Growing up in Northern California, one has a pretty good grasp of how wine is made. I was glad to have this background when visiting the Ichinokura Sake Brewery on our third day in Sendai City, because I would have felt a little lost in this huge plant. For many Americans, an introduction to sake came while dining at a sushi restaurant. A ceramic pitcher of hot, high-alcohol sake arrived, it washed down the sashimi and the nigiri in little cups, and we thought that all sake was the same. That’s a little like drinking a glass of white zinfandel straight from a box and thinking that all wines are pink and sweet.Sake (which is technically a beer, because it’s brewed and is derived from a grain), is often compared to wine because of its alcohol content (higher than a beer at around 16-20%) and because it works so well paired with food.
Sake’s flavor elements come from simple ingredients and a complicated process. The biggest factors that influence the finished product are water, rice, and yeast; other factors that have a hand in the sake’s flavor are weather and geography.
Sake is produced by fermenting rice. First, the rice is polished to remove the exterior of the rice grain (where protein and oil live), and the “pure core” of the rice is fermented. The more rice is polished away, the more high-quality the finished sake will be.
The rice is then soaked and washed, then cooked and fermented by adding koji and yeast (which change the starch into sugar, and then the sugar into alcohol) for several weeks. Koji is a mold that converts the rice’s starch into a simple sugar, which feeds one of many varieties of sake yeast to begin fermentation. The fermentation is often slowed by lowering the temperature; either by refrigeration or in snowy winter climates.After the rice ferments, it is pressed, and the liquids separate from the solids. Some sake has distilled alcohol added: this sake is called honjozo-shu, and is the cheap warm sake that many Westerners remember as their introduction to sake. After filtration, the remaining lees are removed (except in the case of nigori, where it is left in the sake to add a sweet taste and a creamy texture), and the sake is filtered and pasteurized (in most cases). Then, the sake rests and is diluted with water to lower the alcohol content and is bottled and drunk.
There are several different classifications of sake, with the most important being:
Junmai-shu. This is "pure rice sake," made from only rice, water and kōji, with no other additions.
Ginjo-shu is made from rice polished to 60% or less of its original weight. Sake made from rice polished to 50% or lower is called daiginjo-shu.
The term junmai (“pure rice sake”) can be added to ginjo or daiginjo, resulting in junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo.
Sake can be served chilled, at room temperature, or heated, depending on the preference of the drinker, the quality of the sake, and the season. Hot sake is usually drunk in the winter, and high-grade sake like junmai daiginjo and junmai ginjo are not drunk this, because their delicate flavors and aromas will be lost through heating. Sake is often heated to hide the flavor of low-quality sake.
Aside from being served straight, sake can be used as a mixer for cocktails, like a “saketini” or a “sake bomb.”
Sake is best consumed within 2 or 3 hours after opening the bottle. It can be stored (in the refrigerator), although it is generally recommended to finish the sake within 2 days.
Needless to say, we drank a LOT of sake in Japan.