With over two millennia of history behind it, Japanese sake isn't your typical run-of-the-mill alcohol beverage.
This traditional Japanese brew has become as synonymous with Japan as beer is to Germany. In Japan, it's not just a drink; it's a source of national pride. Sake is deeply entrenched within both ancient and modern Japanese culture & tradition.
Ready to learn everything you ever needed to know about sake? Let this complete introduction to sake for beginners light the way!
What is sake?
Although sake isn't unknown in the Western world, plenty of misinformation surrounds it.
First lesson in sake 101? Let's start with the name.
Technically, sake is the Japanese term for all alcoholic beverages. It includes everything from beer & wine to local brews like shochu and what English speakers lovingly (and mistakenly) call sake.
If there was any doubt as to how important sake is to Japan, simply look to its indigenous name. What we've labelled as sake is named nihonshu in Japanese. The term roughly translates to "Japanese alcohol."
(For simplicity and to avoid confusion, we'll stick to the familiar English term sake moving forward.)
Another common mistake among sake beginners is referring to it as Japanese rice wine. Although the alcohol content of sake is close to wine's, sake is more like beer in its brewing process. (More on that in a bit.)
Now that we're clearer on what sake is, let's see what makes sake different than other alcoholic beverages...
Much like beer, brewing sake only requires a couple key ingredients: steamed rice, koji, water, and yeast. In cheaper grades of sake, distilled alcohol is sometimes also added.
Naturally, the quality of each ingredient affects the finished product.
As you'd guess, the absolute best sake is made from special rice rather than run-of-the-mill table rice.
The most common varieties of rice used in making sake fall under the label of short- and medium-grain japonica. Compared to regular long-grain rice, japonica grains feature a rounder and denser starch core.
Within this classification, there are nine common premium sake-brewing rice (sakamai) varieties. They come from various locations around the country. Each capture subtle taste differences in the final brew.
For a master sake brewer (toji), water is, along with rice, one of the most important elements in brewing a great sake. Many sake breweries are located close to mountain streams and underground springs.
The mineral content and quality of the water source has a grand effect, not just on the taste, but on the sake-brewing process in general.
While the rest of the ingredients of sake are straight-forward, koji tends to trip up sake beginners. Koji, also known by its scientific name aspergillus oryzae, is a special mold. Koji helps break the rice starches into sugars to prepare for fermentation.
As important as both water and rice are for brewing sake, the sake production process can't get off the ground without koji.
The quality of koji also affects the sake's flavor profile immensely. That's why sake brewers take koji production (seigiku) itself so seriously.
Much like with beer, the type of yeast used will change the flavor and, especially, the aroma of the sake.
Yeast is essential to the sake brewing process (as it is with other alcoholic beverages). It converts the sugars created by the koji into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
How is sake made?
Now that you know the ingredients that go into a sake, let's put the whole brewing process together.
The first step in brewing sake is to prepare the rice.
After the rice is collected, it's milled to remove the outer shell. This milling process is called rice polishing. This step is essential in determining the quality of the final brew.
As you'll see in the different types of sake below, the highest quality brews are made with more "polished" rice grains.
Top-quality premium sake will start with rice polished up to 50% of its original size. Standard brands only polish up to about 70%.
After polishing, the rice is washed to clean off the rice flour (nuka) left behind from the milling process.
Once washed, the rice is then soaked. The time spent at this step changes depending to the degree of polishing, the type of rice used, and climatic factors. The purpose of this step is to allow the rice to absorb the optimal amount of water for the steaming process.
Unlike steaming rice for consumption, rice steaming in sake production uses a special vat (koshiki). It brings steam up from below rather than boiling it in water. Steaming results in a firmer rice grain.
Koji production (seigiku)
After it's steamed, some of the rice is brought into the brewery's koji-muro. The koji-muro is a room strictly designed with the perfect conditions for producing koji.
The rice is spread out on table and the koji is drizzled atop. The koji quickly gets to work breaking down the starches from the rice into sugar. The process usually takes a couple days.
Yeast starter (shubo)
After the koji production is complete, the brew master will then throw it into a batch along with yeast, steamed rice, and water. Within this mix, the yeast will begin to multiply and form a colony.
The yeast starter (called shubo in Japanese) is then transported to a larger tank. It's combined with pure steamed rice, water, yeast, and koji rice in three increments over four days to create the mash (moromi).
Once the mash is full, it's left alone for a few weeks to ferment. All the while, the sake brewmaster overlooks the process to ensure proper conditions are maintained.
Pressing (joso) & filtration
After fermentation is complete, the mash is then ready for pressing. During the pressing process (joso), the sake is separated from the rice solids in the mash.
Traditionally, brewmasters would press the sake by squeezing it through a canvas bag. Some craft brewers still hold to this tradition. These days, though, large pressing machines are used to make the process labor-intensive.
Once pressed, the sake is set aside again for a few days to settle further. At this point, it's often pasteurized to rid the sake of any active cultures or enzymes. The sake then undergoes a filtration process for clarity and to improve the flavor.
The final step in the sake brewing process is aging. Unlike whiskey, which can take years to mature, most sake ages for approximately six months. It helps add complexity to the flavor.
At this point, the sake will sit at about 20% alcohol content. To reduce the sake alcohol content, brewmasters will often add pure water.
Once the optimal blend is achieved, the sake is ready for bottling. At this stage, it will also often undergo a second round of pasteurization for safety.
Types of Sake
Now that we're a little more familiar with the sake-brewing process, let's take a look at the different types of sake.
Unlike wines, most often categorized by the type of grape used, the main differentiating factors in sake are:
- the degree of rice polishing;
- whether brewer's alcohol has been added.
The broad junmai classification refers to sake made purely from rice. To qualify as junmai, the sake must:
- not contain added brewer's alcohol;
- be produced from rice polished to at least 70% of its original size.
While the category represents a range of sake flavor profiles, junmai sake is, in general, full-bodied and savory. It offers strong rice-like flavors and slight acidity.
Most junmai sakes are best enjoyed at room temperature or warmed.
Like junmai, honjozo sake must use rice polished to at least 70% of its original grain size. The difference is that honjozo contains a small amount of brewer's alcohol to round out the flavor and fragrance.
Honjozo sakes are generally a good choice sake for beginners. This type of sake is light-bodied and equally refreshing warm or cold.
Ginjo & Junmai Ginjo
The first of the premium sake classifications, ginjo sake is brewed with rice polished to at least 60% of its original grain. A special yeast and fermentation process is also used.
Like honjozo, ginjo sake is light and easy-to-drink. The flavor profile of this sake style, however, is generally more complex. It's beset with fruity & floral flavors and aromas. This is a great sake to enjoy chilled.
To meet the junmai ginjo classification, the sake must not have any brewer's alcohol added.
Daiginjo & Junmai Daiginjo
If you're looking for the best-of-the-best, look no further than daiginjo sake.
These ultra premium sakes use rice polished to an impressive 50% of its original size. The result is a smooth and complex flavor profile.
Since daiginjo sake is the most difficult of brews to master, they command a premium price. They're best enjoyed cold to bring out the subtleties and sophisticated flavor profiles.
Like in other classifications, junmai daiginjo refers to daiginjo sake without added alcohol.
As you already know from earlier in sake 101, most sakes are pressed and filtered to be clear. When larger filters are used the result is a cloudy brew called nigori, or nigori-zake.
The cloudiness comes from unfermented rice particles suspended within the brew. The result is that the best nigori sakes offer a richer, creamier texture than filtered sake. This variety of sake is also generally sweeter than others.
As you might expect, like beer, not all sake reflects the true art of the craft. Futsushu is also known as table sake. Futsushu is much like your run-of-the-mill mass-produced lager: It's fine to enjoy from time to time but hardly worth writing home about.
Futsushu sakes are those that don't quite cut it as a junmai. They're brewed with rice that's only polished somewhere between 70 and 90 percent.
The rice used in the production of futsushu is often closer to table rice varieties than the special sake rice in premium grade sake. The result is a sake variety that's not quite as smooth a drink—or as pleasant an experience when you decide to drag yourself out of bed the next day!
How to Drink Sake
Now that you've taken time to learn about the nuances of sake, it's time for the best part of the journey: learning how to drink sake and enjoying it!
You may know that unlike many other popular beverages sake is served both warm or cold. Which temperature is best depends on the sake you're planning to taste.
As a general rule, you'll want to drink higher-end daiginjo and ginjo sakes chilled rather than heated. Drinking them cold brings out the subtleties in their flavor profile.
On the other hand, you might prefer regular junmai and honjozo sakes warm. Since types are less forwardly complex, warming helps uncover their subtler flavors.