The FAQs of Sake

Date:5 April 2017 Tags:, , , ,

Over the past few years, brewers outside native country of Sake have started to produce their own versions of the classic Japanese rice wine. We had a few questions.

By Beau Timken as told to Francine Maroukian

Q: Sah-key or sah-kay?
A: Sah-kay.

Q: What is it made from?
A: Water, rice, koji (mould that helps break up the starch and allows it to become glucose) and yeast. The balance of these ingredients creates different flavours. In its final form, sake is about 80 per cent water. Historically, brewing locations were selected for their natural supply of “good” water, a mystical quality known only by taste. Eventually it was discovered to be caused by potassium, magnesium and phosphoric acid, which promote fermentation. Favourable composition can now be achieved by filtering.
Unlike table rice, brown brewing rice has a large starch component concentrated in the centre of the grain. It’s surrounded by the bran, which contains proteins, fats and amino acids. Large machines with vertically pivoted rollers scrape away layer after layer to expose the starch, which can then be converted to fermentable sugars.

Q: What is the difference between hot and cold sake?
A: More refined, premium sakes typically have more subtle flavours. Those are better served chilled to mute acidity and keep the flavours more compact. Less premium sakes have more earth tones and backbone, so they can stand up to heat. Warm sakes usually taste more ricey and bold.

Step 1 Q: How is it brewed?
After the rice is milled, or shaved down to expose the starchy core, it is cleaned, soaked in water and steamed to create the perfect environment for koji, a yellow-green mould powder that is sprinkled on the surface of the rice after it has been spread out in shallow beds to cool.

Step 2 The koji is massaged by hand into the rice to help break the starch into sugar, induce the yeast to breed and eventually give the sake character.

Step 3 A super-concentrated
liquid yeast starter, called moto – made from the koji rice, additional steamed rice, yeast, lactic acid and water – is placed in a small fermentation vat.

Step 4 The main mash, or moromi, is created in a large fermentation vat by adding rice, koji and water to the moto in three separate stages over four days. During the 15- to 18-day fermentation, brewers can control the quantities and temperatures of the elements to make the sake dry or sweet, thick or thin, rich
or light.

Step 5 The mash is pressed through mesh to remove the rice from the sake, which is then filtered though charcoal. Recently, however, the trend is to reduce filtration and let the sake retain its natural colour and texture, partially due to the influence of the Western wine palate. Unfiltered sake is more expressive – bigger, bolder and grabs you right out of the glass – whereas the filtered version presents a more pristine flavour profile: very light and clean, more nuanced.

Step 6 The sake is heated to 66 degrees. At this stage, brewers can also choose to add water to bring the alcohol level down to 14 or 15 per cent from a peak of 20 per cent.

Q: Is there a special way to drink it?
A: Yes, many. Sake is probably the most ceremonial beverage on Earth. That said, whatever you’re doing should be fine. Start every toast with kanpai, the Japanese equivalent of “cheers”.

Our expert Beau Timken is the founder of San Francisco’s True Sake, the first dedicated sake shop outside of Japan and the first in America.

The rice
The more rice grain removed through milling, the closer  you get to pure starch, which has fewer earth tones, more flavour and tastes less like rice.

*Junmai represents two things: it denotes a sake made without the addition of brewer’s alcohol (pure distilled alcohol), and a sake made from rice that was milled down by 30 per cent.

Daiginjo Nuanced, ethereal, balanced sake.
Genshu Undiluted. Big, bold, robust and powerful. Sake with a pop.
Ginjo Light, crisp, clean and aromatic.
Honjozo Velvety, thin, drinkable sake.
Junmai Full-bodied, earthy, rich sake.
Kijoshu Dessert sake. Rich, sweet, and syrupy.
Koshu Aged longer than in the typical fermentation cycle, creating an earthy, musky flavour more like a port or sherry.
Nama Unpasteurised. Fresh, yeasty, zesty, and expressive flavours.
Nigori Unfiltered. Rich, round flavours that drink more like a cocktail.
Taru Stored in cedar barrels, which adds a layered, spicy flavour.

This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of Popular Mechanics magazine.

Latest Issue :

May / June 2021