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What is Sake?


Basic Knowledge of Japanese Sake

Japanese Sake ... the national alcoholic beverage developed far in Nara period(=8 Century) is brewed with strict quality control by master brewers called Kura-bito, using natural ingredients with no addition of artificial preservative, which are water, polished rice, koji mold and yeasts. Only minimum quantity of distilled alcohol is used in some Sake like Ginjo and Honjozo, however which is also made from cereals such as sugar cane, corn starch and so on. Therefore, Sake is often called one of the most natural and purest alcoholic beverages in the world.

One of the pleasures for drinking Sake is you can enjoy its variety of flavors derive from different rices, rice koji(malted rice) and yeasts as well as brewing techniques of each brewer. Around 1,000 of Sake breweries exist in Japan as of 2021, and each Sake has different flavor like banana, apple, melon, pear or others while the main ingredients are water and rice. And foods to be well-matched with each flavor are totally different. Therefore, trying to find out the best Sake to be matched with your favorite foods can be a great joy in your life. And people enjoy varieties of Sake in different ways in many scenes every day.

Characteristics of Sake brewing process

Rice to be used for Sake brewing cannot be fermented with yeast alone unlike grape for wine and malt for beer, since rice has no sugar content to be fermented with yeast. Sake is processed simultaneously both the transitions of rice starch into sugar by rice koji, and the sugar into alcohol by yeast of which phenomenon is called, "Multiple Parallel Fermentation". Production of fine Sake requires careful quality control being attended with strict temperature management throughout all the making process including rice koji production, moto(=brewing mash / starter) brewing and dan-jikomi(separate addition of the ingredients into brewing tank). These traditional but complex brewing methods have been refined in Japan over the centuries.

The origin of Sake

According to the recorded data, the origin of drinking customs of alcoholic drink in Japan is presumed to date back to the 1000 B.C. But the reliable data showing the oldest Sake production was 700fs A.D in Nara period as written above, which is indicated in gHarima Fudokih. In ancient time, Sake production was confined primarily to the Imperial court and to large-scale temples and shrines only. Since then, Sake production has still been restricted to among notabilities in some district of Japan extending over 1000 years until the end of the second world war. Under such being situation, Sake was regarded as valuables and sacred offering to religious ceremonies and festivals throughout the times. Today, Sake still plays an important role in Japanese life and culture.

Types of Sake

Sake can largely be classified into the following four types by making processe, ingredient and quality:

Type Grade Character
Ginjo Extra Premium Sake with fragrant aroma created by ginjo yeast, which is made from quality rice highly polished down to 60% or under in weight of the original grain (50% or under in Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo).
Junmai Premium Sake brewed from quality rice and rice koji only.
Honjozo Premium Sake brewed from highly-polished quality rice polished down to 70% or under, adding mimimum quantity of distilled alcohol into brewing mash just before finishing fermentation.
Futsu-shu Regular / Standard Alcohol-added Sake with no detailed regulation on ingredient ratio and quality. A hint of acids and sugars are allowed to be added into Futsu-shu as seasonings. However, almost every recent Futsu-shu donft contain these additives any more.

In addition to above, you will often find the following indexes in Sake label showing parts of taste of the Sake for your reference:

Sake Meter Value (SMV: Nihonshu-do)
The value shows sweetness and dryness of the Sake.
` -6
(extra sweet)
-5 ` -1
(sweet)
}0
(neutral)
+1 ` +5
(dry)
+6 `
(extra dry)
Acidity (San-do)
This value shows sourness of the Sake.
` 0.9
(extra low)
1.0 `1.1
(low)
1.2 `1.3
(normal)
1.4 `1.5
(high)
1.6 `
(extra high)
Amino Acid Value (Aminosan-do)
This value shows content of amino-acids in the Sake.
` 0.9
(extra low)
1.0 `1.1
(low)
1.2 `1.3 (normal) 1.4 `1.5
(high)
1.6 `
(extra high)

How to enjoy Sake?

Sake can be enjoyed in various ways. Normally, recent full flavored Sake like Ginjo is considered to be suited for cold serve. Other types of Sakes are up to flavor of each Sake. Anyway, cold serve are recommended for first serving, and if you feel a bit unfavorable flavor in it, you cannot stop drinking. In that case, warm it up to room temperateure or body temperature so that the flavor turns so smooth and easy to drink, and which can easily paired with wide range of different cuisines.

The largest three Sake brewing regions in Japan

1. Hyogo prefecture (Nada area)

From a historical point of view, Nada has been situated in the domain of Harima(= former designation of Hyogo) where yields amount of quality Sake rice. And a semi-hard water so called "Miya-mizu" which is considered as the best water for making good Sake was found in the current Nishinomiya city of Nada area in the early 1700s. Making the best use of such features of location, large-scale production of Sake flourishes in the area and has been shipped to the capital Edo(= former designation of Tokyo) as "Edo Kudari Sake". As the result, Nada Sake has been ranked first in its output since then. Quality of Nada Sake in general feels full-body to medium body. Typical brands of which are Ozeki, Hakutsuru and others.

2. Kyoto prefecture (Fushimi area)

The second largest output after Hyogo(Nada area). The previous capital, Kyoto is famous for quality medium hard water called gFushi-mizuh which may merges with cool climate and produces Sake in large scale. Quality of Fushimi Sake in general feels dry to medium body. Typical brands of which are Gekkeikan, Shochikubai and others.

3. Niigata prefecture (Former Echigo Province)

Niigata is famous for the best rice cropping district in Japan and enjoys benevolent influence of cool and humid climate, and also quality soft snow water from mountains bring the best condition to Niigata for brewing premium Sake having elegant mouth feel. As the result, consumption of Sake per head in Niigata ranks first in Japan. The Sake from around 90 of micro-breweries excluding parts of middle-scale producers like Kubota and others are characterized by their meticulous attention to their semi-handmade production. Quality of Niigata Sake in general feels gTanrei-karakuchih which means glight, dry but eleganth. However some breweries like Hakuryu, Shiokawa also pay high attention to brew excellent full body Sake.

In comparison with France wine, Nada and Kyoto produced in large-scale are compared to Bordeaux. And Niigata, characterized in small-scale production, but with elegant Sake is compared to Bourgogne. The output of Sake in these three prefectures amounts to 70%.

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