For Westerners, sake has always held a bit of a mystery. What exactly is it? How is it made? What are the different styles? And how do you drink it?
I have to admit that I am a relative newcomer to the world of sake. I’ve found that it isn’t the hot, overly alcoholic, biting beverage many people think it is. I’ve been fortunate enough to taste freshly filtered sake. If you think wine words like bouquet, fruity, body, luscious or elegant can not be used for a wine made from only rice, you would be wrong. Premium sake (and especially American made sake, as you will see) has easily proven itself to be worthy of appreciation on the same level as fine wine.
What is Sake
The are three basic ingredients in sake: rice, water and koji.
In traditional sake production, the first step is hulling the rice. Hulling removes the protein and oil that reside in the outer part of the grain. To make ordinary-grade sake,30% of the grain mass is removed while for premium grade sake, up to 70% is ground away.
After rice, next in importance to sake production is water quality. Terroir does matter. To make a great or even good sake, the water must be clean, with minimal bacteria; it must contain certain desirable minerals; and its iron and manganese content must be low because these minerals would hinder the fermentation process.
Sake is unique among fermented beverages, in that the two fermentation agents work together to naturally ferment sake to 20% alcohol. The process is actually closer to beer production than to wine. The hulled rice is rinses, soaked in water and is then steamed. Part of the steamed rice is inoculated with a fermentation starter, koji mold (Aspergillus oryzae), and is then transferred to a special room, the kojimuro. The koji are left to multiply, break down the starch to glucose. The koji rice is then mixed with additional steamed rice, water and yeast to make a mash and left to ferment.
When the process reached the right stage, distilled alcohol can be added to stop the fermentation and create a softer, more refined taste. The sake is then filtered and stored. For some sakes, water is then added to dilute the original 20% alcohol content down to 15%.
Types and Grades of Sake
- junmai-shu, which comes in three grades (rice only; no adding of distilled alcohol)
- honjozo-shu (a tad of distilled alcohol is added)
- ginjo-shu (highly milled rice, with or without alcohol added)
- daiginjo-shu (even more highly milled rice, with/without added alcohol)
These four combine to form what is known as Special Designation Sake, or “Tokutei Meishoshu.”
The table above (click to enlarge), is from John Gauntner at Sake World, “It is a visual representation of the grades of sake. The higher levels represent the higher grades of sake; higher quality, higher price, and in general, more elegant, refined, fragrant, light, and enjoyable aromatic and flavor profiles.”
American made Sake
American made sake is not an oxymoron. Although some believe sake should only be called sake if it produced in specific prefectures in Japan, similarly to sparkling wine made in the Champagne region in France should be the only sparkling wine labeled Champagne. That being said, here are six major sake producers in the U.S., five in California and one in Oregon.
Takara Sake USA, in Berkeley, California, is the largest in the U.S. and owned by Takara, Japan’s (the world’s fourth largest producer).
Ozeki Sake USA, in Hollister, California, is America’s second largest and oldest (1979) and is owned by Japan’s third largest brewer.
Gekkeikan’s Sake USA in Folsom, California, is the number three producer, and is owned by Gekkeikan of Japan, the world’s largest sake brewer.
SakéOne, in Forest Grove, Oregon, number four, is the only American owned sake brewer. I have to admit that their G sake is my favorite American made sake. I am currently an Oregonian but believe when I say that has no bearing on my judgment. I have to agree with their marketing propaganda,
G answers the call for an ultra-premium, super-sexy saké tailored to and bottled for the American palate. Layers of rich flavors (fruits, sweetness, spices) come together to create a distinct experience.
Kohnan Sake, in Napa, California, produces Hakusan brand sake.
The smallest American sake brewer is Yaegaki USA, in Los Angeles, California, formerly American Pacific Rim Sake Brewery. They have America’s only female chief sake maker.