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Sake Made Simple

So what is sake? how is it made? what kinds of sake are there? Despite the fact that it is often referred to as rice wine, sake is not a wine. It is in fact closer to beer, although that description is not quite accurate, either. Because rice is a starch, sake must be brewed. However, due to differences in the fermentation process, sake has a relatively high level of alcohol and no carbonation. It is thus a unique product, with its own range of flavors and styles.

Sake Styles

In addition to its classification, a sake can also be made in several different styles. These styles are often included in the product name and on the label, and indicate a deviation from the standard brewing process.

  • Genshu: Undiluted sake which does not have water added prior to bottling. Its higher alcohol level (around 18-19%), makes it suitable for heavier foods or an after-dinner drink.
  • Nama: Unpasteurized sake which must be kept refrigerated at all times. It often has a fresher and livelier flavor profile.
  • Namachozo: Sake that is pasteurized only once, after bottling. It should also be kept refrigerated, and also tends to have livelier flavors, although it is somewhat more subdued than nama sake.
  • Koshu: Sake which is aged by brewers for anywhere up to about 5 years. While practices differ greatly among brewers, koshu sake tends to have more earthiness and a generally stronger flavor profile.
  • Yamahai/Kimoto: These terms refer to brewing methods in which the yeast starter is made in a more labor-intensive manner and without the addition of lactic acid, and therefore requires longer to develop. Both tend to impart gamier, more pronounced flavors to the sake.
  • Nigori: Sake which is cloudy, due to the use of a coarser press or the addition of some of the lees after pressing. Nigori sake is therefore thicker, and while it is often sweeter as well, it can have a wide range of flavors.

Sake Ingredient Descriptions

Part of the beauty of sake is in its simplicity. Despite the variety and subtlety of the beverage, it is made using only four main ingredients:

  • Rice: The rice used to make sake differs from table rice in that its kernels tend to be larger and have their starch concentrated in the center. This allows for more of the rice to be milled away without removing valuable starch. Even among sake rices, there are many different strands, each prized for different attributes it can bring to the final product.
  • Koji-kin: Koji-kin is a type of mold added to the rice which breaks down the grainís starch into sugar, allowing for fermentation.
    Yeast: Yeast is added to finish what the koji-kin started and convert the newly made sugar into alcohol. Both the sweetness and the nose of a sake are heavily influenced by the yeast used.
  • Water: Water is an incredibly important part of sake, accounting for nearly 80 percent of weight. It is used during washing, soaking, steaming and fermentation, as well as added directly after the sake is pressed. All of the important sake-producing regions of Japan take pride in their access to pure, local spring water.

Sake and Temperature

It is a common misconception in the US that all sake should be served hot. In general, most premium grade sake should actually be served slightly chilled, allowing for a full appreciation of its balance and complexity. It is also enjoyable to observe how the flavors evolve as the bottle slowly warms to room temperature.

However, there are certainly situations in which heating sake can make it quite enjoyable, not least of which is a cold winter day. In fact, the versatility sake has with regard to temperature is one of its greatest assets, and it can be quite fun to see how a sake behaves at different temperatures. That being said, most sakes are produced with an ideal temperature in mind, which can usually be found on the back label.

Sake Vessels

Considering the long history and versatility of sake, it is no surprise that there are a wide range of vessels employed for the drinking and serving sake. Below are some of the more traditional containers used. It should be noted, however, that chilled sake can be enjoyed perfectly well in a wine glass or simple tumbler.

  • Masu: Many sake drinkers are confused the first time they are served sake in a square box, filled until it overflows onto the saucer below. While such vessels are not commonly used today, they are the traditional serving unit for sake. Long ago, the basic measurement unit for rice was known as a Go, and corresponded to the amount of rice one person would eat during a meal. When sake was first developed, the natural serving size was also one go, or 180ml.
  • The drawback of masu is that they are usually made of wood, which can overpower the subtler tastes and aromas of sake. To get around this, some places use lacquer masu, or place a glass cup inside a wooden masu. It can however, be interesting to try sake from a wooden masu at least once, not least of all because it was enjoyed in this way for centuries. Additionally, the traditional bottle sizes of 720ml and 1.8L divide evenly into masu.
  • Ochokko/Tokkuri: The most commonly used vessels, and still the norm in Japan today, are the ochokko and the tokkuri. While styles, shapes, color and size vary from set to set, the general idea is to use a tokkuri, or large flask, and several ochokko, or small cups. The tokkuri is used to keep the sake at the desired temperature, particularly when heated, while the ochokko are used for sipping. Culturally, the small size of the ochokko is very important, as Japanese custom places a strong emphasis on refilling the empty glass of a guest or dining companion. Also, most sake tastings in Japan are performed using a special ochokko, which is all white but for two blue circles at the bottom of the glass, which allow the taster to observe the color and thickness of the sake.

What is SMV?†

  • SMV, or Sake Meter Value, is a measure of specific gravity, and is related to the amount of residual sugar in the sake. The general rule to remember about SMV is the higher the drier. Most sakes fall somewhere between -1 and +12, with +3 being about neutral, although there are certain sakes outside this range as well. However, SMV is not a direct measure of sweetness, and other factors such as acidity, play a large part in determining the perception of sweetness in a sake. Therefore, while SMV can be helpful in providing an expectation of sweetness, particularly in extreme values, it should be viewed with a grain of salt (or maybe sugar, in this case).

* Courtesy of Winebow Inc.

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