Introduction to Sake -- Part 2

By Matthew Citriglia, MS on April 12, 2006

This is the second part of Master Sommelier Matthew Citriglia's Introduction to Sake.

The Brewing Process – Simplified!
There are a variety of processes available to brewing Sake depending on labor and tradition, but they all follow the same fundamental principle outlined here.

The rice is polished, washed, steam-cooked and cooled. The Koji (enyzyme found in a special mold) is propagated. Next the rice is mixed with yeast and Koji to create a Moto, also known as a Sake mother or starter mash. The whole mix is then allowed to ferment, with more rice, Koji, and water added in several batches which may be done over a period of several days. This mixture of fermenting rice, yeast, water and Koji is called Moromi. The Moromi may take up to 32 days to finish fermenting, after which it is pressed, filtered and blended.

Yeast Selection
Sake yeasts are named for the fragrance, flavor and texture they will create in the Sake. The Toji (Sake master) will select yeast based on the type of rice and style of Sake he is creating. This rice and yeast blend creates a painting in the mouth. Each Sakamai (rice) has its own unique identifiable flavor aroma and texture. Think of them as the colors on an artist’s palate. The type of yeast used dramatically effects how the flavor, aroma and textures appear on the canvas in your mouth.

Rice Polishing – Seimai Buai
Like grapes, Sakamai flavor and quality are impacted by the growing region, soil, water, weather and the brewing skill of the Toji (Sake master). Unlike grapes, Sakamai has one more influence that dramatically impacts the Sake’s final quality and style: Milling or polishing the rice. The rice is polished to remove the outer impurities – the more the rice is polished, the higher the quality and more expensive the Sake will become. The process is called Seimai Buai (pronounced say-my boo-eye), which means rice polishing ratio (Sei means polish – Mai means rice – Buai means ratio). It is the amount of the rice kernel left after milling. So if a Sake states it has a 70% Seimai Buai, it means 30% of the rice was polished away.

Sake Terminology
If you have gotten this far, don’t let the terminology scare you. They are just Japanese words that make the subject sound far more confusing than it really is. When we speak of Sake the two basic types are “Ordinary” Sake and “Premium” Sake. Ordinary Sake is called Futsushu and is usually found in large boxes before being baked and served warm. Avoid it, unless you are looking for a most excellent hangover! Premium Sake comes in two basic types: Junmai or Honjozo. These two types can then be further qualified with more specific adjectives. Again, just as a reminder, although these types and adjectives have specific meanings that are very important for understanding Sake quality and style, they are not always found on the label! Many times the Sake bottle will have back label stamp with information in English, but if it doesn’t you may have to ask a few questions.

Premium Sake Styles
This is pure rice Sake made from rice, water and Koji. This Sake must have a minimum Seimai Buai of 70%. No other additives may be used. (Jun means pure – Mai means rice -- Shu means Sake).

This is pure rice Sake with a small amount of brewer’s alcohol (ethanol) added to the fermentation. The alcohol must be added during fermentation and is limited to 25% of the total alcohol by volume. It must also have a Seimai Buai of at least 70%. This style of Sake is lighter and more fragrant than Junmai-shu.

Additional Adjectives
Junmai and Honjozo can be further defined with the following descriptors. They can be found alone or in conjunction with others to denote the different styles of Sake. It is not uncommon to find Sake with several of these additional descriptors.

Gin means “careful selection” and Jo means “ferment” or a carefully select brew. The careful selection refers to the Seimai Buai which must be at least 60%, therefore 40% of the outer rice was polished away. Usually, if the Sake is just labeled as Ginjo, it is Honjozo in style whereas the pure rice Sake will be labeled as Junmai Ginjo.

Sake labeled as Daiginjo, which means “Great Ginjo,” must have a Seimai Buai of at least 50%. Typically, if the bottle is labeled Daiginjo, it is Honjozo style where as the pure rice Sake will be labeled as Junmai Daiginjo.

Prior to bottling most Sake is blended with pure water to achieve the desired alcohol balance. A Genshu Sake is undiluted and alcohols can range from 16% to 22% alcohol.

This complicated Sake is basically made by smashing and pureeing the Moto (Sake mother) and adding lactic bacteria. It may be called Yamahai and has a higher sweetness level balanced by a tangy acidity.

This is an aged Sake and is interesting, but like old wine it has lost its freshness and takes on those earthy oxidative tones. You may find variations on this name such as O-Koshu meaning “Great Old Sake” or Ko-Ko-Shu meaning “Old Old Sake.”

This is un-pasteurized Sake and must remain refrigerated. It is very fragile.

This is an unfiltered or coarsely filtered Sake that retains some of the lees and rice solids from the fermentation. These solids will settle to the bottom of the bottle. You can choose whether to poor it off of the solids or shake it up and drink them. It is kind of like drinking wheat beer; some people pour it off clear while others like the additional yeasty intensity provided by the lees.

This literally translates into “droplet Sake” but it makes more sense if you call it “free run” Sake. At the end of fermentation the Moromi (mixture of fermenting rice, yeast, water and Koji) is normally pressed to separate the solids from the liquid. In Shizuku-style Sake the finished Moromi is loaded into special Sake bags that are hung up and the Sake slow drips out of the Moromi.

This is a Sake that has been aged in cypress casks. It is different from Kosu which is usually aged in a neutral vessel or bottle. The cypress adds a distinctive flavor to Sake.

This means Special in Japanese. Just what is special about the Sake may be hard to determine other than it is more expensive. It may be a lower Seimai Buai, or special yeast or selected rice, but whatever it means, it was handled with extra special care.

Now put your new found knowledge to the test. If you can master the German term Trokenbeerenauslese, then you can definitely learn to translate Japanese Sake terms. Let’s practice: What would the following information on a Sake label tell you? Genshu Shizuku Junmai Daiginjo-shu

This Sake would be translated as: Undiluted – Free Run – Pure Rice Wine – Great Ginjo – Sake

This article is continued in Introduction to Sake -- Part 3.