (20C) the optimum temperature at which flaws can’t be disguised, as they can be by warming or chilling. Although not traditional, tasting sake in a glass in the same way as wine will also reveal viscosity in the legs – a junmai will usually be more viscous than those with added alcohol, and an aged sake will also have legs. Other features in common with wine tasting are the nose (hana) mouth (kuchi) and tail (pin).
Assessing the nodogoshi is something you can do a limited number of times in one session – it’s how the sake feels when it’s swallowed, and at an informal tasting of half a dozen or fewer sakes it is to be recommended.

I am often asked about whether one should drink sake with rice. Traditonally one didn’t. This may have been because sake is made from rice, and therefore it’s considered ‘too much rice’, but I think it is related to the formality of a traditional meal, where rice, soup and pickles come last. The rice course is the full stop at the end of a meal, and as rice is considered sacred it demands respect. So, although traditionally it wasn’t done to drink sake when the rice arrives at the end of the meal, that’s now quite an old fashioned stance, and these days people drink sake with sushi all the time.

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