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Goin’ Japanesque!

The Indomitable Spirit of Japan: A Primer on Sake

Many of the nations of the world have their own distinct alcoholic beverage. If we start to play a game of drinking word association, there will be certain givens: France and its wines, pilsners in Germany, the stereotype bordering on parody of Russians and vodka, Scottish whiskeys and British ales… and, of course, Japan and sake. Just as in Europe, where Germans enjoy a wide variety of drinks and English are per capita more likely to consume lighter German-style beers, the modern Japanese palate has grown to embrace many different ferments. It’s a country where not only have whiskeys, wines, and beers succeeded with consumers but with producers, too, who have created “Western” drinks that have won global acclaim.

Yet, the drink closest to the nation’s heart, though perhaps not its liver, is sake. What we call sake they call nihonshu (lit. “Japanese alcohol”), as sake (pronounced “saw-kay” to rhyme with “OK”) refers in Japanese to all alcoholic beverages. Where the word itself comes from is an etymological uncertainty: the “ke” part seems to refer to an even more ancient term for alcohol, and the “sa” prefix might refer to its revitalizing properties, its liquid nature, or even its purported mystical attributes. Of course, overseas it’s simply sake (often pronounced “sae-key,” just as karaoke turned from “kah-rah-oh-kay” to “kaer-ee-oh-key”), a potent beverage made from rice with a rich past and, if recent popularity has anything to say, a rich future, too.



Passing the Bottle Down the Ages—The Origins of Sake

One of the difficulties in talking about preliterate history is that we have only those artifacts that can weather the years to tell of earlier times. It seems most likely that any sort of rice-based fermented drink would’ve come over to Japan with rice-based agriculture over two millennia ago, especially given that humans can show remarkable aptitude for making mind-altering substances with available supplies.

The first written historical record can be found in the Book of Wei. Though the text was compiled in the 6th century CE and mostly contains the annals of Chinese history, a section called Gishi Wajinden from the 30th scroll talks about the people of the land to the east. Describing the Japanese people of the 3rd century CE, it’s written that “young and old, men and women alike drank” and “[during funerals] the chief mourner cried as others came to sing, dance, and imbibe.”

What these frolicsome funeral-goers might have been drinking is lost to history, as almost any food with starch and sugar (that is, almost any plant food, period) can be fermented. Far more than sugar, starch presents a difficulty, as it in and of itself cannot ferment into alcohol. Whenever it was that proto-sake got its start, it would have been first made with a peculiar process that involved chewing the grains until the natural starch-breaking enzymes in human saliva generated enough sugar to feed alcohol-producing wild yeasts.



From Out Dark History—True Sake Emerges

In time came the natural miracle of koji, a type of rice mold that breaks down rice’s long-chain starches to make fermentable sugars. For example, an Imperial procedural document from the 900s mentions that sake was to be made with steamed rice, koji, and water, which happens to be the exact ingredients used to this day in pure sake. As a reader may infer from the source of the text, the production of sake was in the hands of the Imperial court for the earliest part of its recorded history, and rare was it for this royal beverage to wet the lips of commoners.

However, with the decline of the Imperial agencies, the techniques for making sake spread out into the populace, with production focused at the great temples across the land, especially in the Kyoto and Osaka region. Though ironically forbidden the consumption of alcohol by the tenants of their Buddhism, the monks at these temples were producing a drink that was a far cry from the wild-brewed spittle wine of early history; it was top-shelf stuff, informed by the best knowledge of biology and brewing available in historical Japan.

The methods of making something so delicious could never stay in the hands of one group too long. Wood-working technology came over from China in the 1500s, allowing the creation of truly enormous wooden barrels which lead to the inception of the mass production of sake, previously the domain of monks and their small batches. With mass production came further refinements, and in the Edo period brewing had five “seasons,” and the best came from the coldest months of winter. Sake had finally become a drink of the people, and after the beginning of the Meiji era, there were 16,000 breweries across Japan producing 550 million liters of sake every year (that would be 30 liters for every man, woman, and child of the time!)



Fruits of Applied Biotechnology—Brewing Sake

Earlier, you’ll recall the mention of how a mold called koji became instrumental to the making of sake. This humble fungus is not just used for producing sake but is also integral to the creation of soy sauce and miso, as well.  Beyond its own natural taste virtues, its function is to release enzymes that break down proteins and starches, the former important for flavor and the latter for feeding hungry yeast. The stuff used in Japan comes in three colors, though yellow koji is by far the most dominant strain used.

Whether sake is like beer or like wine relates back to the unique nature of this mold. Wine is made from grapes, which have natural sugars of their own to ferment, while beer is made from malted grains, which through a process called malting come to produce their own enzymes for making starches into sugar. Wine has only one step to fire up fermentation, beer has two, and sake has… one and a half, perhaps? Koji is busy making sugar while yeast is busy eating it, making sake a kind of simultaneous or parallel fermentation which is neither wine nor beer, though it has only one physical step for fermentation like wine even as it uses grains like beer.

Yet, the rice used in sake is not the rice that arrives steaming hot to the dinner table. Compare the two side by side and you’d find that sake rice is a little larger and has a notably more opaque and white core, which is where a density of starches lie in wait to fuel the brewing process. Another important difference is found not in the species of rice but how it is treated. Rice for eating will generally only have a little bit of it milled away, leaving 90 to 95% of the grain behind; rice for brewing might have upwards of half its grain milled away, with a more milled grain often thought to create a “higher” quality sake.


Hardly Mere Semantics—Describing Sake

In fact, together with how much supplementary alcohol has been added, the milling ratio determines how a sake is classified. If a sake uses absolutely no added alcohol whatsoever, it can call itself a pure sake, or junmai-shu. If less than 60% of its grain remains after milling, it becomes premium sake, or ginjo-shu; mill off some more until less than 50% remains gives you special premium sake, or daiginjo-shu. These designations can be combined with the designation for pure sake, to allow for premium pure sake and special premium pure sake, the latter of which would be called junmai-daiginjo-shu (try ordering that five times in a row) and contain only water, koji, and rice with more than half the grain milled away.

Everything else with added alcohol gets lumped under the unbecoming title of “normal sake” (futsu-shu), with the notable exception of honjozo. Made with rice milled down between 60 to 70% of its original size, and with no more than a 10% addition of pure alcohol, this highly-specific designation means “real brewed [sake],” and any bottle of premium sake you find that doesn’t have one of the above labels will probably be honjozo. However, it is important not to judge a sake by these labels alone, just as it would be foolhardy to assume that a wine made with traditional Merlot grapes is necessarily better than one made with the Niagara grapes of North America. Each sake has a certain flavor profile associated with it, so experimentation is key.

You are not thrown into the dark with only a few designations to guide you, however. Beyond the more obtuse descriptors sake shop owners and reviewers will give you, there are two numbers printed on many sake bottles that tell of its objectively-measured chemical nature. The first is the Sake Meter Valve (SMV, or nihonshu-do in Japan), a measure of its dryness as determined by density, where positive numbers indicate a dryer sake and lower numbers a sweeter one. Fundamentally, this is because more alcohol makes sake less dense, whereas more sugar makes it denser. These numbers vary widely, but generally a +6 sake is considered fairly dry and a -6 one fairly sweet.

The other numerical measure you’ll encounter is acidity, or sando. Determined by how much lye must be dissolved in the drink to render its pH neutral (sake is slightly acidic), this number is usually between 0.5 to 3.0, with acidic sakes generally tasting “piquant” and complex and less acidic ones tasting sweeter and mellower. There is interplay between the acidity and the qualities measured by the SMV such that high levels of acidity together with a negative (sweet) SMV might give a flavor profile comparable to a low-acid but positive (dry) SMV. This is only the tip of the iceberg, though: just as in every area of gastronomy, there is a rich vocabulary to describe sake, as well as rule-of-thumb categories for how to roughly classify sake based on SMV and acidity.



Whet Your Thirst—Drinking Sake

All this talk of where sake comes from, how it is made, and how people talk about it begs the most important question: how is it drunk? Put simply, it is drunk in every which way: hot, cold, and cool; neat and in cocktails; and from glasses, mugs, and straight from the bottle. The most famous way overseas of enjoying sake is arguably atsukan, or heated sake. Temperatures for atsukan are gradated minutely and described poetically (e.g., “temperature when struck by the sun,” “temperature of human skin”), but generally it is heated in a double-boiler to between 30 and 50 degrees then served in a long, fluted vessel called a tokkuri, which is poured into tiny cups called o-choko. Remember: don’t serve yourself in Japan, save in the most casual situations!

Purists turn their nose up at atsukan, claiming room temperature (around 20 °C) to be the only true and proper way to enjoy the full richness of a good sake, but people persist in the folly of their ways nonetheless and warm themselves on cold winter nights with cups and cups of hot sake. In summer, however, chilled sake replaces atsukan in popularity, though like with white wine “chilled” in this case means around 10 °C, not refrigerator-cold. Room temperature sake is traditionally drunk from a glass placed inside a wooden box called a masu; the sake is poured into the glass until it overflows a bit into the box. The drinker then sips carefully from the brimming glass, afterwards drinking from the glass a little more and pouring in the excess from the box… though you can drink from the box if you’d like to.


There is so much more to the world of sake than what has been spoken of here: think of this as a taste test for a new realm of drinking. In recent years, artisanal sake has been undergoing a boom of sorts among the young people of Japan, and echoes of this boom combine with the ever-rising popularity of Japanese cuisine to encourage the export of quality sake overseas. Those aren’t the only exports, though: here and there, in major cities, both Japanese and non-Japanese have begun opening sake breweries of their own, in Pacific cities like Sydney and Vancouver as well as elsewhere across the world, too. In our increasingly-globalized world, now more than ever is the time to try something new, so hunt down a little piece of Japanese tradition and broaden your potable horizons!

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About the author

World wanderer and travelling translator, with a great love for language learning, blue-collar cuisine, and rural realms.

View all articles by Barry