A SAKE PRIMER
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE RICE SPIRITS OF JAPAN
SAKE IS THE NATIONAL BEVERAGE OF JAPAN, created from the fermentation of rice that has been milled or polished to remove the bran. Often described as a rice wine, its brewing process more closely resembles that of beer. During wine production, the sugar naturally present in grapes is fermented into alcohol — whereas to create sake, the starch naturally present in rice is first converted into sugars and then into alcohol. It differs from beer in that this conversion process occurs simultaneously rather than in two separate stages, and the alcohol content of undiluted sake is typically much higher than beer, at around 18 to 20 percent.
The designation “sake,” in the Japanese language, can be used to refer to any alcoholic drink; whereas what we know as sake in the English language is more properly termed nihonshu in Japanese.
VARIETIES AND PROCESSES
There are properly two different types of sake. Futsu-¯shu means "ordinary sake," and is the basic table-wine version, whereas tokutei meish¯o-shu describes a premium sake that has been modified during its fermentation process by factors such as more thorough milling or the addition of further ingredients such as brewer’s alcohol. This category of premium sake can be further subdivided into several common varieties.
Junmai is the pure sake made of only water, ko¯ji mold, yeast and rice that has had 30 percent of each grain milled away in the polishing process. It has a full, rich body, intense flavor and little fragrance, and is generally served hot.
Honjozo is a sake with the same consistency as junmai, with the exception that a portion of distilled brewer’s alcohol is added during its production. This serves to smooth out the flavor and increase the fragrance of the sake. It is typically served warm at room or body temperature.
Ginjo sake has a lighter and more complex flavor, which is created by the outermost parts of the rice kernel being milled away by 40 percent rather than 30 percent. Lower fermentation temperature, special yeast varieties and other techniques also shape its delicate, fragrant taste. It is generally served chilled to better bring out its flavor.
Daiginjo sake is the high-end designation, where as much as 50 to 65 percent of the rice kernel is milled away, resulting in a more full-bodied and fragrant variety with a brief aftertaste. Like ginjo, it’s generally served chilled.
Other specialist forms of sake include nigori sake, a coarsely filtered variety created when the unfermented portion of the rice is left in the bottle, which results in a cloudy white coloration. Nama sake is a variety that hasn't been pasteurized, which results in a distinctive fresh flavor. Taru is a sake that has been stored in cedar tanks after brewing to accent its flavor, whereas koshu is a sake that has been aged for longer than a typical fermentation cycle, which makes a drink that’s heavy, honey-colored and often completely different from other forms of sake.
There is also kijoshu, or dessert sake, created similar to port or sherry by adding more sake to the brewing stages in place of water. Lastly, genshu is an undiluted sake, created when the typical amount of water used during the fermentation process is omitted entirely to create a stronger end result.
HISTORY AND TRADITIONS
The origins of sake in Japan predate recorded history, with the earliest references to the Japanese use of alcohol recorded in the Book of Wei, a 3rd-century Chinese text. The likely origin of true sake, however, has been placed by scholars in the Nara period of 710 to 794, where the drink took on the characteristics that we know it by today.
Sake production was controlled by the government until the 10th century, when temples and shrines began to brew their own sakes and became the new centers of sake production for the next 500 years. The Tamon-in Diary text, written by the abbots of
the Tamon-in temple from 1478 to 1618, describes the recognizable process of fermentation and pasteurization that still characterizes sake production today.
The drink is traditionally served in small cups called choko. The sake is poured into the choko from a heated ceramic flask called a tokkuri, and the small size of the cups prevents the sake from getting cold after pouring. There are numerous protocols and ceremonial forms related to the pouring and consuming of sake. For instance, a person should never pour their own drink, but allow other members of their party to pour for them. Many of these rules around sake have been relaxed in more modern times, but are still observed on formal occasions such as special events or at business meals.
Another traditional vessel is the masu, a wooden box traditionally used for measuring rice, which holds exactly 180mL (about 6 ounces) — the traditional serving amount for sake. The masu is often placed on a saucer and then filled to overflowing as a show of generosity. For special events such as weddings or at the new year, ceremonial saucer-like cups known as sakazuki are also used for serving sake.
Sake has various ritual uses within Shinto, the traditional ethnic religion of Japan, which is based around propitiating the ancestors and making offerings to landscape spirits known as kami. Sake is consumed during Shinto purification rituals, or is served as an offering to the kami before it is consumed by the worshipper. These offerings of sake are known as omiki or miki, and are believed to facilitate communion and communication with the
SAKE IS CONSUMED DURING SHINTO PURIFICATION RITUALS, OR IS SERVED AS AN OFFERING TO THE LANDSCAPE SPIRITS.
spirits and ancestors. During World War II, the Japanese kamikaze pilots would consume sake in a ritual context before embarking on their one-way mission.
A ritual known as kagami biraki involves breaking open a wooden cask of sake with a mallet to celebrate weddings, store openings, sports or election victories or Shinto festivals. The sake within is designated iwai-zake, or “celebration sake,” and is served freely to all to promote good fortune. Another ritual sake, traditionally served on New Year’s, is toso, made by soaking a Chinese powdered medicine called tososan in the beverage overnight.
Today, there are sake breweries located as far from Japan as the Americas and Australia. More producers are looking into older, more traditional brewing methods, and the market for higher-quality sake has expanded. Clearly, sake, the drink of Japan, is loved throughout the world.
Saki Bar, Osaka