SAKE (Nihonshu)

The other thing that we love about Japan

Japan’s national beverage sake is a drink made from fermented rice. Even though we love almost everything about Japan, when it comes to sake, its reputation precedes the understanding of the beverage outside the country.

Despite spending almost 15 years in the drinks industry, my official introduction to sake happened only recently in 2018.

While judging at Sake Selection, the competition in Mie Prefecture organized by Concours Mondial de Bruxelles. We spent 5 days getting trained in tasting and understanding various styles of sakes as well as received first hand information on the production techniques at the small sake breweries in the region.

During the last leg of the trip I also spent a few days in Tokyo visiting sake bars and small joints holding sake tastings to enhance knowledge on the Japanese sake, also called Nihonshu.

Did you know that there are 20,000 sake brands sold across Japan? It is said that each brand of sake has its own personality. Here’s what you need to know about sake before you order a bottle during your next trip to Japan hopefully in 2021.

Sake 101:

What is Sake?

Sake is a fermented alcoholic beverage made from rice. Premium sake uses special rice called sake rice, which is suited for brewing good quality sake. The grains of this type of rice called shuzo kotekimai are a bit larger than table rice and processing rice. Sake rice is also called sakamai

‘Jizake’ Sake

Jizake means local sake. The term acknowledges the region where sake is made. There is major temperature difference between north and the south of Japan and this terms helps define the individuality of the sake produced in each region complimenting to its food and culture. 

Sake Classification

Broadly sake is classified into tokutei-meisho-shu (specially designed sake) and futsu-shu (table sake).

So what is tokutei-meisho-shu? This indicates the rice polishing ratio and a few other factors.

Sake Production

One of the main ingredients that define good sake is water. Sake consists of 80% water. The mineral content of the water influences the growth of the koji mold and yeast, so the flavour of the sake is dependent on the quality of  water and rice. Sake rice has a milky white colour in its core. The degree of polishing of the rice affects the result.

To bring out the aromas in the sake and sharpen the flavour sometimes brewing alcohol is added to Moromi the fermenting mash that becomes the undiluted sake and determines the character of the sake.

Lastly, the microorganisms that control the quality of the sake are Koji Mold and yeast. Acting as the basis for the Koji mold coverts starch to sugar and the yeast ferments the glucose into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Both these elements influence the flavour and aroma of the product.

Sake is the same group of fermented liquor as wine and beer. But the unique characteristic of sake is that it uses a sophisticated production method called ‘multiple parallel fermentation.’

In case of beer malt goes through saccharification and then with the beer yeast it goes through fermentation but in the case of sake the process of adding Koji mold that triggers saccharification and addition of sake yeast that does fermentation happens simultaneously.

Sake Types (Specially designated names)

Polishing of the sake rice is what defines various types and styles in specially designated category of sake. However, the basic rules for specially designated sake are – it must be made with at least 15% rice koji. The weight of the brewers alcohol added must not exceed 10% of the weight of the white rice used in making the sake. You can call a sake junmai-shu as long as it is sake made with rice and rice koji only.

The other sake types

There are at least 17 types of sakes but we will only be talking about the 10 popular styles here.

1) Arabashiri – Free run sake – First part of the sake that comes off the press when the moromi is pressed. It contains a little particles and relatively less amounts of alcohol. This has mainly freshly fermented notes with prominent carbon dioxide. 

2) Koshu – Long-term storage and aged sake which can be aged for 6 months to even 5 years.

3) Genshu – Undiluted sake which goes upto 18% to 20% abv due to no dilution with water.

4) Happo-seishu – Sparkling sake which has a lot of carbon dioxide.

5) Hiya- oroshi- Special Autumn sake which has been pasteruzied once and stored until fall. This sake is sold without a second pasteurization.

6) Kijoshu – Aged and specialty sake- The kind that is made with sake as base instead of water. This has been a prized variety since ancient times.

7) Muroka – Unfiltered sake- after pressing the moromi sake is filtered to stabilize the quality and this sake skips that last step of filteration. 

8) Taru zake – Cask sake – kept in a cedar cask that adds domnant wood notes to sake.

9) Namazake – Unpasturized sake – Sold without any pasteurization.

10) Tei-aru-shu – Sake with an abv below 12%. Light and refershing.

Understanding label & terminology at restaurants

Yes, there’s such a thing as ‘bad sake’. Trust me, because on a day that I was feeling adventurous during my stay in Tokyo I ordered a tokkuriin one of the Izakayas to go with my yakitori and edamame for lunch. That sake turned out to be the only bad sake that I tasted during my stay in Japan.

Hence, this brief guideline for you to understand the sake labels and what to order in a restaurant.

Sake etiquette

Don’t shake the tokkuri to check if it is empty. Your warm sake won’t benefit much from this act.

Don’t peep into the tokkuri to see if there’s any sake left. J

Don’t drink straight from the tokkuri.

Don’t mix the drinks from several tokkuri.

* Always ask for water when you drink sake.

Follow all these guidelines; remember some of the types of sakes and you are going to have a great time tasting sake.

Will offer you some Sake and food pairing guidelines, how to taste sake and in which sake cups, another time. Until then, Happy Sake Day! Kampai!

Source : JSS

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