It’s no surprise that sake is so misunderstood by us westerners. Our alcoholic history mostly involves fermenting, brewing and distilling fruit and grain – and even then we generally have a hard time getting beyond the basics of wine and beer.
Sake, on the other hand, involves polished rice, mould, and exotic flavours such as lychee and umami. The cryptographic nature of the Japanese language is no help either, making sake bottles indecipherable, and even when translated it is difficult to relate to this faraway land of the rising sun.
Even the shorthand explanation – that sake is a Japanese ‘rice wine’ – is actually incorrect, such is our confusion with the topic (sake production is actually more akin to beer).
But with a little concentration, sake can be easily demystified. It’s even easier when you have a world-renowned ‘sake samurai’ to help you out. And so it was on a sunny day in September that – thanks to premium sake (and fine wine) importer RetroVino – we were graced with the presence of Yoshiko Ueno-Müller.
Yoshiko is the first female – as well as first non-Japan resident – to pass the extraordinarily difficult “Master of Sake” exam; she’s also a Sake Expert Assessor (NRIB) and a certified sake sommelier (IHK), as well as being bestowed “Sake Samurai” (yes it’s actually a title) by the Japanese foreign minister in 2015.
So, Yoshiko knows her stuff. She has lived in Germany since 1989, and is married to a German (Jörg Müller, also her business partner) so speaks English with a mind-bending hybrid Japanese/German accent.
Despite this, Yoshiko took us on a fascinating tour of this ancient and laboriously-produced beverage, which, as a complete newcomer to the style, opened my eyes to a whole new world.
Sake It To Me!
Perhaps it’s best to begin with a quickfire run through of how sake it made, before we delve into details.
Rice is harvested in autumn and then polished – that is, the outer layers of the sake rice, consisting of mostly proteins and fats, are removed, exposing a starchy core. Then the rice is washed, soaked, and steamed.
A type of mould called koji-kin is then introduced into the steamed rice and encouraged to grow, a process that drinks aficionados will recognise as akin to malting: i.e. the mould helps convert the rice’s starch into the sugar that’s needed for fermentation.
Once this is done, a starter culture is created by adding yeast to a small batch of rice, koji, and water, which the brewers then add gradually in increasing amounts to the fermenting tank. After fermentation is complete, sake brewers take additional steps depending on the style of sake they wish to produce, including adding distilled alcohol or diluting with water, filtering, and pasteurising.
Got it? Good. Now on to the details…
Rice, Rice, Baby
So obviously sake is made from rice. But don’t run down to your local supermarket for some Uncle Ben’s Boil-in-the-Bag just yet: the rice used in sake is specially selected for the process and is called sakamai.
In the above summary I mentioned a starchy core that is revealed after physical polishing of the grains, which removes the fibrous, protein shell. This pure starch component is called shinpaku, and it’s crucial to choose a rice where the shinpaku is both distinctly separate from the rice’s protein and fat and proportionally large enough to make the polishing worthwhile.
The polishing can take 2 days, and there are special machines to do it, although it must be carried out very carefully for fear of cracking the rice and making it unusable.
Much like the different grapes in winemaking, different types of sake rice each behave a bit differently during the brewing process and result in different-tasting final product. And again like grapes, each rice performs best in certain regions of Japan, which – it must be remembered – is a country so long it ranges from a snowy north to a subtropical south.
In terms of varities, many consider Yamada Nishiki to be the best possible rice for brewing daiginjo – the highest grade of premium sake – producing a delicate, fragrant, feminine styles of sake. Naturally, it’s also the most expensive variety.
Gohyakumangoku is the second most popular sake rice in Japan, producing a clean, light, and refreshing end product, while Miyamanishiki gives rich, full bodied results.
Koshi Tanrei is a relatively new hybrid of Yamada Nishiki and Gohyakumangoku, and marries the latter’s clean and dry style with the former’s fragrant, floral characteristics. Finally, Omachi is known for rich, earthy flavours that are bold and gutsy.
But, of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list: Yoshiko said that there are at least 200 species of rice with many used in varying proportions to give highly variable results.
Getting Hot & Steamy
The rice is steamed at a high temperature for approximately an hour, and then cooled rapidly to roughly 30ºC. This process causes the rice to cook on the inside, softening the heart, while maintaining a hard shell, making it easier to polish this off and end up with a softened, starchy core ready for fermentation.
It’s then that the mould is added.
Yes you read that right.
In order to brew beer, barley (or another grain) goes through a malting process, where enzymes within the barley help to break down starch molecules and begin converting them into sugars. One of the fundamental differences between sake and beer is this: sake rice does not contain the kinds of enzymes that barley does, so an additional ingredient is needed to help convert the rice’s starch into sugar.
So the Japanese have a range of moulds that do that job for them.
They’re collectively known as Koji-kin, which is a mould that’s commonly used in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese culture to ferment soybeans amongst other things. Its scientific name is Aspergillus Oryzae and there are many varieties, but Japanese sake is almost always made from ‘yellow koji-kin’, although each brewery has its own special ‘recipe’ of mould that they use.
The koji-kin is delicately scattered over the steamed sake rice in a hot, humid, temperature-controlled room and left for approximately 3 days to inoculate, during which time the rice is hand-mixed to ensure an even spread.
From there yeast is introduced and the fermentation can begin, which takes place at very cool temperatures (approx. 10ºC) for 3-4 weeks.
In addition to converting the starch molecules of the rice into sugar, koji-kin also releases a number of amino acids, notably glutamate, which imparts umami, a savoury quality or depth of flavor with a long lasting, mouthwatering sensation on the tongue. This umami characteristic is a hallmark of sake, and sets it apart from most other alcoholic beverages worldwide.
Water, Water, Everywhere
Yoshiko was careful to elaborate that water was the second most important ingredient in sake (after the rice of course). In general the water is quite soft in Japan, with little or no iron content, giving the drink its distinctive smoothness. That said the relative water hardness and composition can vary around the country and can, amongst other things, aid or abet certain koji and yeast, and dictate the body of the final product.
There’s no appellation system with sake, so ingredients are not legally required to come from the prefecture where the sake is made. But for practical reasons, the water in sake is mostly sourced locally, most commonly from wells but also from snowy mountain run-offs and other sources. It’s no surprise, then, that where there is ample water there will also be an abundance of breweries, and the composition of the water can add a terroir element to each bottling.
Continuing the above process, fermentation is carried out in open tanks, meaning that during production breweries apparently smell pungently of tropical fruit, especially banana. Once the fermented rice is finished, it is put into linen bags and the liquid is ideally allowed to drain out naturally – that is, without pressing. The result is normally filtered and pasteurised, bottled and allowed to rest, although sake is not normally aged like wine is. Water can be added to bring the ABV down from 20% to a more palatable 15%, and charcoal filtering may also be used to give a clear liquid.
So.. on to drinking the stuff.
Interestingly, premium sake should be enjoyed in white wine glasses, and ideally not in those traditional (but sute) ceramic cups and jugs. The reason is that modern, premium sake is far more fragrant and delicate than it has been traditionally, and as such the tulip shape of the wine glass is the ideal vessel in which to enjoy these nuances. However, given this is a recent phenomenon, it’s still proving difficult to convert people to this thinking.
Much is also true of the decision to serve sake either cool or warm. Generally, modern styles should be chilled, but older styles can take being warmed, presumably to help quick ingestion of what could have been quite a ‘rustic’ drink.
And then there’s the classification system to learn. Thankfully it can be broken down into a relatively simple hierarchy – all that is needed is 10 minutes of studiously learning a few key words for it to make sense.
Basically sake is categorised by how much rice is polished away, and then whether distilled alcohol is added after fermentation or not (which helps bind some of the umami acids as well as add mouthfeel). Jumnai is the word used for sake without alcohol added, and instead of me rabbiting on further, the below chart lays it out perfectly clearly:
Clear as mud?
Or, you know, you can just contact Colly Murray in RetroVino, who would be delighted to talk you through the wonderful world of sake. Grab a bottle and start exploring today. Trust me: you won’t regret it.
Fukuju Awasaki Sparkling (Junmai)
€25 for 300ml – Available at The Corkscrew, Drinkstore.ie, Mitchell & Son CHQ, Blackrock Cellars
We started with what was perhaps the most unusual sake of the day: a low-alcohol (6% ABV), semi-sweet, sparkling expression that showed distinctive and expressive banana, lychee, and tropical fruit salad aromas and flavours.
It was a surprising and refreshing start, and an interesting and exotic aperitif alternative to Prosecco or Champagne.
Fukuju ‘Kobe Classic’ (Junmai Ginjo)
€52 for 720ml – Available at The Corkscrew, Drinkstore.ie, Mitchell & Son CHQ, Blackrock Cellars
For me this Junmai Ginjo showed a marked aniseed character, combined with typical banana and lychee, although some spice and umami tanginess provided my first intro to the distinctive difference of sake.
It’s full-flavoured, distinctive, and a fantastic archetype of the category.
Yuki no Bosha ‘Snow Hut’ Yamahai (Honjozo)
€45 for 720ml – Available at The Corkscrew, Drinkstore.ie, Mitchell & Son CHQ, Blackrock Cellars
Yamahai is a method whereby ‘wild’ bacteria is used, but I’ve tried reading up on where exactly this happens and I’m still none the wiser – it’s not a topic for the sake novice I’ve discovered – so suffice it to say that the process gives a ‘wilder’ and ‘gamier’ aspect to sake. This certainly seemed the case here: the sake was more robust than the others, with more herbal notes such as fennel. There was less spiciness but more umami character, which I was told was due to it also being a Honjozo style – ie less rice was polished away leaving more proteins and acids, which contribute to the rustic effect. One to put hairs on your chest.
Tedorigawa Yoshidagura (Junmai)
€50 for 720ml – Available at The Corkscrew, Drinkstore.ie, Mitchell & Son CHQ, Blackrock Cellars
For me this was all about the texture. Lush, rich, with an apparently sweet attack and a distinctly drying finish.
Underneath a cloak of spice and umami was ultra tropical fruit: banana, lychee, pineapple and mango. Very interesting. It’s also the sake that featured in the famous documentary The Birth of Sake.
Ikekame ‘Turtle Red’ (Junmai Daiginjo)
€58 for 720ml – Available at The Corkscrew, Drinkstore.ie, Mitchell & Son CHQ, Blackrock Cellars
Junmai Daiginjo is the tippity-top of the sake tree, and though I could appreciate the style’s delicately light finesse, my sake newbie tastebuds favoured the more forward and less complicated aromas and flavours of the previous samples.
This is one for the aficionados I’m told.
When not writing for TheTaste.ie, Richie Magnier blogs at themotleycru.com and shares his thoughts via @RichieMagnier on Twitter. Don’t ask him what his favourite wine is though – that’s like asking what his favourite song is (although the latter would most likely involve U2).
Richie is also an avid food lover willing to give an opportunity to all cuisines: instead of getting carried away by trends or gimmicks, he cares about real food, that’s tasty and made with pride. Richie has been involved in the wine industry since 2008 and is currently studying the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines & Spirits.