From the Vine

Sake: No Longer Lost in Translation

Our new sake guru Tom is here to help us demystify the confusing world of sake in this two day blog. Today, he’ll cover how sake is made so that you have a clear understanding of what you are drinking. Tomorrow, he’ll help you learn how to pair it, drink it, enjoy it and share it! 


Part 1: What is sake?

I’m sure everyone has heard of sake and many have had some experience trying it at their favorite sushi place but few actually know what they’re drinking. Sake is a rapidly growing craft beverage. Just as craft beer bloomed in the US over the last few decades, sake is beginning its rapid ascent in the industry. So here are a few useful things to keep you ahead of the newest connoisseur beverage craze.

First, we should clarify that sake 酒 (pronounced “sah-keh” with two equal syllables, no emphasis!) is simply Japanese for “alcohol.”  The fermented rice-based beverage that the western world knows by this name is actually called “Nihonshu” 日本酒 (literally: “Japanese Spirit”) but for the purpose of this blog, we will stick to our Americanized “sake.” If one were to ask for “saki” (sah-ki or saw-ki, as I hear many people say) one would actually be asking for either a tropical monkey, a British writer (pen name of Hector Hugo Munro), or in Japanese, a rare blossom.  In any event, you won’t normally find these in a retail store or restaurant.  Now that we can safely talk about this lovely libation without the risk of confusing it for a monkey, we can begin to unravel its mysteries.

One of the biggest misunderstandings surrounding sake is that it is “rice wine.”  While rice wine does exist in many countries, sake is a different product.  This poor translation stems from two correct observations: sake is made with rice and usually has an alcohol content of 14%-16%, similar to that of most wines.  When examining the production methods, sake is actually closest to a “rice beer” and for that reason, most experts will refer to it as a “brew” and the place of production is translated as a “brewery.”  

(Picture: Store bought grape juice being turned into wine)

To better understand these differences, lets quickly review how beer and wine are made (in a admittedly oversimplified manner).  For basic wine, toss some yeast into some grape juice (naturally rich with sugar) and wait; condition in barrels or tanks and boom: wine.  For beer, malted grains, usually barley and a few others, are steeped in hot water for a period of time to begin converting the starches to sugars.  This process is known as “mashing” the grains.  Once completed, the mash is brought to a boil, hops and other adjuncts are added then the whole thing is cooled and moved into a fermentation vessel.  At this point, yeast is added and in a few weeks, something that qualifies as beer is produced.  

Above: Homebrew beer in the mash phase. Below: Homebrew beer in fermentation.

With sake, the rice does not have natural enzymes to convert the internal starches into sugar so brewers culture a very specific mold, called koji, on a portion of the rice to begin the conversion.  Before this starts, the rice is milled to remove the husks and steamed to soften the remainder and expose the starches within.  Different percentages are milled away depending on the style the brewer wants to create but more on that later.  The koji rice is then added to fresh steamed rice, water and yeast.  The koji continues to convert starch to sugar while the yeast eat the sugars converting them into alcohol simultaneously.  This process, known as double parallel fermentation, is unique to sake, making sake a category unto itself.

Just as wine and beer drinkers come to learn a few terms from other languages, (brut, sec, sur lie, or lager, weizen, and maybe even Reinheitsgebot), there are a few key terms in Japanese that the sake drinker will come to learn.  Most important are the milling rates and fortification (addition of distilled alcohol) as these will directly influence the flavor and can help one choose the beverage to best fit their tastes.  The word junmai is Japanese for purity.  If this appears on the bottle, no alcohol has been added, you’re looking at a pure rice, koji, water, and yeast combination.  As mentioned above, sake is graded based on the milling rate of the rice.  Futsuu-shu means the product is a “table sake” and has had up to 30% of the grain milled away and typically uses non-premium rice.  These are versatile and affordable and are great for cooking, warming, and cocktails.

The first of the premium grades is junmai-shu (pure) or honjozo-shu (fortified).  These have up to 30%-40% milled away and use premium rice.  Shorter, slightly warmer fermentations lead to earthy, savory, rich flavors.  Next is Junmai ginjo-shu or ginjo-shu. (Pronounced with a hard “g”) This level has 40%-50% milled away lending to a lighter bodied, more fragrant and delicate sake usually offering flavors of fruit, melons, and minerals.  On top of the pyramid is Junmai Daiginjo-shu  or Daiginjo-shu.  These are milled beyond 50% (some as far as 80% and more!) These sake are super artisanal and vary greatly with regard to aroma and flavor.  One common trait is that they are lighter and often crisper than the lower milling rates.  The Daiginjo category offers many truly sublime products with subtly and complexity that rival the best wines and craft beers.  The final category has no specific relation to milling.  Nigori-shu are unfiltered sake.  These will be fairly rich and cloudy with flavors varying greatly depending of the rice, water, and yeasts used.

(Raw rice on the left followed by examples of the three premium milling rates.  Notice how the rice becomes pure white starch as the milling increases.)

Here is a handy chart of everything we just discussed, courtesy of Hakkaisan Brewery

Now that we have a solid understanding of the products available, check back tomorrow for Part 2: Which sake to buy and how to serve it. We will discuss food pairings and serving suggestions to make sure you get the bottle that is right for you!



One thought on “Sake: No Longer Lost in Translation

  1. This is SO great! Kudos to Tom for his interest in something so beautiful and for sharing it with the UG following.

    The Urban Grape Sake Selection is the best in the city. I send all of my guests from o ya there to be able to enjoy sake at home.

    Thank you for posting this! Sake nerds unite!

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