How To Get Into Japan's Gift To The World, Sake

Illustration for article titled How To Get Into Japans Gift To The World, Sake
Photo: SAKE 36
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In the past few months, in the wake of after several sets of video game-themed sake being announced, I’ve been getting questions from people who are interested in learning more about the Japanese drink.

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Walking into a sake shop or ordering it from a menu can be daunting. First, there’s an array of kanji that, depending on the character, can be even hard for Japanese to read. (Though, thankfully, for Japanese speakers and students alike, many of the kanji characters that do appear on sake labels are rather common! Getting into sake is indeed a good way to learn Japanese). Then, there might be a whole range of industry lingo, terms, and specs covering the labels that can seem impenetrable.

What’s one to do? You just want to enjoy sake!

This month, my book The Japanese Sake Bible will be published, and in it, I go into the history, culture, and brewing process in-depth with exclusive interviews and insights. It has over 100 tasting notes from sake sommelier Takashi Eguchi and a foreword by famed musician Richie Hawtin, who recently launched his own curated sake establishment, SAKE 36. So if you are interested in learning more, definitely pick it up!

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If you’ve been to Japan, you’ll know how much sake is available—for folks who drink alcohol, it truly is one of the best things the country has to offer, and I really want to help get the word out about it. In my experience, what I’ve found is that people outside Japan who know sake, really, really know sake. They’ve studied the drink intimately and understand it. What I haven’t seen, however, is a general, working-knowledge fluency among a wider audience like with other alcoholic drinks. Sake is too darn good to be a niche drink outside Japan! It deserves its place as an international beverage like beer, wine, and whisky.

Casks of the excellent sake brand Sensuke.
Casks of the excellent sake brand Sensuke.
Photo: Brian Ashcraft

One of my favorite things about sake is the range of flavors you can find in your cup. Some sakes are fruity and others are grassy, while some sakes have strong milky nuances, and others have savory, soy-sauce like notes, and others have flavors you’d find in whisky.

But where do these flavors come from? Sake is not distilled but brewed from rice, water, koji, and yeast (there are certain types that also added brewer’s alcohol, which will be discussed in greater detail in another section).

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Koji is rice that has been sprinkled with koji-kin spores, creating a sweet rice that’s needed for the yeast to make the necessary alcohol conversion. Koji-making is one of the most important steps in making all types of sake, not just junmai. If this step in the process is screwed up, it can negatively impact the flavor. I always think of koji being like the skeleton or backbone of a sake and then the influence of the yeast, the water, and the rice can fill out the flavor profile.

Nishida Shuzo, Aomori Prefecture.
Nishida Shuzo, Aomori Prefecture.
Photo: Brian Ashcraft
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There are lots of different yeasts used in the sake industry, which can impart certain aromas and flavors, like fruity and floral notes.

Water impacts not only fermentation but also mouthfeel. Hard water leads to a robust fermentation, and one of my favorite sake brands Kaze no Mori from Nara uses its local hard water to make a lively, fresh sake with wonderful minerally nuances. That’s the influence of the water. Niigata’s soft water, for example, helps brewers create the softer sakes from which the region has become famous.

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Yamada Nishiki sake rice polished to 40 percent.
Yamada Nishiki sake rice polished to 40 percent.
Photo: Brian Ashcraft

Rice is, of course, very important, but there is often some confusion about its impact on sake. There are those who try to make broad, sweeping statements about how certain grains impact flavor. There are so many variables in making sake, that it’s hard to make a one-to-one equation with using certain types of rice—stating that if you use a certain type of rice, you get certain types of flavors. Granted, types of rice do taste different. The polishing rate also impacts the rice. Plus, the same rice grown in various fields in the same region do taste different. But it’s best to think that certain kinds of rice lend themselves to particular flavor profiles. However, but by simply assuming all the flavors are from the rice, that makes the role of the brewer passive. I’ve heard sake brewers say that 80 percent of wine is the grapes, but 80 percent of sake is the brewer. (For whisky, I’d say between 70 and 80 percent of the flavor is from the cask influence during maturation.) The role of the brewer is very important! They make discussions throughout the process that impact the final sake.

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Brewing styles change over time. Decades ago, Niigata was making sake that was similar to Kobe’s sweeter styles. But the brewer’s there became perfecting the drier style from which it’s now known. Regions are known for particular styles but they are not necessarily limited by them. Moreover, not only do regional styles change, but thanks to brewing technology that’s evolved over the centuries, sake itself has, too. The sakes are today are different from sake a hundred years ago and different from sake two hundred years ago. It’s evolved as tastes and technology has changed—and will continue to do so.

Illustration for article titled How To Get Into Japans Gift To The World, Sake
Photo: SAKE 36
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SOME TYPES OF SAKE (AND HOW TO DRINK THEM)

Some sake is very light, while others are robust and heavy. Let’s discuss some basic categories so that the drink can be enjoyed and understood by people just getting into the brew. Realize that there are other types that I go into greater detail in my book but here I’m omitting intentionally and that are waiting for you to discover.

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Brewing junmai-shu at the Miyoshino Sake Brewery in Nara.
Brewing junmai-shu at the Miyoshino Sake Brewery in Nara.
Photo: Brian Ashcraft

Junmai-shu (純米酒): Literally, “pure rice sake,” this is sake made from rice, water, koji, and yeast. Junmai is the oldest style of refined sake. From earthy and full-bodies to refreshing and light, there’s a massive range in junmai sakes. It’s often good to look at the polishing ratio—or how much of the rice grain has been polished away. If the polishing ratio is low, then more of the grain has been removed, and typically (but not always!), the result can be a fruity and floral sake (more on the below). If less of the grain is removed and the polishing ratio is high, the result is often sake with more body and robust flavors. There are exceptions, however, as brewers can achieve flavors through other means, such as the yeasts or aging. Personally, I find it easier to drink junmais and not get hangovers, but that’s just me!

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Junmais can run the whole gamut of serving styles. If it’s a nama (unpasteurized), perhaps you’ll want it chilled. But junmais are also often good at room temperature or warmed.

Note that nama-zake (unpasteurized sake) can be a segment within the larger sake categories junmai, honjozo, ginjo, etc.

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Honjozo-shu (本醸造酒): Translating as “true brewed sake,” this style is made with rice that’s been polished to at least 70 percent and contains a limited amount of brewer’s alcohol. While there are some sake fans who only drink junmai and turn their nose up at any alcohol-added sake, do know that honjozo sakes typically win the most accolades at the Annual Japan Sake Awards, with sake brewers praising honjozo’s easy-drinkability. It’s not easy to make, as the technique of adding the brewer’s alcohol at the right time during the brewing process is incredibly difficult. Junmai sake tends to have more body than honjozo brews, because the added alcohol in honjozo makes the sake lighter and sometimes even smoother. Junmai can be a bit chewier, which should be kept in mind when pairing food. Honjozo is different in character than junmai, and the fact that both styles exist makes sake a much more interesting and dynamic drink.

As with junmais, honjozo-shu is good in a variety of different ways.

Ginjo-shu (吟醸酒): This is sake with at least a 60 percent rice-polishing ratio. What does that mean? That means that 40 percent of the grain has been removed, leaving sixty percent of the rice. What does this matter? Simply put, removing more of the outer layers of certain types of sake-brewing rice lends itself to making fruity and floral type sakes. (Of course, other techniques, like using specific yeasts also come into play!) In sake, this signature fruity and floral aroma is called ginjo-ka or “ginjo aroma.” Because so much of the grain is removed, brewing ginjo requires more rice, and this makes these types of sake more expensive. Keep in mind that if a ginjo can have added brewer’s alcohol or it can be “pure rice” version if it’s referred to as a “junmai ginjo.” The term ginjo refers to the polishing ratio and not to whether or not it contains added brewer’s alcohol.

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Daiginjo-shu (大吟醸酒): “Great ginjo sake.” This is rice with at least a 50 percent rice-polishing ratio. It’s not uncommon to see daiginjo with much lower polishing ratios, which, in turn, is typically reflected in the price. Daiginjo sakes are often the most expensive because, as with ginjo-shu, more rice is needed. But that does not mean the ginjos are the best. Do not judge sake on price, but flavor.

As for drinking, these days, it can often seem like ginjo-shu and daiginjo-shu default to chilled. But don’t be afraid to explore drinking the ginjos at different temperatures!

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(Note: For the above categories, shu, which means “sake,” can be dropped when referring to each. For example, a “junmai-shu” might simply be called a “junmai.” Also, be aware that there are sakes with high polishing ratios that are not daiginjo or ginjo sakes but still have fruity and floral flavors. Brewers can still achieve those notes through their use of yeasts and other techniques.)

Futsushu (普通酒): “Normal sake” aka “table sake.” This is mass-produced sake that also contains other additives, including sugar. While often inexpensive, don’t be a sake snob about futsushu, because Japan also makes some truly delicious stuff. Typically, for most futsushu, I personally drink it at room temperature or warmed—though, there are some brands I like chilled.

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Some sakes are referred to the yeast starter used to make them, most notably kimoto and yamahai, which are discussed below. 

Kimoto (生酛) and Yamahai (山廃): Around ten percent of all sake is made with either the kimoto or yamahai yeast starters (kimoto is one percent, while yamahai is nine percent) to cultivate the necessary lactic acid bacteria. As seen below, kimoto is the most physically taxing method, with brewers ramming poles into the mix. (Yamahai omits this step.) The remaining 90 percent of sake is made with sokujo-moto, a process in which lactic acid is simply added.

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Making kimoto starter at the Daishichi Sake Brewery.
Making kimoto starter at the Daishichi Sake Brewery.
Photo: Brian Ashcraft

Often kimoto and yamahai are described as having different flavor profiles, with yamahai being referred to as a bit more “wild.” But this isn’t always the case, and there are exceptions. Some breweries only occasionally do kimoto or yamahai, while others might specialize in one or the other, saying their preferred method lets them achieve the style of sake they want.

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When it turns to fall and winter, kimoto and yamahai sakes are often truly amazing warmed up.

But Wait, Shouldn’t I Drink Everything Cold?

My advice is to think seasonally. Today, even in Japan, the default for so much sake is cold. If you order sake in a restaurant, it’s often kept in a fridge, and then enjoyed chilled. Some sake is best that way! Some is not. But, most important of all, in Japan, food is seasonal. People eat cold noodles in summer and then hot stews in fall and winter. Brewer after brewer has told me how odd they find it seeing people drinking cold sake in the dead of winter.

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So when it’s late spring and throughout the summer, drink something that’s good cold. Nama-zake is the perfect summer drink, I think. Chilled ginjos are great, too. But as we move into fall and winter, think about drinking heavier sakes—kimotos and yamahais, which are often excellent at room temp or heated up, are often ideal. One of the most enjoyable things about sake, however, is the range in which certain brews can be served, which can lead to new discoveries. Kyoto brewery Kinoshita Shuzo releases a summer seasonal nama-zake called Ice Breaker. The assumption would be that this sake would be best cold, and since the brewery released it at a high alcohol by volume strength and hasn’t cut it with water prior to bottling (as is common), you could even drink it over ice.

Kan-zake has gotten a bad rap because in the past, heating up sake was seen as a way to smooth out a rough brew. That’s not really the case these days, with hot sake being just another way you can enjoy your brew. If you have a sake set, then it’s easy to heat up your tokkuri flask in a pot of hot water. If you don’t, put some sake in a coffee mug and heat it up that way (do not heat up bottles of sake in the microwave as the metal caps could spark!).

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As for cups, I personally to default to sake cups because glassware, especially wine glasses, seems to inspire a different drinking style, where you’re nosing the brew and judging the top aroma notes. Some excellent sakes don’t have strong aromas, and the favorites come through while drinking. If a sake is highly aromatic, then, yes, I will probably drink it in a wine-type glass. This is merely my preference. If you don’t have a sake cup, a tumbler will do the trick or, yes, a wine glass will, too, as well.

Shoutoku Shuzo in Kyoto’s Fushimi.
Shoutoku Shuzo in Kyoto’s Fushimi.
Photo: Brian Ashcraft
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About Food Pairing

But what should you eat with sake? The default is that sake goes with Japanese food. Generally, that’s true—though, some sakes actually aren’t very good with Japanese food! This is also part of the fun. If you’re drinking a light Niigata style sake, it might be best with fish or vegetable dishes. If it’s a savory sake from the Nada region in Kobe, then you might like it best with cheese. Some sakes have good acidity and are perfect with meat.

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Fruity and floral daiginjo and ginjo sakes tend to perform well lighter food, but can also work well with meat, pasta, and fish. Do be careful with highly aromatic sakes around fish as they can overpower the food. Junmai-shu, especially the more robust types, are good with steak, burgers, and savory Japanese food like chicken teriyaki. The kimoto and yamahai styles are nuanced and versatile and hold their own with a wide range of food. They’re not ideal for a dessert drink; they go better with the main meal. Both shine in the cooler seasons, because these brews typically are good at room temperature and heated.

As with serving, pairing sake opens up a whole spectrum of possibilities. That’s part of the fun, and the appeal. Experiment, have fun, and enjoy Japan’s gift to the world. Kanpai!

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Pre-order The Japanese Sake Bible right here.

Rice fields in Wakayama Prefecture.
Rice fields in Wakayama Prefecture.
Photo: Brian Ashcraft
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In case you missed it, check out this look at sake brewing in The Ghost of Tsushima. If you are in Berlin, swing by Richie Hawtin’s SAKE 36.

Originally from Texas, Ashcraft has called Osaka home since 2001. He has authored six books, including most recently, The Japanese Sake Bible.

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DISCUSSION

Also worth pointing out that what we in the West call “sake” is actually “nihonshu” in Japanese. If you go to a bar in Japan and order “sake” you’ll most likely be served a beer, as “sake” simply means “alcohol” in Japanese!