If I read one more book, article or blog on Japanese sake my
head is going to explode. I didn’t know a thing about sake before agreeing to write this story for Edible Sacramento, but I figured a wine writer can write on rice wine, right (lol–say that phrase 3x fast). See, I’d had sake with sushi rolls, maybe four times, both warm and cold so I thought ‘what the heck—sake, no problem’. Now you can see why there haven’t been many blog posts of late….I have been inundated learning about sake!
Well right out of the box during preliminary research I was
humbled to learn sake isn’t even a wine (uh-oh), and, I guess traditionally, you’re not supposed to drink it while eating any rice products (oops), 0 for 2! I’m sure you’ve been there before: you’re trying to learn about something you are completely unfamiliar with, and essentially, your brain thinks it’s reading a foreign language. Well, with sake, that
is literally so. Not only is there an entire scientific process of production that I needed to understand, but so many terms used to describe said production, as well as the classification system of sake, are all in Japanese,
a language I know nothing about. In addition, because there is ancient history and tradition associated with the consumption of sake that too, adds to the complexity of the subject, not to mention that information on this topic can be vague or at times conflicting. Suffice it to say, I quickly realized I had better backtrack and start this culinaryesque journey where all such local journeys begin, with Darrell Corti.
Most long-time Sacramentans, and many people worldwide for
that matter, know that this star of the grocery world has significant expertise in the realms of wine, olive oil and imported international food products. But I was surprised to learn that Mr. Corti is
also a world renowned non-Japanese expert on sake. As a matter of fact, his knowledge on the history, tradition, production and quality of sake is encyclopedic. For the last 10 years, Darrell has taken part
in the Joy of Sake, an annual tasting competition of Japanese sake held in
Hawaii. He is one of a very few non-Japanese judges to participate and is well versed in the finer aspects of tasting and appreciating this rice beverage. For our interview, Darrell took me behind the scenes at Corti Brothers on Folsom Boulevard in East Sac to educate me on the world of sake. Thanks to this gracious and proper gentleman, I know quite a bit more about sake these days. For an hour and a half I was basically treated to an advanced beginning/intermediate course in sake. Mr. Corti taught me
fermentology, discussing all of the important steps in the sake brewing
process, he taught me sake appreciation, discussing the quality levels of sake and its characteristic aromas and flavors.
He covered cultural anthropology by teaching me the history and traditions of Japanese sake customs. In essence, he was my sensei, and I am
What also helped to clarify some of the mysteries of sake was
taking a tour of the local Gekkeikan factory in Folsom. Vice President of Production William Piper led me and my trusty side-kick, photographer Penny Sylvia (www.pennysylvia.com) through this state
of the art sake brewery. Penny took the great shots included in this post! Gekkeikan, a nearly 400-yr old company in Fushimi, selected Folsom as its first western outpost based upon its access to high quality rice from the Sacramento Valley and its access to good sake water. Fushimi, which
is in the Kyoto prefecture, and in the Kinki sake brewing region, is the second greatest area of Japan in terms of sake production. The water of Fushimi is soft with a low mineral content, a combination known to produce fine sake. In Folsom, the local water, which originates
in the Sierra Nevada, is also soft, and provides everything Gekkeikan needs to make traditional sake. The production is pretty impressive and includes bags, bags and more bags of rice, labs, steamers, pipes, fermentation tanks, aging tanks, bottling lines, loading docks, tasting facilities and even a palate loading robot. I was particularly charmed by a sign I kept
seeing throughout the brewery on many pieces of equipment, the Japanese characters were a traditional prayer to the sake god.
First and foremost, sake is not technically a wine; it is closer to a beer. Wines are made from fruits that contain natural sugars that in the presence of yeast ferment into alcohol and a bit of CO2. That process is called fermentation. Sake is made from grain, specifically, rice. Grains
contain starches, and thusly sugars, but those sugars can’t be utilized for
fermentation until they are released from the starch. An added enzyme is needed to break down that starch into simple sugar molecules that will undergo fermentation once put in contact with yeast. This breakdown of
starches into sugars by enzymatic action is called saccharification. We
commonly associate saccharification with the brewing of beer, malt being the enzyme that breaks down the barley to release the sugars so that later, alcohol fermentation can take place.
Sake takes its slight turn from beer brewing, in that unlike beer; saccharification does not occur first, followed by fermentation, in sake,
the two processes occur simultaneously in what is termed a “multiple parallel fermentation”. Another big difference is that the enzyme used
in sake production to break down the rice starch isn’t malt, its koji-kin.
Koji-kin is cool, so cool; I’m thinking it would be a good name for a tiny dog. It’s actually a mold called aspergillus oryzae that gets sprinkled onto steamed rice (koji-kin + steamed rice is referred to as koji ) so that the mold can burrow all the way to the center starchy portion of each grain, breaking the starch into the simple sugars that the yeast will use in fermentation. This is one of the most critical steps in the sake making process as the koji is
very temperamental, the rice and mold requiring precise conditions to bloom and infiltrate each rice grain. It takes
years of experience and clever intuition to understand how to get the koji just right. Koji is a big contributor to any sake’s flavor profile and successful mold propagation is just one of the many responsibilities of the person who oversees sake production, the specially trained brewmaster called the toji.
In the sake brewery, while koji is being prepared, yeast is also being cultivated to get ready for potential use in the next batch of sake.
Yeast is taken from the vats of successful batches of sake and cultured
in a lab. As in winemaking, there are many different strains of yeast, each bringing different flavors and aromas to the finished product. Selections are made by the toji to ensure the desired flavors and aromas of a particular sake are achieved. Once the exact specifications of both yeast
and koji have been met the multiple parallel fermentation process begins.
First, a yeast starter called shubo or moto is created using a new batch of steamed rice, water, koji, and the specially selected yeast
cells called kobo. Sometimes lactic acid is added to soften the
texture. This shubo percolates away anywhere from 1.5 to 2 weeks, with the yeast cells multiplying and the slurry foaming away.
The next step is to move the shubo into a large fermentation tank where it’s a bit of a redoux: add more steamed rice, add more water, add more koji, all done in three stages over four days. This new liquid, called moromi, is both fermenting and saccharifying while it continues to double in size with each successive addition. The moromi stays in this tank for about a month. When the sake is determined to be just right, it is pressed through an accordion-like machine to separate the clear liquid
from the white lees (yeast residue) and unfermented solids. In some traditional breweries, the moromi is placed into large canvas bags
and the sake is squeezed out. If the sake is not squeezed out of the bags, but left to drip out in a “free run” process, that resultant sake is called shizuku. Gekkeikan uses one of the accordion-like devices and the lees and solids (spent grains) remaining after the press, called kasu, are
collected and recycled as feed extender for local cattle and pigs. I was actually there on a day when a cattle farmer from Wilton arrived to pick up the kasu. Apparently, there is quite a bit of protein and some interesting flavor left in the material. Even Mr. Piper has reused the byproduct
himself wrapping trout in rehydrated strips before cooking, a practice not
uncommon in Japan.
After the sake sits a few days and solids settle out, it is
charcoal filtered to manipulate flavor and coloring and then heat pasteurized through piping for stability. There are some
types of sake that are unfiltered (nigori) and others unpasteurized (namazake). As one would expect, unpasteurized namazake requires refrigeration. After these processes, most sake is aged up to about six months. Some special sakes are aged for a few years; they are called koshu,
meaning ‘old sake’ and are reminiscent of sherry. Some other styles of sake
include kimoto and yamahai, both of which involve specialized brewing techniques and wild yeasts which result in eccentric,
gamier, umami-laden sakes. These sakes tend to have more of a wine-like flavor profile. When aging is completed, most sake is typically blended with water to bring the alcohol level down. Sake normally ferments to about 20% alcohol; blending typically dilutes it down to somewhere near 15%. Sake which is undiluted is sold as genshu. Once blended, most sake is re-pasteurized, bottled and shipped.
In discussing the production process we’ve learned how water, koji
and yeast can all impart their influence on the flavors aromas and quality
of sake, but there is another major influence, and I’ve saved its discussion
for last….it’s the rice. It can be presumed, of course, that rice variety affects the final product, but even more importantly it’s something called the rice polishing ratio that really makes the difference. Sake’s quality
designation is a reflection of its rice polish ratio, and this ratio is the
amount of milling the rice receives to remove the outer layers of the
grain. Those outer layers contain proteins, lipids and amino acids that provide unwanted flavors and aromas to sake. The ultra-premium sakes (daiginjo) use rice where 50% or less of the original grain remains after polishing, this category subdivides even more as the best of the best mill down to 40% or even 30%. Premium sake (ginjo) has a polish ratio of 60% or less. Occupying the lowest end of quality sakes are junmai and honjozo; both have a polish ratio of 70% or less.
Understanding the classification system for sake can be confusing, but here is a very basic chart to help you out. These terms are important to become familiar with because if you want to purchase sake in the store, you are going to need to understand some of the information you’ll see on the bottle. Note that most of these words can also end in
the suffix –shu , which just means ‘alcohol’, and the quality sakes can be further classified with many descriptive Japanese adjectives like those mentioned above (daiginjo, ginjo, nigori, koshu, etc.). You might also see the word tokebetsu which is generic for ‘special’ and can pretty much mean anything.
Now test yourself: if a sake was listed as a Junmai genshu
daiginjo, Hyogo prefecture what is it? Yes, you’re right; it’s all natural, undiluted and ultra-premium (50% or less polish ratio) from the Hyogo Prefecture in Japan! Sometimes you’ll spot a label with a Sake
Meter Value. The numbers usually range from a +15 (dry) to a -15 (sweet); a sake valued at 0 is considered neutral.
So let’s talk about why you should be drinking sake. For one, it’s become very in vogue in restaurants across the country. In San
Francisco one of the current premier dining spots, Quince, has a small Sake & Crudo Menu with pairings like “Steelhead gravlax with persimmon, radish and garlic chive with Tedorgawa Kinka, Nama Daiginjo, Ishika Prefecture “. In addition, they offer three sakes by the glass. Here in Sacramento, I found an impressive sake menu at Kru in Midtown. With
approximately 25 bottles available, and offerings by the glass (4 cold and 1
hot), this is the place to experiment locally. Bottles of different sizes range in price from $8 – $150 and are available in a number of styles and from a variety of Japanese regions. I like that the menu is categorized by rice
polishing ratio. Visit the Edible website soon www.ediblecommunities.com/sacramento for tasting notes from my visit to Kru and Gekkeikan.
When tasting, it is best to drink from the top down (daiginjo-ginjo-junmai/honjozo) so that the delicacy of the higher qualities aren’t lost. Another reason you should be drinking sake is that it doesn’t fight with food. Junmai with its rich, heavy body pairs well with foods that typically like red wines. A rich aged sake like juyondai from the Yamagata prefecture is a perfect match for savory seafood like crab, and most
ginjo–shu (see, I added the suffix for the heck of it) and daiginjo-shu like
raw or seared fish and light foods like vegetables or chicken. Darrell Corti finds ginjo-shu to be an interesting accompaniment to both Roquefort
cheese and smoked meats.
Why not drink sake and be a local trend setter. The market for premium sake has grown and exports to the U.S. have broken records in the last few years. One well-known sake expert, John Gaunter, who has a great, info-filled website on sake (www.sake-world.com) says “there is no bad sake on the market, and even the worst is pretty good”.
Like wine, sake has a variety of flavors and aromas, with something to suit everyone’s palate. One of my friends loves the milky white nigori while another can’t get enough of the cheap hot sake at her local Japanese restaurant. A fun option I’ve found is sparkling sake. Gekkeikan imports something called Zipang, which is a naturally carbonated junmai
sake that is sweet and refreshingly light at 7% alcohol/volume. It is sold in local Asian markets like Oto’s. Another brand, Sake2me, is infused with
Asian flavors like yuzu, ginger and Asian pear. I’ve seen this on the menu at Mix and it’s usually on the shelf at Raleys.
If you are ready to dip your toe in, know that premium sake is best served slightly chilled as warming it can ruin the complexity of aromas and flavors. Ordinary table sake, futsushu can be served at room temperature or slightly warm, as can kimoto and yamahai sakes. If you’d like
to really get your traditional Japanese on, ask for your slightly warmed sake to be served in the pouring vessel called a tokkuri, and be sure to drink it out of a tiny porcelain cup called a guinomi or choko. Ancient custom gently demands one never pour for oneself, unless drinking alone. One
picks up the tokkuri and offers to pour for their friend, who should always be holding the choko in their hand. There is also a custom of drinking sake from another’s cup; if you want to whoop it up with your pals, the one considered more junior asks their senior to “please allow me to drink from your cup”, the senior downs the filled cup and passes it to the junior, it gets refilled and slugged back by the junior who fills it again and passes it back, completing the exchange. This can go on and on until everyone is,
well, drunk, and that’s ok according to the book The History and Culture of
Japanese Food, because ancient Japanese practice reminds us that becoming intoxicated from the same cup is a means of establishing solidarity. And with that, my friends, I leave you with one final term from my Japanese journey, Kanpai, which not surprisingly means cheers!