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Sake is the national beverage of Japan. It is made with fermented rice and water, in a process that takes about two months. The result is mildly-strong liquor, with an intense and persistent aroma.
In Japan, sake is serious business. Brewers are regarded as artists, and their creations are highly revered. There are dozens of different kinds of sake, some extremely expensive and difficult to make; but each with its own characteristic flavor.
If you wish to learn more about Japanese sake, keep reading!
Sake is made by fermenting polished rice. Its brewing process resembles that for beer more than that for wine: starch is converted into sugar that ferments into alcohol. However, sake is way stronger than beer, as its alcohol content is around 20%.
In the past, sake was only brewed during winter, while nowadays it can be produced all year round. However, artisanal sake is brewed only at certain seasons, and is usually drunk within a year of production.
In Japan, sake (seishu in Japanese) is the national beverage, served on ceremonial occasions in small porcelain cups called sakazuki. Different kinds of sake are served at different temperatures; however, sake is usually served hot to enhance the flavor.
The different kinds of sake have different tastes. Labels indicate the sugar and alcohol content, the concentration of acid, and the umami flavor (its savoriness). Much sake also has remarks on the label about its fruit, herbal, and spice content.
The process of brewing sake can seem pretty straightforward: rice is polished, washed, cooked and then fermented. But this apparently simple method consists of small steps that have to be carefully checked again and again, adding the necessary ingredients to achieve the right taste.
The rice used for sake is long grain rice with less protein and lipids than the usual rice. The grain has to be polished. If it is too small, it will break during the process. This kind of rice is not eaten, and there are more than 80 varieties.
The other fundamental ingredient is water. Water is used for washing the rice, brewing, and diluting the final product. So, it is clear that the quality of water is extremely important, especially in relation to the minerals it contains.
After rice has been polished, it is left until it has absorbed enough moisture (so that it won’t break). After this, the rice is washed and then steeped in water. Then it is steamed on a conveyor belt, and it has to be carefully cooled. It is sprinkled with some microorganisms that help it to ferment for about a week.
The resulting mixture is called koji. Water and yeast culture are added to the koji, as well as more rice and water. This moromi (the main mash) ferments for about 3 weeks. After fermentation, sake is filtrated, carbon filtered, and pasteurized.
With the aid of external heat, nitrogen oxides, etc, sake matures in nine or twelve months, and is then ready to drink.
When buying a bottle of sake, you should read the label to get some idea about its taste. You should look for three words:
1. Nihonshu-do indicating the sugar and alcohol content. A -3 sake will be sweet; a +10 will be dry.
2. San-do indicating the concentration of acid.
3. Aminosan-do indicating the savoriness (umami).
Sake brewers are called tōji. Japanese people respect and honor the brewers’ work. In the past, the title of tōji was passed from father to son; nowadays new brewers are trained at university. Old-fashioned breweries still follow seasonal cycles, producing sake only during certain months.
Since sake is the national beverage of Japan, it is natural that there are many varieties to choose from. Here we mention just a few examples. We strongly recommend experimenting until you find the one you like best.
There are two basic types of sake: futsu-shu, the ordinary sake, equivalent to table wine; and tokutei meisho-shu, the special-designation sake. The latter is premium sake characterized by how much the rice has been polished and how much brewer’s alcohol has been added.
There are about 8 varieties of special-designation sake, and they differ according to: the ingredients, the rice-polishing ratio, and the percentage of koji rice. One of the best you can find, for example, the junmai daijingjo-shu is made with both rice and (15%) koji rice, with a rice-polishing ratio of 50%.
A ginjo-shu variety has a light flavor and a wonderful aroma. The rice mash is fermented at low temperatures, and the sake is better served cold. A type of ginjo-shu, called daiginjo-shu, has a fuller body and a brief tail.
A smoother kind of sake is honjozo-shu: made by adding brewer’s alcohol and not as strong as other sake. It is easily identifiable by its aroma.
One of the most popular types of sake is the infused one: it has fruit flavors (apple, cherry, and raspberry), is sweet and is perfect for cocktails. Another popular one is the akai sake, characterized by a reddish color given by a koji fungus.
If you like woody flavors, try the taru sake, stored in cedar barrels. Namazake is the raw sake, without pasteurization. It has a fresh flavor and must be drunk cold. If you want something completely different, try “cloudy sake” (nigorizake), which is not completely filtered and contains some solid rice.
Sparkling sake is regarded as a refreshing drink, while koshu (old sake) has a strong flavor and honeyed color, and might not appeal to everyone.
Like almost everything in Japan, there are traditional ways to enjoy sake fully, and it is good to respect them and let local people instruct you. Don’t be afraid to ask and learn: that may be the best part of the experience.
At restaurants, sake is sold in the traditional unit called go (about 180 ml). You can order one go, two go, three go, etc. You will also find bottles (300 or 720 ml).
Sake can be served hot or cold, depending on the kind of sake, the season, and your taste. Premium sake is usually served cold or at room temperature. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to ask the server.
Sake is usually served in a small cup or glass placed into a wooden box called masu. The set comes with a flask (tokkuri). When the tokkuri has warm sake, the sake is warmed by placing the tokkuri in a pan of hot water (the narrow neck of the bottle will prevent the heat from escaping).
Japanese people love to drink sake with others. When you are drinking with others, always serve others as well, and not just yourself. Check your friends’ glasses and top them up before they get empty. If someone serves you, hold up your glass, take a sip, and then put your glass on the table.
In Japan there are about 1,800 sake breweries. Most are to be found in Niigata, Kobe, and Kyoto, and can be visited via a tour using Japanese. If you wish to join such a tour, remember to book in advance. Sake is usually brewed in winter, and there may not be a lot to see off-season.
A typical brewery tour will consist of a guide bringing you round the place, and showing you the stages of production. You may have an opportunity to ask questions directly to the toji. Many breweries have a small museum, a tasting bar, and, of course, a shop where you can buy all the sake you want.
As mentioned above, you can visit a sake brewery for a first-hand experience of how sake is made. It is a truly fascinating process, and knowledgeable guides will answer all your questions. Since we would all like to taste sake for free, we also recommend visiting the sake fair in Niigata Prefecture.
In Kobe, we strongly recommend going to the Nada Sake District, one of the most famous sake-producing districts. Here there are dozens of breweries you can visit: many inside traditional buildings, with museums, bars, and shops.
This district is in Kyoto, where most Japanese sake is produced. Most breweries here are housed inside wooden buildings built in styles from the Edo Period (1603-1868), lined up along the river and surrounded by willows. Most welcome visitors and let you try their sake for free.
Every year, the Sake No Jin is the fair to attend for sake producers in Niigata Prefecture, famous for its excellent rice. The fair is held in March and at it you can drink all the sake you want; and all the sake you find here will be excellent.
Sake is such a fascinating part of Japanese culture that we wouldn’t be surprised if you wished to visit Japan just because of it. Don’t wait any longer, then! Start planning your next trip to Japan with the help of our professional staff: we will take care of everything, so you can just relax and enjoy your sake in peace.
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