Introduction to Premium Sake by CMC Sake + Wine Merchants
Sake has played a central role in the life and culture of the Japanese people for about two thousand years, during which time the knowledge and skills required for sake production have spread to every region of the country. Today, some 1,200 Sake makers of all sizes are engaged in the production of Sake. Together, they produce more than 10,000 brands of Japan’s national beverage.
The ingredients of sake is made primarily from highly polished Sakamai rice and water interacting with Koji Sakamai rice which has larger, softer grains than ordinary table rice. It’s also more expensive, since it grows only in certain areas and requires more complex cultivation techniques. The water quality is extremely important. Semi-hard water is most suitable due to its lower iron and manganese content. Since Japan has a large amount of precipitation and ample high-quality ground water, excellent sake can be produced in nearly every region.
The production process of sake is complex, because the rice does not begin to ferment with the addition of yeast alone. First, beneficial microbes called KOJI breakdown the rice starch into glucose. Next sake yeast is added. A Sake master known as a TOJI, who lives at the work site, manages not only this complex production process but also the activities of his staff. Maintaining a good team spirit is essential to sake making.
Types of Premium Sake
There are different types of sake based on manufacturing standards and official product designations regulated by the Japan Sake Makers Association.
- Junmai Shu Sake made only from rice, koji and water. It tends to have a mellow bouquet and a rich, smooth flavour.
- Honjozo Shu Rice milled to 70% or less remaining. A small amount of distilled alcohol is added (maximum 116 litres of distilled alcohol per 1 metric ton of rice. No glucose is added).
- Ginjo Shu Sake made with highly polished rice that is milled down to 60% or less of the original grain size with or without added alcohol.
- Dai Ginjo Shu Sake made with rice which has been polished down to 50% or less and contains higher starch content with or without added alcohol.
- Sake that do not qualify above standards are called Futsuu-shu, or Ordinary Sake.
- Namazake Sake that is not pasteurized after the final mash is pressed. It is characterized by a light, fresh flavour.
- Genshu Sake with a higher alcohol content with no added water to adjust alcohol level. It has a deep, rich flavour and an alcohol content of between 17% and 18%.
- Nigorizake Sake that is cloudy blended with rice sediment naturally occurring from cold stabilization process.
Four Categories of Premium Sake
Sake can be categorized in four groups by their characteristics and profiles (aroma, texture and taste): fragrant, light and smooth, rich and full bodied, and aged.
- Fragrant Sake Aroma: Refreshing scent of flowers or citrus fruits. Taste: Medium level of sweetness and smoothness.
- Smooth Sake Aroma: Light bouquet with subtle hints of fruits or wild plants. Taste: Refreshingly smooth and gentle taste. Clean finish.
- Rich Sake Aroma: Robust yet mild fragrance. Taste: Well-rounded and somewhat complex, Almost creamy taste. Long finish.
- Aged Sake Aroma: Proudly rich bouquet reminiscent of dried fruits, tree and scented wood.
Taste: Deep, full bodied with a nutty taste. After taste is both dry and savoury.
How to Store
In order to maximize freshness, sake is best stored in a dark, cool place such as a refrigerator. A bottle will keep fresh for a couple of weeks once opened. Unlike grape wines it is not recommended to let sake age.
How to Serve
Premium sakes are best served chilled in wine glasses to preserve and enjoy the delicate aromas and flavors. You can also warm sake in hot water and enjoy different flavour and food pairing experience. You’ll be amazed how much sake changes its flavor when heated correctly!
Sake can be mixed with fruit juices or liqueurs to make delightful cocktails. An ideal beverage to accompany almost any cuisine; Sake enhances the taste of ingredients and softens meat and seafood smells when used in preparing and seasoning Japanese, Asian or Western dishes. Just like grape wines, premium sakes have complex aromas and flavour profiles and pair well with a wide variety of foods. For example, light and crisp Junmai Shu and Honjozo Shu pair well with seafood dishes while Junmai Ginjo Shu and Junmai Dai Ginjo Shu, with their rich and complex flavours, works well with meat dishes.
The Making of Premium Sake
Rice is first transferred to a polishing machine which gently polishes off the outer layer of the grains. This exercise is to remove, as much as possible, the exterior layers of the rice grains that contain protein, minerals, fats and vitamins. These substances or impurities, if not removed, will affect the fermentation process and contribute to off-flavours in the finished sake. The percentage amount of rice being polished off will play a very important role governing the quality of the finished product and also on the grading of sake.
After the polishing process is completed, the rice is ready for washing. The polished rice has to be washed thoroughly to ensure no rice powder and impurities cling to the surface of the grain before the steeping and steaming process.
Steaming softens the grains and break down the starch molecules, facilitating for the growth of the Koji. The correct firmness is important for the progress of fermentation in the main batch and affects the final taste of the sake.
After the steamed rice is lowered down to a certain temperature, it is transported to the Koji room. Koji spore is an enzyme, which converts the starch in rice into sugar. The rice is then placed and spread symmetrically over wooden trays. The sake master will manually spread the Koji spores uniformly over the rice. This rice is squeezed and pressed by hand repeatedly over regular intervals of the day to ensure an even growth of Koji. When the Koji rice is ready for the next process, it has to be dehydrated for one whole day before reaching proper dryness.
When it is dry, the Koji is then placed into water along with the yeast starter. This mixture is known as Moto. During this stage, sugar through the chemical reaction with Koji is converted into alcohol.
The Moto, which is considered as the “seed mash”, will be added to additional steamed rice and water inside the fermentation tanks. The temperature and timing for this fermentation process has to be controlled carefully in order to produce sake of premium qualities. The sake mixture of this stage is named Moromi, which is the “final mash”.
When the fermentation is completed, the Moromi will be squeezed to release a clear liquid which will then be pasteurized and matured in stainless steel tanks for a period of time before bottling.