Introduction to Sake -- Part 1

By Matthew Citriglia, MS on March 7, 2006

Ahhh… the drink that sent Kamikaze pilots off to their glory! No wonder I love this complicated beverage -- although I prefer a tokkuri (flask) of Sake, a bungee cord and bridge and for my adrenalin rush. Sake gets me excited like great Riesling for its purity and intensity of flavor, but trying to understand it makes learning the new German VDP Wine Classification system seem elementary.

The hardest part of learning Sake is the language and mastering the terminology. But even when you understand this, buying Sake doesn’t get any easier as the labels tend to be designed with much tradition and ceremony. Therefore, important information such as the grade of the Sake is not always obvious; in fact, it may not even be on the label if it interferes with its aesthetics. The only mandatory label requirements by law are the ingredients used, alcohol by volume and the shipping date. Nothing else! My recommendation when trying to learn about Sake is to be patient, as it is well worth the sensory reward.

The history of Sake is very complicated and full of ceremony. It is a part of many Japanese rituals, from sealing wedding vows, to blessing a new home, to being used as an offering to the shrines of gods. There is physical evidence of fermented rice beverages dating back to 300 BC. The type and style of Sake we are most familiar with today came into existence about the 16th century and did not see much change until the middle of the 20th century. Chilled Sake came about in the mid-20th century thanks to a better understanding of the complicated process of turning rice into a fermentable sugar. Traditionally, quality Sake was heated gently (not baked in a cask as is common in many American Japanese restaurants) to diminish bitterness and allow some of the musty lees character to vaporize, leaving fresh, clean flavors. Science and technology has shown the Toji, or Sake masters, that many of the ancient traditions of making Sake are essential, but it has also shown them how to make clean and more intensely flavored Sake that does not need to be heated. Today, all quality Sake is enjoyed chilled.

Is it a Wine or a Beer?
Despite what you may have heard, Sake is not a wine, nor is it a beer, although it is similar to beer in the fact that both are fermented from a type of grain. The difference is that in beer the enzymes needed to convert the starch into a fermentable sugar are created during malting, whereas in Sake the enzyme to convert the rice into a fermentable sugar is a special mold known as koji, which must be propagated and added. Also, during Sake production, saccharification (the conversion of starch into sugar), happens at the same time and in the same vessel as the fermentation (these are two separate stages in beer production). As the rice is being converted into sugar, the yeast is converting the sugar into alcohol. This is what makes Sake fermentation so difficult – if saccharification happens too slow, the yeast will starve, and if it happens too fast, the yeast is overwhelmed and can’t function so the sugar is not converted to alcohol. This process is known as “multiple parallel fermentation” and is the reason why Sake can ferment naturally to 20-22% alcohol (If you must know, the Japanese word for this is heiko fukuhakkohhiki, but don’t ask me to pronounce it).

Sake Components
Although the word Sake in Japanese means “alcoholic drink,” it has become internationally synonymous with any fermented rice beverage. If you were in Japan and wanted Sake, you would ask for Nihonshu, which means the “Sake of Japan.” Even though the production of this fermented rice beverage is quite complicated, the ingredients necessary to make it are quite simple: rice, water, koji and in certain styles brewer’s alcohol. Anything more is a sign of a lesser quality Sake. Let’s review the ingredients to see how they play a role in Sake quality.

Rice – Sakamai
Like grapes there are dozens of rice varieties, but only officially classified sakamai may be used in the production of Sake. These styles of rice have a very large grain that is roughly 25% larger than table rice; their stalks grow much taller and they are harvested much later than table rice. The country of Japan is divided into 47 Prefectures, or districts, and certain ones have developed a reputation for growing specific types of sakamai. There are over 60 classified sakamai. Here are a few of the better known:

Yamada Nishiki
This rice is considered to be the best all around Sake rice. While some sakamai have a reputation for producing a certain style of Sake, Yamada Nishiki produces excellent Sakes in all categories. It is prized for its fruity fragrance.
Best Prefectures: Hyogo, Okayama, Hiroshima

Gohyakuman Goku
This rice tends to produce a very dry, light and tart style of Sake. It is all about elegance and subtlety, and can be difficult Sake for the novice to enjoy.
Best Prefectures: Niigata, Toyama, Ishikawa

This rice tends to produce fairly rich Sake with very high acidity and a slightly herbal sweet pea character. It reminds me of Grüner Veltliner in an odd sort of way.
Best Prefectures: Okayama, Hiroshima

Miyama Nishiki
This rice tends to produce a fairly rich sake but with more moderate acidity that provides a nice round fruity character with great balance.
Best Prefectures: Akita, Yamagata, Nagano

Kame No O
This rice tends to produce fat and powerful Sake with lively fruit – kind of Zinfandel-like in its structure and likeability, meaning it gives you the desire to drink copious amounts.
Best Prefectures: Yamagata, Akita, Niigata

Kuras, or Sake breweries, are set up in specific places because of water quality. The water creates the Sake character and directly impacts Sake quality. Most kuras use pure, untreated spring or well water and the hardness and mineral composition determine how the Sake will brew and what the final product will taste and feel like. It is said that the water gives Sake its regional identity.

Technology has brought a better understanding of how the mineral content of water plays a role in fermentation and taste. Because of this many kuras are abandoning their natural resource in favor of filtered water that ensures the right mineral composition to create their Sake. There are pros and cons to this. It helps create consistency in Sake from batch to batch and can clean up environmental issues, but it can also lead to homogenization.

Koji – The Magical Mold
Rice is a starch like barley and cannot be fermented unless converted into a sugar. Koji is a special mold called Aspergillus oryzae that can convert the rice starch into a fermentable sugar. Creating and propagating koji is a very complicated process that can vary based on type of rice, stage of brewing and style or quality of Sake produced. The variables of this complicated process will not be discussed here, just understand that the slightest difference in koji can dramatically affect the character and quality of the finished Sake.

Introduction to Sake -- Part 2 covers the Sake brewing process and terminology.