All About Sake
F un fact: October 1st is World Sake Day! Sake (‘sah-kay’) is a type of wine brewed from processed rice, and it’s probably Japan’s most famous drink other than green tea. If you’ve ever gone out for sushi with friends, you might have tried sake for yourself. It’s a unique and versatile beverage; it’s not quite wine, not quite liquor, not quite like any spirits brewed in the West. But it makes a delicious (and boozy) companion for any Japanese meal, and lots of Westerners are starting to get the hype.
How Is Sake Made?
Like all alcohol, sake is born from a process of fermenting organic material. Beer is made from barley and hops, wine is made from grapes, and sake is made from rice. But the process isn’t as simple as harvesting some rice and leaving it to age, and tweaks to this process result in different types of sake for the discerning drinker to choose from.
The first and arguably most important step to making sake is polishing the harvest of rice. “Polishing” refers to scrubbing away the outer layer of bran on each grain to expose more of the inner core. The more thoroughly polished the rice is, the higher quality the sake.
After the polished rice is washed, soaked, steamed and turned into a mash, brewers lay it all out on a wide table and scatter koji spores over it. ‘Koji‘ is the name for the species of Aspergillus fungus that kickstarts the fermentation process. The koji is a living thing that feeds off the starches in the rice, and as it digests the starch, it produces sugar in a process called saccharification. Then, yeast feeds off the sugar and produces alcohol. The fermentation process can take up to two weeks. After it’s done, the lees, or dead yeast deposits, are pressed out, the liquid is drained and then usually pasteurized, then finally bottled.
The process doesn’t end there, though. Like wine, sake is commonly left alone for nine to twelve months to age and develop a unique flavor. The aging of sake is delicate and can be affected by oxygen, light exposure, external heat, and any number of other physical or chemical factors.
After it’s done aging, it’s shipped out to stores and restaurants for its millions of fans to enjoy!
What Are the Different Types of Sake?
If you go to order sake at a Japanese restaurant, or if your local liquor store has a decent selection, you might have looked at the different names for different sake brews and wondered what on Earth the differences between them were. Westerners might know the difference between a stout and a lager, or a pinot noir and a cabernet sauvignon, but are probably totally in the dark when it comes to sake.
But don’t stress! It’s actually pretty simple. There are two main factors that distinguish different sake types from each other: the degree to which the rice was polished, and the inclusion of extra distilled alcohol in the brewing process. If you see the word “Junmai” in the name, which means “pure rice”, it means no distilled alcohol was added. Regular “Junmai” sake is made from rice that was 30% polished, “Junmai ginjo” from at least 40%, and “Junmai Daiginjo” from at least 50%. The corresponding types with distilled alcohol are called “Honjozo”, “Ginjo”, and “Daiginjo”.
What difference does rice polishing make in the end? Essentially, stripping away the outer layer of the rice grain exposes the aromatic and flavorful core, resulting in a flavor that many say is lighter, drier and more palatable than the full-bodied, rough taste of less refined sake. As a result of the extra labor that goes into making Junmai Daiginjo, this type of sake tends to be the most expensive.
How Is Sake Served?
As with many things in Japan, sake looks simple, but has a handful of precise rules and rituals that people are expected to follow while enjoying it.
Sake aficionados will argue over whether sake is best served hot or cold. And yes, it is commonly served hot! Some dislike hot sake entirely, but many say that heat masks some of the flavor impurities in lower-grade sake like Junmai, and for hundreds of years, almost all sake was traditionally served warm. As the polishing process grew more refined, though, the higher-quality sake had more delicate floral flavors that would be spoiled by heat. So, in short, Junmai and honjozo (Junmai’s sibling with distilled alcohol added) are best served hot, but more refined sake is better chilled.
When your server brings a round of sake to your table, they’ll probably give you a tokkuri—a ceramic flask—filled with the sake, and a set of ochoko—small round cups—to drink from. If it’s a special occasion, like the new year or the beginning of a traditional kaiseki meal, the cups might be sakazuki, which are wider and flatter than ochoko, almost like saucers. Or, on occasion, it will be served with a masu, a small wooden box that was traditionally used for measuring rice. The use of masu is mostly a novelty, but makes for a fun change of pace at celebrations.
When you’ve got your sake, whatever you do, don’t serve yourself first—or at all! When drinking with a friend, pour for them and they’ll pour for you. When you empty your cup and want a refill, a slight tilt of the cup towards them is the polite way to request it. Hold the cup in your right hand and support the bottom with your left while it’s being poured. Then, it’s polite to take a sip before you set it back down on the table. When you’re the one pouring, pour gently while holding the bottle in your right hand and supporting it with your left, with the pinched part of the spout pointing upwards.
There you have the basics of Japan’s most famous boozy beverage! Next time you’re out for sushi or ramen with friends, you can impress them with your sake knowledge and skills. Kanpai!
Rowan Thompson - October 19, 2020
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