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A Guide To Sake

Sake has been considered to be Japan’s national drink for quite some time. But as the beverage’s popularity continues to spread all over the world, the secrets backing the ancient traditions of this drink have been revealed.


Sake Barrels Near Entrance of Meiji Shrine

Sake has a lot more in common with beer than it does with wine.

Although sake is often referred to as “rice wine” in English-speaking countries, it is a misnomer. That is because rice wine is actually made from rice fermentation, and Western wines are made from grape fermentation. Although sake is made out of rice, it is via a brewing process where starch is converted into alcohol, which is similar to the beer making process.

Brewing sake is a difficult process.

First sake rice is stripped of oils and protein in the polishing process, and then its debris is washed off and then air-dried. After it is steam, Koji is kneaded by machine or by hand into the rice. Koji is a type of mold that helps to convert rice starch into sugar, and that turns into alcohol over the course of the two-step fermentation process (Moromi and Shubo).

The second fermentation stage takes 25 to 30 days, which will depend on the kind of sake that is being made. During that time, the brewers will closely watch the batch both day and night, and adjust the ingredients and temperature as needed. Jo-So is the final stage, where the rice mash gets pressed. The sake is then bottled.

Brewing sake is often a communal process

The Birth of Sake, an investigatory documentary by Erik Shirai that is playing currently at Tribeca Film Festival, has viewers being taken behind the scenes of a Yoshida Brewery in Northern Japan. The 144-year-old brewery still uses manpower rather than mechanization in several of the steps that were described above. To achieve this, for half of the year (October to mid-April) the works live on site away from friends and family to oversee the creation of the sake day and night.

Brew masters are in charge of the sake breweries.

In Japan their official title is Toji. The Toji of a brewery is responsible not only for the brew’s taste but also for keeping the team in harmony over the long winter months of communal living and work. The Toji is considered to be the team’s parental figure and eventually mentors the next prospective Toji in an apprenticeship process that may take decades to complete.

Sake-making skills have traditionally been passed down via hands-on training and oral traditions instead of through books or schools.

More polishing results in higher-grade sake

Certain Sake designations such as Daiginjo, Ginjo, Tokubetsu, Honjozo, and Futsu are determined by the amount of rice grain that is polished away during processing. There is 30 percent or less of the grain polished off in the lowest grain, and then the highest grade (which is Daiginj) has a total of 50 percent that is polished away. When any of the above are paired with “Junmai”(which means “pure rice”) that means the bottle of sake does not have any distilled alcohol that is added to the mash. It is an alcohol that is purely made out of rice.

Compared to either wine or beer, Sake’s alcohol content is higher.

The alcohol by volume (ABV) of beer typically ranges from 3 to 9 percent, and wine is from 9 to 16 percent. On the other hand, sake can be up to 18 to 20 percent. The highest ABVs are hard liquors, which range from 24 up to 40 percent.

One of the key flavor component’s of sake is yeast.

IN his film Birth of Sake, Erik Shirai points out that yeast plays an essential role in the quality of sake. Since each yeast strain provides its own distinctive characteristics of taste and aroma, it is necessary for brewers to test each of the yeasts in order to determine which is the best one to use in their sake. It is a delicate taste test that is overseen by the brewery executives in addition to the Toji.

Sake is the world’s oldest known spirit.

Some claim that sake’s origins date back all the way to 4800 BC China. Sake didn’t come to Japan until 300 BC with wet rice cultivation. However, since that time the development of sake in Japan has made the beverage synonymous with the country.

There were breweries built by the 1300s that allowed for sake to be mass produced. The industrial revolution introduced machines for doing the work that had formerly been done by hand by the villagers. A research institute was created by Japan in 1904 to study the best way to ferment rice to use to make sake.

Sake-making is a male-dominated industry but was once considered to be women’s work.

The word Toji has deep similarities with the Japanese word which means “an independent woman.” There are other clues regarding the feminine influence on the history of the drink, including the fact that housewives used to be referred to as “toji of the home,” and that a woman was listed as the toji of the Imperial court. It appears that mean took over the production of sake during the late 16th century and early 17th century.

A key ingredient in sake used to be spit

Koji fungus is now used for fermenting the rice. However, in the past villagers gathered together in order to chew on polished rice and its mashed remains would be spit into a communal tub. Their saliva contained enzymes that helped with the fermentation process. Out of all of the various alterations that have been seen by the sake brewing process over time, this tradition is probably the one that is least missed, even by the most hardcore sake enthusiasts.

Sake may be served hot, at room temperature, or cold.

Although you would never think of drinking beer warm on purpose, people in Japan have been enjoying heated sake since the time of the Heian era (794-1185). The taste of sake is influenced by temperature; the warm that the beverage is, the drier its flavor is.

Pairing recommendations for hot sake (joukan) include dishes that are made with lots of fat or oil. Warm sakea; (nurukan) goes well with sushi and other cold foods. Chilled sake (reishu) goes well with foods that are lightly sour or sweet. The season and weather is another major factor that goes into selecting a temperature. Not many people like drinking hot sake during the summer.

 Pouring your own sake is kind of rude.

Some people say that serving your own sake suggest that you do not trust your host to take good care of you. However, it has more to do with the focus on friendship that sake drinking has. Sake is used by loved ones to toast celebrations such as the New Year and weddings. So it is considered to be an act of bonding when you pour for a friend and then they do the same thing for you.

There have been dramatic changes to sake serving.

There were two main ways that sake was traditionally served: the first one was called choko, which was a small ceramic cup that came with a tokkuri, or ceramic flask. The second way was to use a masu, which was a small wooden cup that would either sit on top of a saucer or have a choko inside of it. Either way, the sake could be our so that it spilled over the rim of the cup, which was a sign of the generosity of the host.

These days any type of glassware can be used, especially as sake continue to make its way across the world and used in cocktails. However, the custom of spilling sake has not caught on outside of Japan.

The popularity of sake has declined in Japan.

Since the 1970s, Japan has shown an increased fascination with Western culture. This is reflected in Japanese drinkers having increasingly turned to shochu, whiskey, wine, and beer, which has drastically impacted the sake industry in Japan. It was once estimated by the Guardian that the Japanese people now drink only about one-third of the amount of sake that was consumed thirty years ago.

During the early 1900s, there were 4,600 sake breweries in Japan. Today there are only about 1,000. Another reason for the decline is a decision made a tax agency 20 years ago that denied breweries from renewing their licenses when there was no successor for a retiring Toji.

The popularity of sake is thriving abroad.

With Japanese drinkers choosing other alcoholic beverages and breweries shutting down, the survival of sake might depend on its overseas appeal. The demand for sake in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the US has continued to increase. Exporting to those countries has significantly helped sake breweries, and some people think that America’s increasing interest in sake might also spur a renewed interest in the drink back home in Japan.