What is it? That’s the most frequent question asked by those seeking to buy a bottle of saké. Is it rice wine? Is it more similar to beer? The simple answer is that saké is saké. It’s neither wine nor beer, but saké is made using fermentation methods similar to those used in making both wine and beer. To jump to the end, saké is a distinctly unique alcoholic beverage, made from rice, using a fermentation method unlike that used to make any other alcoholic beverage.
Premium saké, as defined by the Japanese government, is made from only four ingredients: rice, water, yeast and a mold called koji (Aspergillis Orzaye). Let’s take a quick look at that process using wine and beer to illustrate how saké is similar and different.
The alcohol in wine is a product of yeast converting the already present fruit sugars to alcohol, this is a single fermentation method.
Beer requires an additional step in that beer is made from a grain not a grape and has no naturally occurring sugars for the yeast to convert. The sugar in beer comes from “malted” barley (or whatever grain is being used). As the grain is germinated, yes just like the little sprouts on your salad, enzymes are produced which are able to cut through the longer starch molecules and convert them into shorter sugar molecules. Yeast is then added to complete the fermentation process by which the sugar is converted to alcohol, just like wine. But, beer is a bit more complicated to ferment as it uses a multiple (two step) fermentation process.
Saké uses both methods. However, instead of germinating the rice kernels to produce the enzymes, saké uses koji, a mold, to convert the starch molecules in the rice to sugar molecules, which the yeast is then able to convert to alcohol.
The very unique thing about saké making is that the two fermentation methods are employed both at the time or concurrently, not consecutively. This is called multiple parallel fermentation. MPF is the complex, labor intensive process only used in the making of saké, which makes saké the unique alcoholic beverage that it is. And that’s why Saké is Saké.
Just like wine, beer and spirits, saké has regulated classifications that represent different styles and types. Let’s take a look at the two major broad classifications that all saké’s fall into, Junmai and Honjozo.
Junmai literally translates into “pure rice”. This is the older, more traditional method of brewing sake. Junmai saké can only contain four ingredients: rice, water, yeast and koji. Junmai sakés will be richer and fuller bodied than the other major type, Honjozo saké.
During WWII, as a result of significant rice shortages, the government allowed saké brewers to supplement their saké with an additional amount of brewer’s alcohol. While this was initially a cost control measure, the brewer’s found that the added alcohol extracted more aromatics and flavor from the saké mash. The Honjozo style makes for a somewhat lighter style of saké. Honjozo saké is much more prevalent in Japan today, while Junmai saké is more common in U.S. markets. A point of clarification: whichever style is used the overall alcohol content of the end product will be the same, typically 14-16%. Much like wine, these are the New World and Old World styles of saké. When looking at bottles of saké at your local retail store, Junmai saké will always state that on the label. When the word Junmai doesn’t appear on the label the saké it’s generally a Honjozo.
The other major “special designations” that appear on saké labels refer to Ginjo and Daiginjo. These classifications have to do with the percentage of the outer hull of the rice kernel that’s milled away during the brewing process. To understand why this is important you first have to know that it’s not the table rice that you’re familiar with that is used in the making of saké. There are over 100,000 types of rice in the world. 52 of them are used in saké making. The type of kernel used is much larger and has a starch packet located in the center of the kernel – that’s surrounded by an outer layer of proteins, fats, dirt and other impurities that will to unwanted flavors and poor quality saké. Much of the bulk saké that most Americans have drunk have these undesirable qualities and that has contributed considerably to the poor reputation that premium imported saké is now overcoming.
In addition to the primary definitions of Junmai and Honjozo detailed above, both classifications have a secondary definition that at least 30% of the outer hull of the kernel must be milled away. As a result of the milling away of the outer hull of the kernel, saké cannot be germinated the way that barley malts are in the making of beer.
Saké that has less than 30% of the unwanted elements milled away is called Futsuu and is politely referred to as “bulk saké”, similar to Vin de Pay in that it is not a regulated beverage by the Japanese government and can have a variety of additives including sweeteners, colorings and bulk alcohol.
Ginjo saké must have, by regulation, a minimum of 40% of the hull milled away in order to have that designation. Daiginjo’s have at least 50% of the outer hull milled away. Some high end Daiginjo’s actually get down to 65% of the hull removed. How much of the outer hull of the rice kernel is a major determinant of the final quality of the saké. The more of the hull that’s removed the higher the quality of the saké and generally the price of it as well. Ginjo and Daiginjo saké are the pinnacle of the saké brewer’s art and are best served with delicate Japanese cuisine, such as sushi and sashimi.
Much like wine, beer and spirits, saké comes in many different types. Here are some of the main styles, that are included in the four main types, that you may find in your retail store:
- Nigori saké: the cloudy saké, is the way saké has been brewed in Japan for much of its 2000 year history. It’s coarsely filtered and sweeter than most sakés. Many people enjoy its nut-like quality. It pairs well with more spicy/savory foods and works best with
non-Japanese Asian cuisines such as Thai and Korean.
- Nama saké: this is an unpasteurized saké. Nama means “new” and is enjoyed by many in Japan during the summer months for its young and vibrant flavors.
- Taru saké: these saké’s are aged in cedar casks. This imparts a crisp, spicy character to the saké. Cedar is to saké what oak is to wine. Taru saké lends itself well to Asian meat dishes and to foods that are have bold flavor profiles.
- Genshu saké: saké that is full strength, genshu means “cask strength” All saké is fermented at 20% alcohol and most have distilled water added to lower the alcohol content to 14-16%. Genshu saké is very full bodied/flavored and should be paired with dishes that are similarly robust in nature.
- Specialty saké’s: this category would include sparkling saké, aged saké, flavored saké and low-alcohol dessert saké. Some of these are novelty items and some are serious variations of mainstream premium saké.
Armed with the above information, you should be better able to understand the different styles and types of saké, as well as the words that appear on the labels of the bottles of saké that are staring back at you as you look at them on the shelf of your retail wine/liquor store.
A few more tips and answers to frequently asked questions to help when selecting a bottle of saké to buy:
- Ask for assistance. Someone in the store that you’re in had to buy this stuff. They should be able to describe the different classifications, style and flavor profiles of the product that they have on their shelves. As well as making food pairing suggestions.
- Look for the production date. Saké generally should be drunk fresh. Except for some special saké’s, saké doesn’t age the way that wine does. Think beer, drink it fresh.
- Once open, saké keeps well for about twice as long as wine. Refrigerated it should be fine for about 5 to 7 days.
- Imported vs. Domestic? Simply put (and a gross generalization) it’s similar to the difference between mass produced American beer and European beer. And for this reason, 80% of what’s in a bottle of saké is added water. Like beer, the source and quality of that water is a primary determinant of the quality of the final product. Domestic producers can import the rice, yeast, koji and techniques, but they can’t import the water.
- Warmed vs. Chilled? Other than What Is It, this is the most frequent question that customers ask. Warming saké is a bit of a tradition in this country. But only due to the poor quality saké that used to be available. When given a glass of big Zinfandel with an alcohol content of 16%, few people would consider warming it up. And for the same reason that imported premium saké should be chilled. Warming brings out the alcohol flavors and smothers the more subtle and delicate flavors that are the hallmark of premium saké.
- How much does a good bottle of saké cost? There’s a much greater correlation between cost and quality when it comes to saké than wine. For one not so apparent reason – there are no ratings that distort the price of saké the way wine prices are affected by critics and wine publications ratings. A bottle of sake that costs twice as much as another bottle generally should be twice as good. With saké you get what you pay for.
So, the next time you’re thinking about enjoying a meal of good Asian cuisine, think also about enjoying it with the drink that the food was made to be enjoyed with.
A word a caution, as the paths in Japanese gardens are never straight (an ancient Japanese belief is that bad spirits can’t travel in straight lines) so it is with saké. There are exceptions and variations to any “guidelines”. Despite the above, there are no straight lines when it comes to saké.
There is however, great delight in exploring and finding out what you enjoy when it comes to this ancient and unique beverage.
Enjoy the journey.
Kanpai! (Empty Cup)