ChuToroZuke's Sake Chroncicles Vol. 1
Hello everyone, ChuToroZuke here! For Volume 1 of The Sake Chronicles, I would like to discuss sake from a high level, what it is about, and why we should drink more of it!
About Japanese sake
Japanese sake is the definitive national alcoholic beverage of Japan. It is deep rooted in history and integral to Japanese food culture, and also used in quite a number of recipes for cooking.
It deserves to be consumed, celebrated and enjoyed for any occassion. With the right sake, the experience of any meal can enhance greatly.
It is also one of the best beverages to have with all styles of food in Japan. Whatever that can go with wine or champagne, sake can do the same job just as well, and in some
cases, much better!
The consumption of sake has unfortunately gone down a lot over the last 10 years, as younger people lose interest and stick with beer or hi-balls (shochu or whiskey cut with ice, water, soda, fruit flavors)
and there is a growing push to have wine and champagne even with traditional Japanese cuisine, as people come into more spending power and have options.
Sake breweries as a result have to change the way they think, produce, and market sake, and thus have to compete with wine, champagne, and other alcoholic beverage to recapture the market, as well as grow market share overseas (e.g. Asia/SE Asia, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, USA, Europe/UK/France).
However with that said, you can find both modern and traditional profiles/styles of sake in Japan and outside.
As visitors to Japan, I feel we should try to help the sake industry by exploring sake at any opportunity.
In addition to being delicious, especially with food, bottles of sake are excellent souvenirs and gifts!
What is sake made of?
Sake from a high level, is made with the following components.
1) sake brewing water - water quality differs within each prefecture in Japan, as well as mineral content and softness. Purity and source is important.
2) sake brewing rice - There are a number of sake brewing rice varietals, including regional unique rice for sake in various prefectures across Japan. Each can produce unique flavors, and within that, numerous combinations of layers and textures. Generally rice grains have an exterior covering the center (shinpaku) containing all the vital starch. The more of the exterior that is polished, generally the smoother the sake texture, and more fruitier flavors will result (and generally, the more costly the bottle) When you see something that says 精米步合 on a sake bottle, that refers to "semibuai" which is the rice polish ratio as a percentage. If 80%, it means 20% of the rice grain is polished away (and that is in relation to the total weight of the grain). In the case of for example, Dassai 23, and if it is 23% it means 77% of the grain was polished away.
3) koji mold (in Latin scientific term would be Aspergillus), which is also used to make miso, vinegar, soy sauce and shochu, in addition to sake.
4) yeast - an integral part of the conversion process. Yeast consumes sugar to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. While rice does not contain sugar consumable by yeast,
it is the koji mold mentioned above, that converts the starch in rice to sugar that is consumed by yeast.
Sake is not a wine, but closer to a brew as a result of fermentation of sake rice.
About sake nomenclature and their definitions
When you come across sake, you may see names like Junmai, Ginjo, Junmai Ginjo, Daiginjo, and Junmai Daiginjo.
Junmai grade sake - the kanji for this translates to "pure rice". Meaning this is brewed entirely with rice (as well as water, koji mold, yeast)
Ginjo grade sake - brewed with sake rice, koji, yeast, brewing water, and distilled alcohol is added to produce (and induce) particular aromas and profiles.
However the words and terminologies can mix a bit:
Other useful terminology
Sometimes you will see other specifications on a bottle label. These pieces of information will give you a better idea of a sake's profile based on dryness level, acidity, and alcohol percentage.
Nihonshudo (SMV) - A rating of 0 would typically mean the sake is neutral, it is neither sweet nor dry. However some people debate that nowadays a rating of 3 is considered neutral.
Generally, the higher the number from the neutral point, the dryer the sake. And 0 or below would indicate more sweetness. The sweetness refers to the residual sugar and alcohol in the sake itself.
You could have a sake that is fruity on the nose, aromatic, and a touch of sweetness on the tip of your tongue, but the sake finishes dry and has a higher SMV value.
Acidity - Most sake hover around the 1.3 to 1.5 range. Traditional more labor intensive methods of sake production tend to result in higher acidity levels, reaching values of 1.6 or higher.
Low temperature long term fermentation and storage could bring that number up a little more as well, and the sake will become more full bodied, more structured, and better suited for food pairing,
much like some red wine profiles.
Alcohol percentage - Sake can have alcohol percentages between 12 to 14% to upwards of 16% or higher. Genshu sake, which are produced by not adding additional water in the brewing process, resulting in more concentration, will generally have higher alcohol content. Summer seasonal releases, and more modern style sake, tend to have lighter alcohol percentage, are easier to drink and generally wider appeal.
Things to pay attention to when tasting a sake
OK so now you get a try a glass of something you are curious about! How do you drink it?
These are things to consider and explore when you taste by itself, and with food:
Aromas on the nose - when you are served the sake, the first thing you should do is smell it and savor the aromas. What do you smell?
It could be a little yeasty (fermentation), earthy (grassy, ricey), fruit scents (apple, pear, melon, lychee, banana), or anything that reminds you of other foods or other scents you are familiar with. I once smelled a sake that reminded me of sandwich meat! There is no right or wrong answer, whatever something reminds you of, you might remember something you had before!
Texture - how does the sake feel in your mouth? Is it smooth, rich, well rounded, velvety, plush, or perhaps has a "bite" or kick to it? Try swirling it around your tongue a little to warm it up a little before swallowing. How does it taste now?
Aromas on the tongue - how does the sake taste from the tip of your tongue, to about mid way back (what we can call the mid palate) all the way to the end? Do you sense any variance? Any difference over time and with food?
Finish - when the sake goes down your throat, how does that feel or taste like? Does it prolong, or is it very quick like drinking water? Do you feel any coating remaining on your tongue? Is there an alcoholic burn that you dislike or perhaps enjoy?
Temperature - now re-try the sake very chilled (5 degrees C), lightly chilled 10 to 15 degrees C, room temperature 15 to 25 degrees C and repeat. What's your favorite spot or moment?
I hope this was a helpful start!
Feel free to leave comments or questions :-)
ChuToroZuke is an avid enthusiast of Japanese cuisine and culture and remembers his first ever sukiyaki experience at the tender age of 6, particularly the magical combination
of dipping sukiyaki beef into raw egg and then chowing it down with a bowl of Japanese rice. However years later in adulthood, a passion ignited with a great explosion one evening 4 years ago, as a result of experiencing a bottle of sake with perfect otsumami and sushi at a favorite restaurant, that was so impactful and memorable. This lead him down a geeky journey of discovering sake as well as rediscovering food with sake. Suddently traveling to Tokyo and dining at various establishments (high end and low end) last few years became a whole lot more exciting, allowing this geek to deep dive and meet other fellow lovers of the beverage (and food of course).
It is with great pleasure and honor that he was invited to contribute to TokyoTableTrip, as a means of giving back to the community and help spread the word and love of sake, and to help promote sake in Japan from overseas.