Sake: Beer, Wine, or Spirit?
Sake is a well known Japanese beverage that has gained popularity with younger generations because of a unique method of enjoying it: the sake bomb. This beer “cocktail” is enjoyed by pouring sake into a shot glass and dropping it into a glass of beer. Oftentimes, two chopsticks are placed parallel on top of the glass of beer, and the shot glass is placed on top of them. The shot falls into the beer after you slam down on the table. Last step? Chug.
But there is more to this unique japanese alcohol than chugging it with a Saporo in the back of a sushi restaurant, obviously. Let’s dive in.
What is Sake?
Sake is an alcoholic beverage made by a special type of rice that is fermented and polished to remove the outer casing of each grain known as the bran. Although it is often classified as a Japanese rice wine, sake is produced by a brewing process more similar to that of beer.
In Japan, sake is the national beverage. It is often served with a special ceremony, where it is gently warmed in an earthenware or porcelain bottle and sipped from a small porcelain cup called a sakazuki. The recommended serving temperature of sake varies.
Once the rice is taken from the fields, it then goes through a mill. The more polished the rice grains are, the cleaner the flavor of the sake. The main styles of sake are Junmai, which has no added alcohol or Honjozu which has added alcohol. These styles can be further divided into amount of bran milled. The process starts with a minimum 60-70% of the grain left simply called Honjozu or Junmai. It then moves onto the Junmai Ginjo/Ginjo which has roughly 55-60% of the grain left. And finally we move to , Daiginjo/Junmai-Daiginjo which has 50% of the grain left. Junmai-Daiginjo is the cleanest form of the sake as it is purely the 50% grain turned into a fermented beverage.
Sake is then produced by converting the rice into sugars which ferment into alcohol. So how is this different from any other fermentation process? In comes koji.
Koji: The “Black Magic of Sake“
Koji is a special type of mold that helps transform milled rice into sake! Koji is very sacred and very fragile so it must be handled with the utmost care. I know we said mold, but bare with us! This sacred fungus is actually a culinary delight. In a room that is not too hot and not too cold, just at the perfect temperature for the koji, the rice is flattened on a large table. Then the koji is evenly distributed on top of the rice. The koji ferments the rice and is gently rotated until it’s evenly fermented. When fully fermented this is called the Nihonshu.
In the Kura
Kura is the name for a Japanese sake brewery. The master brewer, Toji, is in charge of keeping this meticulous process right on track. The brewers kurabito sleep in shifts to constantly check on the sake. Once the sake has been brewed to the point of perfection, it’s time for pressing, pasteurizing, filtration and finally bottling.
Water, the Terroir of Sake:
Just like in wine, sake has its own distinct flavors. How does rice get a distinct flavor when it’s polished down…well it doesn’t come from rice! One of the most important factors of sake is the water that is used. Most sake breweries are located in the mountainous regions of the island where it is cold, but the water is very fresh. This water helps determine the flavor of the sake. Whether it’s more floral or more earthy is all dependent upon the water source.
How to drink it:
Alright… how do we drink sake the right way? Sake is very different from any other drink out there. While sake comes in a wide variety of flavors, the drinking experience is very unique. If you’re new to drinking sake, here are a few tips to keep in mind before you dive in:
- Pronounce sake correctly– It’s pronounced “sa-keh,” not “sa-kee.” If you’ve made this common mistake before, don’t worry. Just brush it off, you know the right way to say it now.
- Know different sake types– Just like there are many different wines and beers, sake also comes in a variety of flavors, SMV’s (Sake Meter Value, the density of sake compared to water), and finishes. If you’re new to drinking sake, we recommend avoiding ‘Koshu’ or aged sake and ‘Futsu Shu’ on your first try. They both have a strong, rough taste. What should you try? ‘Namazake’ is a fresh, unpasteurized sake that has a subtle fruity taste or ‘Junmai,’ a premium sake that’s known to be smooth and easier to drink.
- Hot or Cold?– Lower-grade sakes like nigiri are often served warm in the sakazuki whereas premium sake is usually served chilled, and often in a wine glass. You can’t really go wrong with it, chilled, room temp, or hot. Go ahead and experiment!
- Cheers!– If you are hoping to experience sake in the customary Japanese way, everyone raises their sake cups for a toast. Say ‘Kampai,’ the traditional word for ‘cheers’ in Japanese and touch your cups together. Enjoy!