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One of the delights of Japan is the wonderful food, but also the variety and complexity of sake. Sake (brewed) and shochu (distilled) are the alcoholic beverages most associated with Japan. Displaced during the 20th century by beer as the most popular drink, recently regional sake and craft brewed sake have helped bring about a comeback. The quality and range on offer within Japan, is infinitely greater than what is exported.
Good sake is exceptional in that it can be enjoyed either warm, chilled, or at room temperature. Sake can be enjoyed at temperatures ranging from 5 degrees to 55 degrees celsius. It is easy to store, however a bottle can be extremely sensitive to light and heat. Unopened bottles should be kept in a cool, dark location. Bottles that have been opened need refrigeration, and an air extractor (the same you would use for red wine) should be used if you intend to drink the sake over a period exceeding 72 hours or so.
Sake is usually classified into four general categories: flavorful, light and smooth, rich, and aged. The wide variety of flavors means it can be served in various ways, depending on the season and the cuisine with which it is paired. Some sake can even be used as a cocktail base.
In restaurants outside Japan you often see sake served in small wooden box shaped cups, but for good sake, you can enjoy the aroma better using glassware, or serve sake in traditional flasks and cups made from pottery, porcelain, or lacquer ware.
Sake can be consumed by itself, or be paired with cuisines from all over the world, regardless of the foods or cooking styles used. In Japan it is regularly served at French, Italian and other restaurants offering Western cuisine. This is because sake brings out the flavor in foods, especially in tempering the strong aromas of beef and seafood.
Types of rice
Sake is made from rice, but not just any common rice. For sake the rice varieties used by breweries is called shuzō kōtekimai. These varieties have grains that are larger, stronger, and have lower protein levels than the rice you eat at meals. The reason the larger grains are preferred is because the starch (shinpaku) is located in the center of the grain. The rice has a starch component called shinpaku in the center of the grains. Sake brewers mill the grains, grinding away the bran prior to beginning the brewing process, so a large grain is preferred. Depending on region, altitude, and the type of sake to be brewed, the variety preferred will change. There are about 70-80 varieties used, but the majority of breweries favor varieties such as Yamadanishiki, Gohyakumangoku, Miyamanishiki and Omachi. Yamadanishiki is particularly popular, but also difficult for farmers to grow. The long stems of the plant make the crop vulnerable to storms (typhoons) that often arrive before the harvest.
Water isn’t water. For sake brewing you need water which has very low levels of iron or manganese. For this reason breweries are often located near natural springs and have their own wells. Mountainous areas are good locations for breweries, which is why Niigata, Yamagata, Fukushima breweries are popular.
Nada, Fushimi and Hiroshima are two areas with large production levels. The water used in Nada (Hyogo Prefecture, just east of Kobe) is hard water, with high levels of calcium and phosphate, as the water is sourced from underground streams beneath Mount Rokko. Fushimi (near Kyoto) by contrast has very soft water, using pure water sourced from wells. The kanji characters for Fushimi （伏見） mean “hidden water”. Hiroshima, the westernmost of the major production area has extremely soft water, which slows the time it takes for the yeast and koji to activate. For this reason Hiroshima brewers tend to have high levels of skill in slow, cool temperature fermentation.
Types of Sake
There are different types of sake, and the classifications are controlled by regulations.
Sake made using white rice which has been milled until only 60% or less of the grain remains. It also contains rice koji and water, and may contain all of these ingredients plus brewing alcohol. It is characterized by a fruity, somewhat floral bouquet and a clear, crisp flavor. If the rice is polished down to 50% or less, the sake is called Dai-ginjoshu, which is usually the driest and most expeensive sake.
Sake made only from white rice, rice koji, and water. It tends to have a mellow bouquet and a rich, smooth flavor.
Sake made using white rice which has been milled until 70% or less of the grain remains, along with rice koji, brewing alcohol and water. It is known for it’s mild, unobtrusive bouquet, and crisp flavor.
All other types of sake fall under the category of Futsushu, which is cheaper, and still widely consumed throughout Japan. It is futsushu that is most frequently experienced outside Japan.
The brewing method also influences the sake.
Sake that is not heated for pasteurization after the final mash is pressed. It is characterized by a light, fresh flavor.
Sake with a higher alcohol content because it has been pressed but not diluted with added water. It has a deep, rich flavor and an alcohol content ranging from 17%-20%.
Koshu (Aged Sake)
Sake that has been aged for a couple of years, or for upwards of five years or longer. It has a bouquet reminiscent of sherry, with a flavor profile that includes spices and nuts.
Taruzake (Cask Sake)
Sake that is aged in casks and thus takes on the fragrance of the wood from which the cask is made.
Sake that is milky white, since the mash is only lightly filtered using a coarse-textured cotton cloth filter.
Carbonated Sake, with a mouth feel similar to champagne and sparkling wines.