What is sake ?
Saké is an all-natural rice-based fermented alcoholic beverage. Saké is made like beer and served like wine, with tasting characteristics and alcohol content very similar to wine. Saké is made from four main ingredients: rice, water, yeast and koji, an enzyme. It is very pure and clean.
Saké is a 6800-year-old beverage. Saké-making implements have been discovered in the Yangtze River Valley in China dating back to 4800 BC. This about the time that nomadic man settled down, and one theory holds that the reason nomadic man settled down was to grow rice so he could enjoy saké on a regular basis.
There are over 14,000 different sakés produced by 1800 sakéries worldwide, primarily in Japan. In the United States there are about 200 different sakés produced by the 4 sakéries in the United States. Three of the sakéries are in California and one is in Oregon.
Saké was actually first made in China, but was later dramatically improved in Japan. It is now made in many countries around the world such as the United States, Brazil, Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan.
Worldwide, one out of three glasses of wine consumed is saké. In the United States, two out of one hundred glasses of wine are saké. Saké sales in the past 10 years have quadrupled, and saké enjoyment in the US may some day reach the world standard of one out of three glasses of wine.
How Saké is made
As with the best wine made from grapes, the finest saké starts with the finest premium ingredients — the purest water, high quality saké rice, special yeast, and koji.
The starches in rice are concentrated in the center of the rice grain. For premium and super premium saké, the outside of the grain, containing the undesirable fat and protein, is polished away. This exposes the heart of the rice that contains the starch that will be converted to fermentable sugars.
The rice is polished washed and soaked to bring up the water content, and then steamed. Part of the steamed rice is reserved for koji.
Koji is the key to the saké making process. Koji mold is cultivated on a bed of steamed rice and this mold eats its way into the rice. As this occurs, the enzymes provided break down the rice’s starch molecules into smaller sugar molecules that are food for the yeast. The process relies on the proper temperature and humidity and is done in a special room much like a sauna to maintain the proper conditions. This process takes about 2 weeks.
Steamed rice and koji are sent to the yeast starter room, and moto (yeast starter) is prepared. Moto is added over a period of 4 days to the rice, water and koji. Fermentation occurs over a period of 18–32 days. The saké is then filtered, aged, pasteurized and bottled.
Types of Saké
There are two broad categories of sake: Junmai and Honjozo.
Junmai means that no distilled alcohol has been added.
Honjozo means that distilled alcohol has been added.
Honjozo in Japan is defined as no more than 5% distilled alcohol added by volume. There are sakés that have more alcohol added than Honjozo, but they are almost never imported into the United States.
In Japan, about 88% of all sakés made have distilled alcohol added. This distilled alcohol can be processed grain alcohol. For the finer sakés, it may be distilled alcohol collected from the esters during fermentation and distilled down in a mini-distillery to be added back during the blending of the saké to enhance the aroma. Either method of adding distilled alcohol to saké is illegal in the United States. However, this Honjozo style of saké can be imported into the United States.
Within these two broad categories of saké, there are several types related to quality. The quality is determined by how much of the outer kernel of the rice is milled away. Milling removes the protein and fatty acids in rice kernels and leaves the dense starch packet at the center of the kernel. The more of the outer coating that is milled away, the higher the quality the saké will be.
How to serve Saké
In 2 words: Chill Out!
Good saké is always served chilled, mediocre saké can be served warm and bad saké should be boiled! Economy saké may be served warm and this has its place on a cold winter night. The ceremony of serving saké warm, where you don’t pour for yourself, but pour for others, sends a sign of respect.
Chilled premium sakés were first introduced in the late 1960’s. Saké-making technology, particularly in rice milling, had improved so dramatically that it enabled sakémakers to make sakés so delicate they are actually damaged by heat.
Some people enjoy using the traditional square masu boxes to drink saké. This was a traditional rice-measuring device, typically made from aromatic cedar, which imparts aromas to the saké. Other people enjoy their saké on the rocks in a tumbler. Our favorite way to serve saké is chilled in a wine glass, which enhances the enjoyment of the subtle aromas and flavors of premium saké.
When serving saké chilled, we recommend serving it at 45 degrees F (7 degrees C), which makes for a wonderfully refreshing first taste. In a wine glass, the temperature of the saké gradually increases, which changes the aroma and flavors and is great fun to follow.
Saké should be stored in a cool place, out of strong light. It does not age like wine does, and is best when fresh. Once opened, saké will stay fresh for about a week in the refrigerator.
Saké enjoyment is growing rapidly in the US because of three main trends. The first is the growing influence of Asian cuisine. Americans enjoy an Asian wine, saké, with their Asian cuisine. The second major trend is the growing awareness of the importance of a healthy lifestyle. Unlike wine, saké has no sulfites. Twenty five percent of all Americans believe that they are allergic to sulfites. Saké has one-third the acidity of wine, so it is easy on the stomach. Premium saké is virtually hangover free because it is so pure. The third trend is that saké is so mixable, and it has become the base for many exciting new cocktails.
Saké can be paired with any foods that wine is paired with, but it goes exceptionally well with lightly prepared seafood and vegetables and, of course, any Asian cuisine. Saké can be compared to steamed white rice, in that it harmonizes with whatever it is served with, actually enhancing the aromas and taste of most foods.
Saké is a very versatile drink. It can be served warm, chilled or on the rocks. It can be used as an excellent low alcohol mixer in cocktails. Saké is the secret ingredient of many chefs and can be used in cooking just like a wine. It is an excellent mixer and is the basis for many wonderful new cocktails.