Sake is growing increasingly popular and, as Christine Austin discovered on a trip to Japan, it's a fascinating alternative to more familiar wines.

What would you serve with a plate of sushi?  Sauvignon Blanc or maybe an unoaked Chardonnay?  But what about a sake?

Sake is growing in popularity as the light, fresh flavours of Japanese food become more established in restaurants and in homes.  And just as we have all had to learn grape names, and even understand a little about slopes, soils and oak barrels for wine, there is a whole lot to discover about sake.  I spent much of last year doing courses to learn more and then a few weeks ago I was lucky enough to go to Japan to visit sake breweries and see how this delicious drink is made.

The first thing to remember is that they all taste slightly different.  So if, perhaps at the end of a meal, somewhere, some time ago, you were handed a small cup of warm sake – and maybe you didn’t like it – then get rid of that memory and start again.  Sake imports, presentation and serving have all dramatically improved in recent years and there are many different styles and tastes.

What is sake made from?

Rice, water, yeast and a special mould called koji (pronounced co-gee).

Let’s deal with the mould first.

Mould is used in all kinds of food products and in medicines.  It grows on cheese helping create flavour and the right texture, and where would we be without penicillin which is derived from a mould?  So there are good moulds and bad moulds, and koji is definitely a good mould.

Sake is sometimes described as a rice wine – but sake comes with more quality and regulations, so sake is the right term to use.

There are variations of sake where alcohol is added towards the end of the process, which we can deal with later.

How is sake made?

Sake is brewed.  Despite the fact that most sakes are clear and water white, it is brewed, and never distilled.  It generally has an alcohol content around 17% but some sparkling sakes are as low as 7%.

Rice – The process

First of all you need to select your rice.  Sake rice is a different strain and a lot more expensive than ordinary cooking rice, just as wine grapes are different from grapes that we eat.

Rice arrives at the brewery still covered in its brown husk.  This has to be removed and it goes into a mill, where rotating stones remove it. Then comes the difficult bit.  The rice is then it is returned through the mill to be polished down to the right amount.  Why?

Rice is not just a grain of starch, there are other components which may have an effect on the fermentation.  The more the rice is polished the better quality the fermentation will be and sometimes as much as half the rice grain is polished away.

The level of polishing can give the final sake a different name. Ginjo means that 60% of the grain remains while Daiginjo means that 50% of the grain remains to make the sake.

Sake rice is milled from brown (left) to just 60% of the grain remaining (right)

Koji – The Process

When you make beer from wheat you add malted barley to convert wheat starch to sugar.   Koji works in just the same way.  Koji works as a starter to convert the starch in rice to fermentable sugar.

First of all some polished rice is washed, steeped and steamed which breaks open the starch granules, then it is spread out to cool in a carefully controlled environment.  Koji mould spores are sprinkled on the rice and allowed to grow.  The process takes around 2 days and there are various wrapping, mixing and drying steps along the way, to make sure that it is clean, controlled and complete.  The koji mould spores, Aspergillus Oryzae are yellow, but as the mould grows it is white and so is difficult to see on a background of white rice, although it does give the grains a white sheen.

Spreading the rice to make koji

Brewing the sake

To make sake you need to take more polished rice and wash, steep and then steam it.  It then goes to be fermented with koji and yeast, but not in one big batch.  Fermentation is started gradually, with koji forming a significant part of the mix.  At this point lactic acid may be added to help provide the right acidity for fermentation.  As the koji transforms starch to sugar, yeast transforms sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide.  This fermentation is built up by adding more rice over 4 days. The full fermentation can take three to four weeks, and ends up with a white, porridge-looking mix in a big stainless steel vat.

By varying temperature and yeasts the sake develops different flavours.

Brewing sake

Adding a splash more alcohol

Some sakes have an extra amount of alcohol added after fermentation, not to give it an extra kick, but to extract more flavours from the rice.  If a sake is described as Junmai no extra alcohol has been added.

Separating sake from the rice

Post fermentation the white rice porridge needs to be filtered to obtain drinkable sake.  In large breweries this is a big batch pressure process but smaller breweries use drip methods that date back centuries. Again, this can also influence the taste.

 

The finished product

Almost all sake is pasteurised at some point.  This means it is heated to the point where any stray yeast and bacteria are killed off and the product is stable.  Even so, most sake is not a product to be aged.  If you buy a bottle, try to consume it within six months and preferably keep it in a cool place or even in the fridge.

Learning the words

Just like you need to learn the right words for wine, there are dozens of words that describe the rice, polishing ratio, region and method of making the sake.  I will introduce some of those words next week.

Homework

Walk into Latitude Wine Shop in the Calls, Leeds, Field and Fawcett in York or  Harrogate Wine and browse the range of sakes they have.  Maybe ask for a bottle of Junmai Ginjo which will probably cost around £13.99 for 300ml (Latitude).  Sake is not a cheap option, but it is a fascinating one. Chill it and enjoy with dinner – sake goes with all kinds of foods from sushi to fish and chips.

 

 

 

 

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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