With over two millennia of history behind it, sake is hardly your typical run-of-the-mill alcohol beverage.
This traditional Japanese spirit has become as synonymous with Japan as beer is to Germany; it’s not just a drink, but a source of national pride deeply entrenched within both ancient and modern Japanese culture & tradition.
Ready to learn everything you ever needed to know about sake? Let this complete guide to sake for beginners help light the way!
What is sake?
Although sake isn’t exactly unknown in the Western world, there’s plenty of misinformation surrounding it.
Let’s start with the name.
Technically, sake is the Japanese term for all alcoholic beverages. It includes everything from beer & wine to uniquely local brews like shochu and what English speakers lovingly (and mistakenly) refer to as sake.
If there was ever 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, roughly translating to “Japanese alcohol.”
(For simplicity and to avoid confusion, we’ll stick to the familiar English term sake moving forward.)
Now that we’re a bit clearer on the terms, let’s look at what’s 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 sake, alcohol is sometimes also added. Naturally, the quality of each of these ingredients has a profound effect on the finished product.
As you’d probably 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 and 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 mold that helps to break the rice starches into sugars in preparation for fermentation.
As important as both water and rice are for brewing sake, the process can’t even get off the ground without the koji.
The quality of koji also effects the sake’s flavor profile immensely. That’s why koji production (seigiku) itself is taken so seriously among brewers.
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) as 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 and is essential in determining the quality of the final brew.
As you’ll see in the descriptions of the different types of sake below, the highest quality brews are those made with more “polished” rice grains.
Top-quality premium sake will start with rice polished up to 50% of its original size whereas standard brands will only polish up to 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) that brings steam up from below rather than boiling it in water. This steaming process 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, a room strictly designed with the perfect conditions for producing koji.
The rice is spread out on table where the koji is then drizzled atop. The koji quickly gets to work breaking down the starches from rice into sugar. The process usually takes a couple days.
Yeast Mash (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 or mash (called shubo in Japanese) is then transported to a larger tank where it’s combined with pure steamed rice, water, yeast, and koji rice in increments over 4 days.
Once the batch is full, it’s left alone for a few weeks to ferment. All the while, the sake brewmaster overlooks the process, ensuring 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, pressing was done by squeezing the sake through a canvas bag. Although some brewers still hold by this tradition, these days the process is usually made less labor-intensive by using large pressing machines.
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 before undergoing 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 to 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, which are most often categorized by the type of grape used, the main differentiating factors in sake are the degree of rice polishing and whether additional 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 with 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 as they are light-bodied and are equally refreshing warm or cold.
Ginjo and 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. Its flavor profile, however, is generally more complex 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 and Junmai Daiginjo
If you’re looking for the best-of-the-best, look no further than daiginjo sake. These ultra premium sakes use rice that’s been polished down to an impressive 50% of their original size. The result is an insanely smooth and complex flavor profile.
Since daiginjo sake is the most difficult of brews to master, they generally command a premium price. They’re best enjoyed cold to bring out the subtlies in flavor.
Like in other classifications, junmai daiginjo refers to daiginjo sake without added alcohol.
As you might expect, like beer, not all sake reflects the true art of the craft. Futsushu, also known as table sake, is much like your run-of-the-mill mass-produced lager: 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 more premium offerings. The result is a sake 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!
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 tend to offer a richer, creamier texture than filtered sake. They’re also generally sweeter.
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 subtlities in their flavor profile.
On the other hand, you might prefer regular junmai and honjozo sakes warm. Since these types are less forwardly complex, the warming process helps to uncover their more subtle flavors.