Special rice dedicated to Sake
Sake is not made from the same kind of rice as used in Japan’s staple diet. Instead, special sakamai (brewer’s rice) is used, and this is what forms the basis of the umami (taste) of the Sake. With larger grains than those served at the dinner table, this rice is characterized by having low levels of protein and fats, which can ruin the flavor or aroma of Sake. There are over a hundred varieties of sakamai, a few notable ones of which are Yamada Nishiki and Gohyaku Mangoku.
The secret to umami is fermentation
Umami is the most important element of Sake flavor. Amino acids are the basis of this umami, and Sake contains many times more amino acids than beer or wine. The sakamai does not originally contain these acids, but rather produces them in great quantities in the complex and unique fermentation process used to brew Sake. The volume of amino acids influences the strength of the Sake’s flavor. This in turn enhances the flavors of food with which it is shared, helping to make meals even more delicious.
Polishing also adds to flavor
Often on Sake labels you will see numbers like 50% or 60%. This is not the alcohol content, but rather the ‘polishing ratio’, or the degree to which the rice is polished prior to brewing. For example, a ratio of 60% means that 40% of the rice has been polished away. Polishing involves removing the external husk, which would otherwise make the Sake more bitter - it’s all about enabling the bacteria to reach deep within the grain to release more umami and create a better koji (rice malt). Furthermore, just as Daiginjo uses a rice polishing ratio of under 50% and Ginjo under 60%, the same brand may have different names or flavors of Sake in accordance with the rice polishing ratio. A reduction of a mere 10% more than doubles the required polishing time, but more polishing means a lighter and cleaner favor.
Exquisite Sake comes from exquisite water
Blessed with bountiful nature, Japan is a country full of fresh, bubbling springs of gentle, tasty water. This is another reason for its delicious Sake. In actual fact, Sake is 80% water, and much is used not only during fermentation and to adjust the alcohol content but also when washing and soaking the raw ingredients. As the saying goes, “A place with fine water produces fine Sake”, testament to the importance of tasty water is in Sake brewing.
Sake is created through a unique form of fermentation
Sugar is needed to create alcohol. Grapes, for example, the raw ingredient of wine, contain natural sugars and so can be fermented into alcohol using a single fermentation process involving adding yeast. However, rice contains no sugar so cannot be fermented on its own. To make Sake, a process called ‘multiple parallel fermentation’ is used, which is unique to the world. At first, yeast is added to convert the starch in the rice into sugar in a ‘sugarizing’ process. This results in a koji (malt). In parallel to this, yeast is added to the sugar to turn it into alcohol by fermentation. This is what creates the rich umami.
Sake is not as strong as you think!
When the Sake is complete it has an alcohol content of approximately 20%, and at this point water is added to adjust this figure. This is a vital step in ensuring the ultimate flavor, and the final percentage is decided by the brewer according to purpose. Generally, Sake has an alcohol content of around 15 to 16%, only a few percent higher than the 12 to 14% of wine, making it good for partnering up with a wide range of flavorful dishes, such as seafood, meats and cheeses.
Part of Sake’s appeal is its flexible serving temperature
Is there any other alcoholic drink in the world that can be enjoyed under such wide-ranging temperatures as Sake? It’s just a great chilled ice-cold, at room temperature, warm, or even hot. In fact, the exact same Sake can take on a new flavor through a mere one-degree change in temperature. Which style will you try next?
Elegant names for deliciously chilled Sake
There are many brands of Sake that are delicious when chilled. Cooling it brings out the umami, making it drier and even more refreshing. And in Japan, they even have special names according to exactly how chilled it is. The temperature of a refrigerator, 5°C, is called yuki-hie (literally, ‘snow-chilled’). At 10°C, it becomes hana-hie (‘cherry-blossom chilled’), and at 15°C, like a fresh spring morning, it is called suzu-hie (‘pleasantly chilled’).
Enjoy freshly brewed Sake
Brewing of Sake starts around October, and by late November the shipping of Shinshu (literally, ‘new Sake’) begins. As it is still young it has an incredibly fresh feel. Sake therefore tastes the best just as the real winter starts to kick-in. What better way to banish the outside chill!
The complex flavors of Sake can be classified into four basic types, +1
Sake basically comes in four types - one is a deeply fragrant and slightly citrus-tasting ‘aromatic’, another being ‘smooth and refreshing’ with a clean aroma, then there’s a ‘rich’ type with a strong, full umami, and lastly an ‘aged’ type characterized by its dry, grassy, nutty fragrance and lingering umami. But the ‘sparkling’, a dazzlingly refreshing carbonated addition to the above types shouldn’t be overlooked either. In more recent years a naturally sparkling type has also been developed and which is growing in popularity. Utilizing secondary fermentation that takes place within the bottle itself, the Sake’s umami can be more directly savored. Selecting the Sake that best suits your meal will further heighten the delicious synergy between food and drink.
10 TIPS to help you learn more science sake: the alcohol that extracts umami.