WHAT SAKE IS
It is said that the gods first drank sake and so it is still used in religious rites, and placed on family alters to pay respect to deities and the cherished dead. Marriage ceremonies include ritual sake drinking and at many annual festivals sake is consumed in great amounts because the gods love sake and clearly those who drink the rice wine are closer to the divine.
The word sake is actually a general reference to alcoholic beverages, the word o-sake or the more precise nihonshu (literally meaning Japanese liquor) is used by the sake tsu (connoisseur) when referring to the full bodied rice wine. Nihonshu of course is brewed from rice and there are many grades, varieties, and styles from which to choose.
Sake is a fermented beverage created from rice, water, koji-jin (enzyme), and yeast, usually with an alcohol content around 15% about that of wine. There are about 65 varieties of rice designated as sake rice, and naturally some are more prized than others. Like grapes, different rice strains grow best in particular regions.
Sake is brewed like a beer, yet not carbonated, but it is served like a wine, and flavor-wise is closer to wine than beer, although it is indeed uniquely different from wine. It is not a distilled beverage, and is not even remotely related to gin, vodka or other spirits.
HOW SAKE IS MADE
Five crucial elements are involved in brewing sake -- water, rice, technical skill, yeast, and land/weather. More than anything else, sake is a result of a brewing process that uses rice and lots of water. In fact, water comprises as much as 80% of the final product, so fine water and fine rice are natural prerequisites if one hopes to brew great sake. But beyond that, the technical skill needed to pull this all off lies with the toji (head brewers), the type of yeast they use, and the limitations entailed by local land and weather conditions.
A general description of sake brewing looks something like this. Rice is washed and steam-cooked. This is then mixed with yeast and koji (rice cultivated with a mold known technically as aspergillus oryzae). The whole mix is then allowed to ferment, with more rice, koji, and water added in three batches over four days. This fermentation, which occurs in a large tank, is called shikomi. The quality of the rice, the degree to which the koji mold has propagated, temperature variations, and other factors are different for each shikomi.
This mash is allowed to sit from 18 to 32 days, after which it is pressed, filtered and blended. This would be enough to get you through most conversations. But let us look at the main steps and processes a bit more closely.
1. Rice is polished.
After proper sake rice (in the case of premium sake, anyway) has been secured, it is milled, or polished, to prepare it for brewing good sake. This is not as simple as it might sound, since it must be done gently so as to not generate too much heat (which adversely affects water absorption) or not crack the rice kernels (which is not good for the fermentation process).
Next, the nuka (white powder) left on the rice after polishing is washed away, as this makes a significant difference in the final quality of the steamed rice. (It also affects the flavor of table rice; try washing your rice very thoroughly and notice the difference in consistency and flavor.) Following that, it is soaked to attain a certain water content deemed optimum for steaming that particular rice. The degree to which the rice has been milled in the previous step determines what its pre-steaming water content should be. The more a rice has been polished, the faster it absorbs water and the shorter the soaking time. Often it is done for as little as a stopwatch-measured minute, sometimes it is done overnight.
Next the rice is steamed. Note this is different from the way table rice is prepared. It is not mixed with water and brought to a boil; rather, steam is brought up through the bottom of the steaming vat (traditionally called a koshiki) to work its way through the rice. This gives a firmer consistency and slightly harder outside surface and softer center. Generally, a batch of steamed rice is divided up, with some going to have koji mold sprinkled over it, and some going directly to the fermentation vat.
2. Koji rice is prepared over a two-day period.
This is the heart of the entire brewing process, really, and could have several chapters, if not books, written about it. Summarizing, koji mold in the form of a dark, fine powder is sprinkled on steamed rice that has been cooled. It is then taken to a special room within which a higher than average humidity and temperature are maintained. Over the next 36 to 45 hours, the developing koji is checked, mixed and re-arranged constantly. The final product looks like rice grains with a slight frosting on them, and smells faintly of sweet chestnuts. Koji is used at least four times throughout the process, and is always made fresh and used immediately. Therefore, any one batch goes through the "heart of the process" at least four times.
3. Steamed rice and cultivated koji are sent to the yeast starter room, and the moto (yeast starter) is prepared over a 2-week period.
A yeast starter, or seed mash of sorts, is first created. This is done by mixing finished koji and plain steamed white rice from the above two steps, water and a concentration of pure yeast cells. Over the next two weeks, (typically) a concentration of yeast cells that can reach 100 million cells in one teaspoon is developed.
4. The moto is transferred to a larger tank, and over a period of four days, rice, water and prepared koji are added into the tank, roughly doubling the volume of mixture each time.
After being moved to a larger tank, more rice, more koji and more water are added in three successive stages over four days, roughly doubling the size of the batch each time. This is the main mash, and as it ferments over the next 18 to 32 days, its temperature and other factors are measured and adjusted to create precisely the flavor profile being sought.
5.The moromi (fermenting mixture) run sits course over a period of 18-32 days.
6. The sake is then ready for filtration, separating the unfermented solids from the clear sake.
When everything is just right (no easy decision!), the sake is pressed. Through one of several methods, the kasu (white lees) and unfermented solids are pressed away, and the clear sake runs off. This is most often done by machine, although the older methods involving putting the moromi in canvas bags and squeezing the fresh sake out, or letting the sake drip out of the bags, are still used.
After sitting for a few days to let more solids settle out, the sake is usually charcoal filtered to adjust flavor and color. This is done to different degrees at different breweries, and is goes a long way in dictating the style.
7. The sake is aged, pasteurized, and blended as required.
Most sake is then pasteurized once. This is done by heating it quickly by passing it through a pipe immersed in hot water. This process kills off bacteria and deactivates enzymes that would likely adverse flavor and color later on. Sake that is not pasteurized is called namazake, and maintains a certain freshness of flavor, although it must be kept chilled (refrigerated) to protect it.
Finally, most sake is left to age about six months, rounding out the flavor, before shipping. Before shipping it is mixed with a bit of pure water to bring the near 20 percent alcohol down to 16 percent or so, and blended to ensure consistency. Also, it is usually pasteurized a second time at this stage. It is somewhat unfair to the sake-brewing craft and industry to reduce sake brewing down to the short explanation above, but excessive detail would soon go beyond the scope of this article. The basics are as explained here.
There are about 1800 kura (sake breweries) in Japan, a number which is sharply decreasing each year. So there are 1700 brands, but most kura make several grades or types of sake, which are significantly different. So there are likely as many as 10,000 different sake among these breweries.
From a production point of view, there are five basic types. Note that there are several other less-common types as well. The five basic types are; junmai-shu (rice only; no adding of distilled alcohol), honjozo-shu (a tad of distilled alcohol is added), ginjo-shu (highly milled rice, with or without alcohol added), daiginjo-shu (even more highly milled rice, with/without added alcohol), and nama-zake (a special fifth designation for sake that is NOT pasteurized and basically is mutually independent of the above four ).
Less common types of sake include; Nigori-zake (cloudy, unfiltered sake that has not been pressed fully from the fermenting rice solids), Yamahai-shikomi (sake made by allowing the enzymes in the koji to eventually dissolve all the rice in the developing moto, as opposed to the traditional method of raming the mixture with a pole), sokujo moto ("fast-developing" moto, done by adding a bit of lactic acid to the moto process at the beginning), Kimoto (the original method of creating sake made using a kimoto yeast, the starter will stand around a small tub and mix, mix, mix in a rhythmical, robotic action to mash up the rice, koji and yeast to a paste-like consistency), hi-ire ("put in the fire" sake that has been pastuerized twice), nama-nama/hon-nama (totally unpastuerized sake, the principle type of nama-zake), and nama-zume/hiya-oroshi (sake that has been pasteurized once before storage, but not pasteurized before bottling) .
Sake comes in three grades - tokkyu which is the first grade, ikkyu which is the second grade and nikkyu which is the third grade. Also, there are two different flavors of sake - amakuchi which is slightly sweeter annd karakuchi which is slightly drier.
Sake should be stored away from light and kept cool. Refrigeration is best, although not absolutely necessary unless the sake has not been pasteurized.
SAKE AND THE CUSTOMER
The ultimate question in serving sake is, "What temperature?" There is no fast and hard answer to this question. There are several temperatures to serve sake at. Premium sake is usually served slightly chilled, while lower grades of sake are often served warm.
The cold winter season is the time for hot o-sake, but be careful! warm o-sake is so delicious and smooth that one can easily drink too much of it! Hot sake, or atsukan, is served directly into sakazuki (small cups) from a tokkuri (sake pitcher). Serving sake this customary way can add a special, traditional atmosphere to your enjoyment. To serve warm, pour sake into a small open mouthed pitcher. Heat it in a hot water bath over very low heat to approximately 110°F, about 5 minutes. Alternatively, you may place the pitcher in a microwave oven for about 45 seconds. Never boil sake, which destroys aroma and flavor. Many sakes also may be served at room temperature. Another method of serving hot sake is to place it in a rocks or collins glass, placing this glass inside a traditional wooden cup. In this manner, the wooden cup collects the spillage of the drink, and adds a wood taste the remaining sake which is drunk after finishing the sake in the glass.
Hot summer days are made more tolerable by serving chilled o-sake, some say that this is the only way to drink rice wine as it is more flavorful and the alcohol is not so quickly absorbed into your system. Traditionally only the highest quality sake is chilled to enhance its delicate, unique flavor. While many types of sake may be served either at room temperature or chilled, some were specifically developed for chilling. Chill sake to about 50°F. Cold sake can be served in wooden cups typically made out of cedar lending a nutty aroma to the drinking experience, in an all-purpose wine glass just as you would a fine white wine, or even on the rocks just like the way whiskey is often served.
Sake can go with food much like wine. Although sake may not have the presence of wine, nor the fullness or impact, there are still many styles and countless individual flavor profiles. Each will work well with some food, less well with others. Sake is best enjoyed with lightly prepared fish, chicken, pork, vegetarian, and Asian cuisine, as well as the popular stews (nabemono) of winter. Since sake is made from rice it is considered redundant to drink o-sake while eating rice, so drinking stops before the rice is served!
Etiquette demands that one should always pour sake for others but never for oneself, when a guest or friend's cup is empty, fill it! Remember to also lift your cup from the table when sake is being poured for you. When drinking with friends or associates a hearty "Kampai!" (meaning, "to the bottom of the cup!"), is the toast most often heard.