I haven’t posted in a while, which is rather remiss since I have had a lot to share. However, I thought I’d start with a review of a superb sake tasting evening at our local superb sushi bar. For those of you who enjoy sake, a traditional Japanese rice wine, this was an opportunity to learn a lot. Now, probably like me, your usual offering of sake is Sawanotsuru, available in most supermarkets.
So having an expert from Shirakabe-gura in Kobe, Japan to talk about and let us taste different types of sake was not only informative, but most enjoyable with the host of the Sushi Bar providing some amazing Japanese dainty food to accompany (jellyfish, sea urchin, crab, salmon, tofu, duck, bean curd and much more). I don’t profess to be an expert in any way, but want to pass on what I learned.
We tend to call sake “rice wine” but the process is more like that of brewing beer. In short, a particular type of rice is used to brew sake (not your normal table rice). The rice is much larger, and is more difficult to grow. One type is called Shuzo kotekimai. Because it grows on a long stalk, it falls over in the fields and is susceptible to typhoon conditions. Its hard to harvest by machine, and has low resistance to pests and diseases. Then the brown rice is polished, the more its polished the smaller the grain and the better the taste (and more expensive the sake). Some of the better sakes are made from Yamadanishiki rice from Hyogo prefecture (considered the best Shuzo Kotekimai).
Junmai sake (Junmai means “pure rice”) is made from just rice, water, koji and sake yeast. No added alcohol. Koji is a term that refers to steamed rice that has had koji-kin, or koji mould spores, cultivated onto it. This magical mould, for which the official scientific name is Aspergillus Oryzae, creates several enzymes as it propagates, and these are what break the starches in rice into sugars that can be fermented by the yeast cells, which then give off carbon dioxide and alcohol. Without koji, there is no sake. Unlike beer brewing, rice contains no natural sugar for the yeast to grow.
Regular sake (our equivalent of table wine) is called Futsu shu and is made from 100% (unpolished) rice and has added alcohol. Ginjo sake is made from 50%-60% polished rice and has a lighter, cleaner taste and tangy flavour and an aroma. Daiginjo sake is made from 50% or less polished rice (the smallest grain size). Junmai sake tends to have a full-bodied taste and is slightly acidic and no added alcohol. Polishing the rice removes proteins and oils and leaves just the starch.
So, the best are Junmai Daiginjo (50% polished rice, no added alcohol), Junmai Ginjo (60% polished rice, no added alcohol) and Junmai (no added alcohol). Then there is Daiginjo (as above, but with added alcohol), Ginjo (as above, but with added alcohol) and Honjozo (70% rice and added alcohol. Futsu Shu (or regular sake) has no polishing but has added alcohol. Confusing, huh? Read more here.
I found this site, and a pie chart which illustrates when/how sake is best consumed. Sake doesn’t have a long shelf-life, so don’t store it for months!
Premium sake is best served cold, like a chilled wine. Its slightly higher in alcohol (about 15%). We tried one that was flavoured with peach and was like a peach bellini without the bubbles. We tried a milky-looking cloudy sake that is unfiltered and has a sweet, vaguely coconut flavour. We tried a fine quality Junmai sake made in the traditional way and drunk warmed. My personal favourite is the sparkling Mio sake, which is low alcohol and super in the summer.
Sake brewing has been carried out since probably the 5th century in Japan. Home brewing was banned at the beginning of the 20th century (since sake sales made up 30% of tax revenues). During WW2 shortages meant innovation and by adding pure alcohol and glucose they could increase the yield by as much as four times. After the war, sake quality improved but competition from beers and wine meant consumption fell, even though quality improved. However the number of breweries in Japan has about halved since 1975.
A pity that most of these sakes are not widely available in the UK, but at least the expansion of modern brewing facilities in Japan and an awareness of the growing interest in the UK means we may find these sakes here in the future. Have a look at Takara Shuzo’s website. The largest export markets for Japanese sake are USA, Korea, Singapore. 1 October is officially Sake Day in Japan. Kampai!