What is sake?

A swedish translation of this text can be found here.

In recent years many people have discovered the world of sake and they have encountered a totally new spectrum of subtle aromas from white fruits and flowers and exciting notes from the sea. Even the mouthfeel is a new sensation far from the bitterness of beer, acidity and astringency of wine and the burning sensation of spirits. Many restaurants have also noted that these qualities lends itself beautiful to a variety of dishes far beyond the obligatory sushi and sashimi.

Even so sake is still something strange and alien to most. It has a different history, cultural back-drop and even the way it’s put together is a bit of a mystery. So the question ”what is sake” is still very relevant.

To start there are many misconceptions about sake. The most common is that sake is rice spirit or rice wine. Let’s make it clear. Sake is not distilled and therefore not a spirit. Sake is not made from grapes or fruit and therefore not a wine. There is only one way to describe this drink – sake is sake. That’s it. The official and correct definition is ”a beverage made from rice, koji and water through a fermentation and filtering process.”

The word ”sake” in Japanese means ”alcoholic beverage” and actually covers all types of alcoholic drinks in the Japanese language. What we call ”sake” the Japanese themselves describes as ”nihonshu”. For order and simplicity, I will use ”sake” in this text.

Sake is a result of a brewing process that uses rice and water and may at first glance seem to be a simple product until we get below the surface. The water is a good example to show how one simple ingredient can have great influence on the result. Most of us can detect differences in the tap water when traveling between countries and cities. Sake in its final form consists of over 80% water but this is still only a fraction of all the water that passes through the process. The rice is washed, soaked, steamed and water is added during fermentation and for dilution at the end. Before the finished product is in the bottle, water equivalent of 30 times the weight of the rice has been used. Like most famous breweries in Europe the main sake breweries has been established at springs and streams with good water.

The rice used in sake production is called sakamai and there are about 75 varieties, each with their different characteristics, just like grapes. Sakamai differs from table rice by having bigger grains, beeing softer and has the starch concentrated in the centre of the grain. The latter is important as it makes it possible to polish the rice and remove all the proteins, vitamins, amino acids and fat. These elements occur naturally in rice as in grapes and barley, but during the production of wine and beer they are present during the whole process. These substances give off-flavors and forms new compounds such as fusel oils during fermentation. As they can be fully removed from the rice, sake is the purest potable alcoholic beverages available.

A complex and important process that effects the final quality is the polishing of the rice. How much of the rice that is polished away have great affect on the taste. The higher the degree of polishing the finer and cleaner the end product. To polish the rice down to 50% by using modern machines takes about 9 hours, when it was done by hand, it could take up to a week. Polishing rate (seimaibuai) is always written as percentage and indicates the amount of grain that remains. Rice used for sake generally have a seimaibuai of 50-70% while polished table rice stops at 90%.

After polishing the rice is washed, steeped and steamed. These three processes may seem very straightforward but as all steps in the making of sake it demands the highest level of care, knowledge and expertise.

The type of yeast used in sake production is also very important as it affects not only the taste but also mouthfeel, and especially aromas. As our experience of taste to a great extent is influenced by the sense of smell the yeast is particularly important as it contrbutes all the subtle nuances. As in wine and beer production natural occuring yeast is used also in the making of sake, but today most breweries use cultivated and offically listed yeasts strains. In some breweries and regions you’ll find indigenous yeast cultures that provide interesting characters adapted to the local water and rice, what the french would call ”terroir”.

Most of us know that yeast converts sugar into alcohol. When making wine the sugar is already available  in the grape. When brewing beer we first need to germinate the grain to form enzymes that can break down the starch to fermentable sugar. When we make sake, we also have starch but in the form of a polished grain and this can not germinate. The enzyme has to come from elsewhere. This is why the koji has to come into the picture.

Koji is made by dusting mold spores over the cooling steamed rice that is then placed in a warm room with high humidity. Over the next few days the mold grows and the rice is turned and mixed now and then. When the mold eats into the grain it produces the enzyme that breaks down starch. The finished product looks as icy grains and smells a bit like sweet chestnuts. Koji is used at least four times during the brewing process and is always used fresh.

To get the fermentation going we need a ”starter mash” called moto or shubo. This is done by mixing koji, steamed rice, water and yeast. After two weeks, a batch of high yeast concentration is created.  The moto/shubo is then mixed in an open tank with more steamed rice, koji and water. This is done in three stages over the course of four days. Every time the amount of added ingredients are doubled. After these steps, we have reached the final mash – moromi. The moromi is fermented during two to four weeks under rigorous control.

After completion of fermentation the brew we need to separate the liquid from solids and lees, this is traditionally done in sacks of heavy cotton that can be pressed or left to drain by gravity.  The brew will then rest for a few days fore more particles to settle. Most sake is pasteurized but there is unpasteurized sake (namazake) but this must be kept refrigerated at all stages. Sake is usually stored at least 6 months to round ofut the flavors after which it is usually watered down to an alcohol content of approximately 16% from the natural 20%.

So how to enjoy sake when we have a bottle in front of us? Sake of high quality can be drunk both warm and cold. Lower quality sake is usually served warm but the more complex and nuanced flavors in higher qualities are at their best when served around 10-12 degrees. Traditionally sake is enjoyed in tiny porcelain bowls but I prefer white wine glasses that better presents the beautiful aromas.

Sake compliments many different types of dishes. Of course, the Japanese cuisine is an obvious choice, but sake has many other uses. With fresh seafood, raw oysters and cured salmon it’s a dream, often better than the traditional dry white wine where the acidity can be a problem.  Also try as an aperitif with savoury appetizers and tapas.

More about sake in some of my other post (in swedish):

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Kategorier: Övrigt, Sake

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3 kommentarer på “What is sake?”

  1. Åke Nordgren
    09 augusti 2011 den 19:04 #

    Hej Anders, först och främst grattis till ”short-list” noteringen !!

    ”När jag i en hast skrev denna lite torra text om sake”…

    Men oj oj oj, var har du hämtat all den tekniska information ifrån….
    Åke ”Sakemannen”

    • 09 augusti 2011 den 19:53 #

      Tack Åke!

      I ett komplext och nytt ämne (för oss alltså) så får man leta fakta där den finns att få. Tyvärr finns det inte så många bra källor än, om man inte läser japanska förstås.


  1. Jag är på en ”short-list”! Kanpai! « Öhmans Mat & Vin - 08 augusti 2011

    […] jag i en hast skrev denna lite torra text om sake så hade jag väl aldrig trott att den skulle gå till final i Sake Communicator Award! Men nu är […]


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