Consider the following from the Beverage Tasting Institute:
Clear with a nickel cast. Bright honeyed Asian pear, ripe pineapple husk, and delicate lemongrass and anise aromas follow through on a soft, silky entry to a dry-yet-fruity medium with excellent depth and glassy smoothness. Finishes with a long, refreshing fade with a hint of coconut milk. Excellent vibrancy and acidity for the table.
No, it’s not Meursault or Alsatian Riesling. It’s a sake: the ultra-premium Tears of Dawn by Konseki. Yes, sake, but now, with much the same aplomb seen in the current craft-brewed beer explosion, Japanese sake brewers like Konseki are experimenting with exciting new styles, as well as revisiting some of the island country’s most revered rice-brew methods dating from as long ago as 2,000 years. (By the way, “rice wine” is one of alcohol’s most pervasive misnomers.) Unmistakably Japan’s national beverage, the oldest active sake brewer was founded in AD 1141.
Rice “Beer” History
Humanity’s first brewmaster likely chewed on mouthfuls of grain, allowing enzymes in saliva to break down the starches so wild yeast could turn the gob into a form of beer. Likewise, the earliest winemakers crushed grapes into simple hollowed-out depressions in boulders and left them for wind-borne yeasts to find and feast on the sugars; in effect, emitting alcohol (wine) as waste. As inebriants, these crude beverages were coveted as divine gifts. Time passed, techniques improved, and the craft of making alcohol from grains and grapes developed most promisingly in the religious orders. From the abbeys and monasteries of Flanders and Burgundy and Kyoto, early ascetics found that their brewing and winemaking skills earned them special protections and favors from local rulers. Thus, wine and beer and devotion came of age together.
Sake’s four ingredients are rice, koji (a natural mold added to moistened rice to break down the starches), yeast, and water. Nearly 60 varieties of sake rice — much starchier than eating-rice — are cultivated around Japan, each with its own nuance and compatibility with the available water. Quality sake is dependent on the painstaking process of milling or polishing off the outer layers of each grain of rice to reach the high-starch interior (sake is graded by what percentage of the exterior has been removed in a process that can take more than 70 hours).
From the mills, the rice emerges hot and dry. It is allowed at least two weeks for cooling, helped along by a dose of humidity; then it is washed to remove impurities and soaked in fresh water to help with the starch-to-sugar conversion. Water quality is crucial: rice reacts very favorably to trace amounts of potassium, magnesium, and phosphoric acid, while a high-iron content doesn’t work at all. Next, it is steamed and then cooled again until the expanded rice is perfectly ripe for the koji mold to further break down the starches. Koji’s influence also enhances the body and character of the final product and works compatibly with yeast, the next step in sake’s exacting preparation. In a four-day process, massive vats are filled sequentially with a conglomeration of steamed rice, koji rice, and the yeast starter. Fermentation takes 15 to 18 days. By adjusting the dosages of the three elements, brewers manipulate the final style of their sake in terms of sweet or dry, lighter bodied or rich, etc. The fully fermented liquid is then pressed off and filtered through charcoal (or sometimes not). As is the case with unfiltered wine, certain brewers believe filtering robs the sake of unique flavors and authenticity. Finally, the sake is heated to about 150 degrees Fahrenheit for pasteurization (or sometimes not). Brewers can also add a bit of water at this time to reduce the alcohol to around 15 percent. Certain styles of sake call for distilled alcohol to be added during fermentation. On average, sake’s alcohol content is around 15 to 16 percent. Indeed, sake is anything but simple and straightforward.
Types and Serving Tips
Premium sake is made in three categories: Junmai — 30 percent or more of the rice is milled away. (The Junmai category also includes Honjozo sake, wherein a small amount of distilled alcohol is added during fermentation.) Junmai Ginjo — 40 percent or more of the rice is milled away. Junmai Daiginjo — 50 percent or more is milled away. (Less than 10 percent of all the sake on the market is made to the standards of Ginjo and Daiginjo.)
If alcohol was added during fermentation, producers will not use the term “Junmai.” Nigori refers to unfiltered sake; the bottles retain lees (dead yeast cells and rice polishings) and appear cloudy in the bottle. Otherwise, look for Genshu if you’d like undiluted sake, and Nama if you like your sake unpasteurized.
Contemporary sake drinkers are experimenting wildly with sake cocktails, Western food and sake pairings, wine glasses and other unconventional drinking vessels, and so on. The most significant and freeing new practice is to drink sake at room temperature or chilled. Nevertheless, the extraordinary nuance found in premium sake is best experienced at temperatures well above human body temperature.
Historically, the Japanese drink sake with food — either choose a sake to pair with a dish that has complementary flavors, or play up the contrast in flavors between the two. Sake is especially well suited to raw fish, fermented and pickled foods, dishes featuring miso and soy sauce, and even cheese, due to the koji flavors inherent in sake. Professionals point to the high amino acid content of sake as the reason it pairs so well with so many foods, but you may be more comforted by an ancient Japanese proverb, which simply translates to “doesn’t get into fights with food,” in the words of Philip Harper in his The Book of Sake.
Two other great sources for additional information include Sake: A Modern Guide by Beau Timken and Sara Deseran, and VineConnections.com/japanese-sake/.