The complete beginner's guide to Sake by @londonsake

Rice being prepared for making Sake

If you are new to Sake, welcome. If you have tried it before and remain curious, welcome back! I’ve made an attempt here to curate some basic facts and images, as well as act as a doorway to more information for those, like me, looking to learn more about the subject beyond the rather dry wikipedia entry. Reach me @londonsake if you have questions, comments, credits or corrections!

A (very) brief history of Sake

Sake (Saké, nihonshu, 酒), often referred to as rice wine, like most booze, is ancient. It is thought to have originated in China as far back as 4800 B.C., reaching Japanese shores by the third century B.C. around the same time as wet rice cultivation, and it is with Japan that the humble liquid is most strongly associated. This cultural rooting has strongly influenced and protected Sake’s heritage over the centuries, and is why the beverage remains so enigmatic to many of us today. Richard Auffrey has an excellent two-part article on the origins of Sake (and part 2) for those who want to delve deeper.

“O what an ugly sight the man who thinks he’s wise and never drinks sake!”

For centuries an integral feature within the Shinto religion, Sake is synonymous with various Japanese seasonal and religious festivals. These ceremonial acts have shaped the way in which Sake is prepared, consumed and also perceived around the globe — you may be familiar with the sight of the decorative cedar barrels or odd wooden drinking boxes associated with Japanese Sake. Read more about Sake and Shinto here or watch this beautifully awkward video).

Sake Culture: Shinto Rituals and Sake by ‘Folklorist’ Noritake Kanzaki for the Japanese Sake and Shochu association.

Today, Sake is still mostly made in one of Japan’s 1000 or so Kura (breweries) — the oldest active site dating back to an astonishing 1141 AD — but has in recent years begun to spread to new shores as it’s popularity and interest abroad grows.

So first off, what exactly is Sake made of and how it is produced? Here’s a quick summary:

What’s in Sake?

In essence Sake is a simple beverage, made of 4 or 5 basic ingredients: rice, water, koji, yeast and sometimes distilled alcohol.

Rice

Sake is brewed mostly from rice specifically cultivated for the task and is grown in several varieties across different regions, including outside of Japan. Each variety possesses a unique set of characteristics that shapes the final product. Sake rice (Sakamai or more specifically Shuzo-koteki-mai) is larger in size and is suited for brewing because it:

  • absorbs more water
  • contains a starch-rich centre (aka Shinpaku)
  • has less protein and fat and
  • has a tough exterior suitable for polishing
Rice used for brewing Sake is different from the type used for cooking. image credit: Sake School of America

Read more about rice varieties and regions at Sake World and Kurband. Too lazy to read this bit? Try checking out this flavoursome infographic from the guys at Sake Talk: The Five Essential Sake Ingredients.

Water

Sake is roughly 80% water and like other libations its purity is paramount to achieving a good quality product. In Sake’s case especially so as it is used so extensively throughout the brewing process: in washing, steeping and steaming the rice; added during fermentation and finally for dilution.

“Water is an appropriate analogy of the apparently simple yet inherently complex nature of sake brewing.” — John Gauntner, Sake Evangelist
Water makes up 80% of Sake and is used extensively throughout the production process.

Coming mostly from deep water wells (marketers prefer to conjure image like the above) brewers will look for a low mineral content, notably the absence of iron, manganese and other flavour or clarity destroying elements. Instead seeking potassium, magnesium and phosphoric acid that stimulates yeast to work its magic during fermentation.

Read the fabulous John Gautner for more on the role of water in Sake production.

Koji

Rice, being a starchy cereal grain, needs something to break up that starch into fermentable sugars (glucose, specifically), before it can be converted into alcohol. Unlike beer where the grain is malted, a starch-digesting mould is grown on around a quarter of the total polished Sake rice, by carefully sprinkling spores of the mould (Aspergillus oryzae, for the chemists amongst you) over steamed, cooled rice and carefully controlling the temperature thereafter.

Two kurabito (brewery workers) innoculate rice with Koji spores in the brewery’s temperature controlled Koji Muro

The mould is called Koji mould and the resulting mouldy rice is called Koji. (Please don’t let the language here put you off, it’s all perfectly natural and good for you!). Koji is also a key ingredient in other popular Japanese foods such as Mirin, Miso and Soy sauce.

Taking place over two days, the art of manually developing the koji is one of the most distinctive and captivating stages of the entire Sake-making process. In recent years, koji-making machines have brought a newfound speed and consistency for brewers who prefer to (and can afford to) use them. Discover more about the history and processing of Koji at the NordicFoodLab and Koji-kin at True Sake.

Yeast

Specific strains of yeast have been developed for Sake brewing

The final ingredient required to convert sugar into alcohol is yeast. Sake fermentation requires special yeast strains that can handle it’s unique conditions, including low temperatures and high alcohol levels (20% abv or higher). The spectrum of these strains is a broad one and contributes, fortunately for us, to the vast array of Sake to try; the brewers choice having a significant influence over the aroma and acidity of the final product. These days, the Brewing Society of Japan mostly takes care of the research, development and distribution to breweries, with a well defined menu of yeast strains (numbered #1 — #19) that offer a range of flavour and aroma styles. More info on Sake yeast at eSake and NCBI (one for the Chemistry geeks). The breweries themselves are also able to develop propitiatory yeast strains.

How is Sake made?

An illustrations of Sake Brewing of Akita in Edo Period

The Sake brewing process

There are several excellent articles available on the various stages involved in brewing sake, that I shall not try not to repeat here, including: Timothy Sullivan of Urban Sake, John Gautner of Sake World and Oliver Hilton-Johnson of Tengu Sake. However, to summarise, the stages are roughly as follows (note there are numerous variations and exceptions to this):

  1. Rice is polished — removing the outer layers of the rice kernels, leaving the starchy centre. The extent to which rice is ‘milled’ effect both the flavour and classification of the final Sake. Breweries will often purchase pre-polished rice. Check out this video from Oregon-based brewer, SakeOne.
The outer casing of brown rice kernels are milled down to leave the starch-rich centre or Shinpaku

2. Rice is precisely washed, soaked and steamed.

3. Koji is prepared — as described above, by hand or machine.

4. ingredients are combined to create the yeast starter mash know as the Shubo or Moto (‘mother’ of Sake).

5. The main mash (Moromi) is built on the starter mash in 3 stages over 4 days and left to ferment for around 30 days.

6. The resulting sake is pressed to separate the liquid from the rice lees (or Kasu, in Japanese). This short video shows pressing using a traditional fune press and you can read more at Kurand.

7. After resting the pressed sake is then (usually) subject to further charcoal filtering.

8. Most sake is then pasteurised before being stored for around 3–6 months.

9. Finally the Sake re-pasturised, bottled and shipped.

These brewing stages, like the ingredients, remain largely unchanged in recent history. However, within these ingredients and trusted method there lies much room for the curious Toji (head brewer) to experiment, and over the years a vast array of Sake have been developed, refined, classified and eventually regulated.

Next we look at the various types of Sake available today.

Types of Sake

A Sake store in Magome, Japan. Choice a plenty, utterly confusing to the Sake novice.

As with most drinks categories, much of the enjoyment of Sake lies in its abundance of interesting variations and styles. These are derived principally from the natural tinkering with the ingredients or brewing processes over the years to either a) improve quality b) increased yield or c) innovate styles. I would separate these into two categories: Sake classifications and Sake variations.

Sake classifications

TL;DR: check out this neat table of Sake grades from Niigata Sake or the more detailed Sake Pyramid from John Gautner:

Sake classification stems largely from the tax, legal and regulatory infrastructure in Japan and starts with two principle categories: basic non-premium Sake and premium ‘Special Designation’ Sake (or Tokutei Meishoshu, in Japanese).

Basic Sake

The majority of Sake produced today (between 70% and 80% depending on who you read) is non-premium Futsushu, (regular ‘table Sake’) or Sanzoshu. Sanzoshu means “triple sake”, referring to the 3-fold increase in yield the addition of raw ethanol can deliver the cost-conscious brewer.

These types are typically brewed for maximum yield and value, using cheaper rice grades that are generally less polished (under 30% removed) and then brewed with significant amounts of distilled alcohol (jozo, in Japanese) and sometimes other additives. Often disregarded (with some good reason) by premium Sake advocates, very drinkable Futsushu with rich flavour and smooth texture can still be found (for UK readers try here or here). As is often the case it’s a matter of personal taste and expectations.

Special designation Sake

Special designation sake is more precisely regulated and further grouped by two factors:

  1. The addition of distilled (brewers) alcohol during production
  2. The extent to which the rice has been polished

These are used to determine the technical and legal grading of premium Sakes.

Distilled Alcohol

Most Sake has some added alcohol but within the Special Designation grades the amounts are strictly limited to no more than 10% of the final batch. Sake produced without the addition of brewers alcohol is labelled Junmai, translated in English as ‘pure rice’. This term is found in the names of all Sake styles brewed in this way.

Rice polishing ratio (Seimaibuai)

The extent to which rice is polished directly affects the classification of Sake. Highly polished rice leaves little of the protein, fats or acids found in the outer casing of the rice kernel, and as a result fermentation produces a purer, more refined and ultimately sought-after flavour.

To qualify to be a ‘Special Designation’ Sake, the rice used must be polished to 70% or less of its original size and the various categories are loosely based on defined bands of the rice polishing ratio (or Seimai-buai, in Japanese).

Semaibuai or Rice Polishing Ratio is the remaining % or rice left (by weight) after polishing

Honjozo

Honjozo is a premium Sake produced using rice that is milled down to 70% or less (usually between roughly 70–60%) and includes a limited amount of brewers alcohol added to the fermenting mash before it is pressed. The addition of the alcohol and corresponding dilution with water (Warimizu) produces a lighter flavour when compared to the pure brewed Junmai-shu. (Note: prior to a change in regulations in 2004, Junmai-shu was also required to use rice milled to 70% but this is no longer the case).

Tokubetsu Junmai and Tokubetsu Honjozo

Meaning ‘special’, Tokubetsu Sake is a somewhat trickier category to pin-down (you’ll often see it absent from many classification charts altogether). To technically qualify a Sake must have one or more of 3 properties:

  1. it is made with a recognised Sake grade rice
  2. the rice has been polished down to 60% or less
  3. produced with or using a noteworthy ingredient or technique

More often than not it is one or both of the first two. Read more about what makes Tokubetsu so special at Sake World.

Ginjo

At the top end of the premium category lies the distinguished ginjo grade Sake. Ginjo, roughly translated as ‘Special Brew’, is split into four sub-types:

- Ginjo and Junmai Ginjo (where rice is polished to 60% or less)

- Daiginjo (‘great special brew’) and Junmai Daiginjo (where rice is polished to 50% or less).

“At once the epitome of traditional wisdom and the fruit of modern technoloiges, ginjoshu is the paragon of Japanese Sake”

Philip Harper — The Insider’s Guide to Sake

Rice with fewer undesirable components for yeast to feed on, combined with colder temperatures, serves to force out fruity aromas and a lighter bodied Sake with lower acidity. Together, this is seen as typical of the ginjo style.

Milling away more of the rice however, results in a lower final yield for the brewer, and this contributes to the higher prices you will tend to find with these grades of Sake.

It’s worth pointing out that while ginjo is a technical classification it is also used as a descriptor for certain production methods, as well as the flavour profile and distinctive aroma (known as ginjo-ka), they’re designed to produce. So, not only is the rice polishing ratio important here but the use of special, often labour-intensive techniques, temperature of fermentation and the yeast strains used. This lighter, fragrant style increased in popularity during what the trade folk call the ‘ginjo boom’ of the early 1980s. Today ginjo grades make up around 10% of all Sake produced.

Read more about how the flavour profiles of different grades and styles of Sake at eSake.

Variations and speciality Sake

There are countless varieties and combinations of styles that offer endless opportunity for Sake fans to explore. Here I will cover the main players. They are the Sake that deviate from the norm of their technical classification based on variances in the brewing methodology or treatment after pressing:

Yahamhai & Kimoto — natural lactic acid (rather than manufactured) is encouraged into the open Shubo (starter mash) tank through the mixing of ingredients. The traditional kimoto method uses a back-breaking manual technique with long oar-like poles (Kai). The result is a distinctive, rich flavour. See Sake Talk for more on these methods.

Tarusake (Barrel stored) — finished Sake is stored in often decorative cedar barrels which impart a distinctive refreshing woody flavour. Commonly used in festival and wedding celebrations. More here.

Namazake (Unpasturised) — Most Sake is pasturised twice — once after pressing and once before bottling — to avoid the chances of it spoiling before being drunk. Namazake means unpasturised Sake (Nama, roughly translated as raw or live) and refers to Sake that has been either once pasturised or not at all. The taste is distinctive — fresher and sharper than other Sake. Namazake should also be consumed quicker than usual and be kept refrigerated once opened to avoid spoiling. Check out this handy visual from Sake Talk to learn more about Namazake.

Nigori (Cloudy) — at the pressing stage Sake is less finely filtered, usually through a course cloth, to allow some of the unfermented rice particles (lees) to remain in the final Sake. The result is creamier in texture and richer and sweeter in taste, pairing nicely with spicy foods. More on Nigori here.

Genshu (Undiluted) — no additional water is added to the completed Sake to temper the alcohol levels. Read more at Sake Social.

Muroka (Unfiltered) — Sake is usually charcoal filtered after pressing to remove impurities and leave a clear liquid. Muroka Sake is where no secondary filtering has occurred. Read more here.

Koshu (Aged) — Sake is usually stored for 3–6 months before being shipped to allow the final flavour to develop and settle. The convention has also been that Sake, like beer, is better consumed soon after production. Koshu however is generally aged for 3 years or more, a process that draws out much more intense aromas, richer flavours and deeper, golden colours. It’s a whole new Sake world. There are great articles on the complex word of Koshu at Sake Talk and Sake World.

Kijoshu — a decadent approach to brewing where water usually added in the third and final stage of the main fermentation mash process (Tome), is replaced with Sake! The result is a rich, velvety nectar. Read more from the team at Kurand here.

Sparkling — light and fizzy Sake that can be achieved in three ways. 1) carbon dioxide is simply injected into finished Sake, 2) CO2 is retained in the bubbling, fermenting mash, or 3) similar to sparkling wines, a secondary fermentation happens when active yeasts are transferred inside the bottle. More at Sake Talk here.

Sounds good. Where do i start?

With so many varieties of Sake it can be overwhelming to know where the hell do I start? To make life easier you may want to think about what styles and flavours you enjoy in wine, beer or spirits and find a Sake or style of Sake that suits you. In part two I’ll be exploring what Sake tastes like, how to drink Sake and pairing Sake with food so newbies can go head into your local Japanese restaurant, izakaya or booze shop and choose with confidence.

To be continued…

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