Brewed as early as 4800 B C in the Yangtze Valley (now in China), sake has been the staple alcoholic beverage of Japan for centuries and once upon a time of Chinese too.
Although erroneously called a rice wine, sake is a beer. It is brewed, but few westerners associate this clear still beverage with beer.
Sake comes in a staggering array of qualities. Today the majority of sake production in Japan, but now Oregon, California and Australia host sake brewers taking advantage of low ingredient and labour costs.
Sake has played and continues to play an important role in the Japanese culture and religion. It is used in almost all Shinto ceremonies, and served at weddings, at christenings of buildings, at the opening of new homes, or even when land is purchased.
When the Japanese obtained the sake recipe in 300 A D only naturally occurring yeasts could be used. There were no cultivated yeasts. Some clever Japanese then invented “ chewing-in-the-mouth sake “. It was a ceremony during which a whole village would gather to chew up rice, chestnuts and millet and regurgitate in to vats. The saliva contains sufficient enzymes to start fermentation, which continue with the help of natural yeasts. Later on bakers accidentally discovered the efficacy of yeasts, and over time invented techniques to preserve them for future use.
Today sake is brewed using highly scientific and hygienic techniques, and the product by all accounts has a finer, more distinct and deep flavour.
During and after World War II alcohol and glucose were added to rice mash, increasing yields by as much as four times.
Today, only the least expensive sake are produced this way. Quality sake brewers never add anything other than pure water (the best is hard water from Kobe prefecture), koji, yeast and rice. Of the 120 000 rice varieties, only 46 have been identified as suitable for sake production.
Sake production starts with polishing the rice. Polished rice yields better sake. (Some brewers polish the rice down to 65 percent of its original size using only the “ heart “ of the kernel). After polishing, the rice is washed, soaked, and then steamed. After cooling koji (a microbe similar to those used in blue cheese manufacturing) is added to convert starch to glucose. Then yeasts are added to start the fermentation which can last anywhere from 18 – 30 days. The fermentation is strictly controlled by the toji (brew master) who used to be a fisherman. Traditionally, fisherman, who having completed the fishing season, and were unemployed, brewed sake during winter. Today breweries hire full-time brewers.
During the fermentation, more water, rice and koji are added to continue the process. After the fermentation is completed, pressing takes place, followed by the first pasteurisation.
High-quality sake is aged (some longer than others) while inexpensive ones are just filtered, diluted with water, pasteurised once more and bottled.
In 1988 there were 1800 brewers, now this number is down to 1500, and chances are it will decline even more, as larger organizations constantly take market share from smaller brewers.
Daiginjo-shu is considered to be the best quality followed by ginjo-shu, tokubetsu honjozo, tokubetsu-junmai and junmai-shu.
High quality sake should be enjoyed chilled.
Sake served lukewarm indicates the presence of minor taste flaws.
Some experts claim sake to contain 400 flavouring agents (congeners) and knowledgeable tasters have developed 90 different words to describe aroma alone. Regardless, even an untutored and untrained palate can quickly learn to distinguish good from bad.
Fine sake shows discernable balance between sweetness and dryness, pleasing acidity, bitterness, astringency and alcohol.
Some are aromatic (may smell of apples, bananas, strawberries, melon and other
fruits ), and display a brilliant clarity with shades of yellow.
It is best to serve sake in small ceramic cups called tokkuri (specially designed chilled glass flasks). If unavailable, tiny teacups or sherry copitas can be used. (Warmed sake is for entry-level products. Fine sake should be enjoyed chilled but not cold)
Sake evaluation is similar to that of wine. First evaluate the colour which can range from clear to light amber. Sake must be brilliant, newer dull. Then smell it to detect fragrance and aromas.
Some sakes are more aromatic than others. In a few regions brewers eschew aromas and produce neutral smelling sakes.
Now sip and hold it in your mouth while sucking air in to explode flavours and aromas.
Expose sake to all parts of your tongue to determine its sweetness or lack of it, body, taste, astringency and texture.
Exhale to determine secondary fragrances called fukumi-ka. You can now spit it or swallow.
Write down your first impressions.
Sake does oxidize over time but not as quickly as wine. It is advisable to consume sake fully once the bottle has been opened. Brewers bottle several sizes, from one serving to several litre containers. Most frequent bottle size is 750 ml.
Sake generally contains 17 – 19 percent alcohol and goes well with fish, and vegetable dishes, particularly those of junmai quality.
Grilled salmon or pork dishes are better with fuller styles such as Gekkeikan, Ozeki and Hakutsuru.
Sweet, unfiltered sakes should be enjoyed as dessert.
Sushi and sashimi are meant for high quality and refined sakes.,
Here is a list of small quality oriented sake brewers each offering two or three brands of different quality.
Takasago Shuzo, Akita Seishu, Nanbuijian Co.Ltd, Yama Togawa Shuzo, Sudi Honke, Tentaka Shuzo, Kaetsu Shuzo, masuda Shuzo, Miyazakuro Jyozo, Daimon Shuzo, Yoshida Shuzo, Rihaku Shuzo, Imada Shuzo, Tenzan Shuzo, and Chiyonosono Shuzo.