Sake is one of the oldest alcoholic beverages in the world, and through the years it has become part of the cultural identity of Japan. The exact origins of sake are still a mystery, but the beverage’s roots have been traced back several thousand years. Some scholars argue that it was created in China and then brought to Japan.
When the alcoholic rice beverage came to the United States more than a century ago, there were a few misunderstandings, some that persist today. For example, some Americans think sake is distilled; others call it a rice wine and think that its production is similar to grape wine. In fact, sake is a brewed beverage more closely related to beer; but really, it fits into its own unique category. It should also be noted that what Americans call sake, the Japanese refer to as nihonshu—in Japan, the term “sake” refers to alcoholic beverages in general.
Consumption of sake in the U.S. has been on the rise for several years. According to Modern Brewery Age magazine, sales have grown 14 percent per year for the last five years and annual consumption now exceeds over one million gallons. Industry analysts believe this increase is linked to the growing popularity of Asian cuisine in this country.
There are four components of sake, the largest being water at 80 percent. Because of its importance, the water used to make sake should contain a proper balance of minerals and have no additives. The rice used for sake production—which is different from the rice we eat—is a larger grain and has a white center. There are more than 100 varieties of this rice, known in Japan as sakamai. Koji mold (Aspergillus oryzae) is utilized to break down the rice’s more complex starches into simple sugars. Without this mold, the yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) would not be able to consume the sugar, which produces the sake’s alcohol and flavor. Along with the rice itself, different strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae produce the drink’s subtle nuances.
The first step in making sake is polishing the rice. When the grain is harvested, the outer layers contain fats, proteins and minerals that have a negative impact on flavor. In better quality sakes, more of these outer layers are removed, leaving the center portion intact. Lower quality sakes will have 20 percent of the outer layers removed vs. 65 percent for higher quality, more expensive sakes.
After the rice has been polished, it is washed, soaked and steamed. It is then cooled either manually or by machine. The rice is separated and mold, or koji, is added to part of it. The mold is allowed to grow on the rice for up to 60 hours in a high-humidity environment. This koji-molded rice is reserved for later batches of sake, and the rest of the rice is mixed with a previous batch of koji rice. To that, the sake producers add water and yeast to create a seed mash, which starts to ferment and creates alcohol. More rice, water and yeast are added to continue the fermentation process. When fermentation is complete, the resulting liquid is drained by pressing the rice. The sake is then pasteurized to help maintain the quality and shelf life of the final product. Overall, it takes about a month to make the beverage. Some sake producers will filter their product to make it clear, while others will allow the sake to remain as is, cloudy.
Styles of sake
When selecting sake it is important to understand its different styles:
- The most popular one in the United States is futuu-shu. A basic sake, it does not have the full flavor and character found in better-made styles, though rice-based alcohol can be added to it.
- A grade above futuu-shu are junmai-shu and honjozo, which are both good entry-level sakes.
- Two styles that are wonderful, unique beverages full of flavor and character are ginjo-shu, which has no more than 40 percent of the original size of the rice removed, and daiginjo-shu, which has had 50 percent removed.
- Taru sake is a style that is aged in wood—usually cedar—casks, which gives the drink a stronger flavor.
- Jukusei-shu is another aged sake, while happosai-shu is a sparkling style that can be carbonated by a secondary fermentation or through artificial means.
Japan is still the motherland for sake, with more than 1,200 producers. However, a vast amount of sake that we consume in the United States is made right in this country, on the West Coast. California’s Sacramento River Delta region is known for its rice production, so sake producers have set up shop close by. Gekkeikan, a 360-year-old Japanese company, has a modern facility in Folsom, California. Other producers are scattered around the state, primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area. Further south, Los Angeles is the home of Yaegaki, which is the smallest U.S. sake brewer and is led by the only female chief sake maker in the country. SakeOne, located in Oregon, is the only American-owned sake facility.
Serving and enjoying sake
Sake should be served chilled (but not cold) or even slightly warmed. In the U.S., sake is often served hot, which is very detrimental to its subtle flavors—and is generally indicative of a sake of lesser quality. Most sakes are meant to be consumed within a year of being made; unlike wine, the younger the sake, the better quality it will be (unless it is a taru sake or jukusei-shu style).
Most people think about drinking sake only when they are eating sushi, but it can also go with many lighter-style dishes. It is also a great beverage to enjoy at the beginning of the meal. Like wine, sake offers a wide variety of styles and flavors, which makes it a beverage that’s great to explore through tasting.