Every now and then I lift my nose out of a wine glass and discover other beverages deserving attention, such as sake. The world of sake has been a mystery to me, so I jumped at an opportunity to take a class with John Gaunter, courtesy of Vine Connections, a sake importer. The class was in Las Vegas and, since I’m not much of gambler, I wasn’t distracted from my studies. This was fortunate, because Gauntner’s class was very intense with a lot of new vocabulary, covering a lot of territory and including a test at the end of the class.
John Gauntner is the only non-Japanese certified Master of Sake Tasting in the world, and has also achieved the very difficult Sake Expert Assessor certification from Japan's National Research Institute of Brewing. He is originally from Ohio, but has lived in Japan for the past 20 years. He speaks and reads Japanese and has authored several books about sake in English and Japanese. He established the Sake Education Council, which credentials those who pass the exam at the end of a seminar. He also has a couple of websites that are easy to find and interesting to browse, and is an effective and enthusiastic educator on the topic.
What is Sake?
So what exactly is sake? It’s an alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. Strictly speaking, it is not “rice wine.” Like beer, the carbohydrates in the rice grain must be converted to sugars that yeasts can ferment, converting sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide. Sake fermentation is unique among alcoholic beverages because both the conversion of carbs to sugar, and sugar to alcohol occur simultaneously. It’s called “multiple parallel fermentation.” The resulting beverage can have an alcohol level of 20 percent, the highest alcohol level of any naturally fermented beverages.
The main ingredients of sake are water, rice and koji, rice in which a mold, Aspergillus oryzae, has been cultivated. It is koji that converts the rice carbohydrates to fermentable sugars. Koji, which can also be made with soy beans or barley, is the backbone of Japanese staples such as miso, soya sauce or mirin. Koji is rich in enzymes, some of which break down protein into glutamate, giving food its umami flavor.
Since rice is the major ingredient of sake, it follows that it is a major contributor to the quality of sake. The best sakes are made with sake rice, which is different from table rice in that its carbohydrates are concentrated in the center of the grain surrounded in the outer part of the grain by proteins, fats and other compounds that can be detrimental to fermentation and create off aromas and flavors. Its appearance is distinctly different from table rice, with a small opaque, creamy colored center and a more transparent outer coating. There are several types o of sake rice providing different flavor profiles in the finished sake. That said, many sakes are produced from table rice.
More important than the type of rice is how much of each grain is milled away. Think again of the sake rice grain. Milling away portions of the outer layer lowers the amount of proteins, fats and other compounds that might contribute off aromas or flavors and a higher concentration of carbohydrates for the yeasts to convert to alcohol. It may drastically reduce the amount of rice available to make the sake, but the result potentially will be a cleaner, more delicate sake.
The largest percentage of sake produced is Futsu-shu, table sake. It represents more than two-thirds of all sake produced. There is no minimum milling requirement for this level of sake, pure distilled alcohol may be added to increase yields and much of the production is automated. Even so, there are undoubtedly many enjoyable Futsu-shu.
The remaining percentage of sake production includes the premium grades of sake, Tokutei Meisho-shu, which are defined by seimaibuai, which refers to what remains on the grain after milling. For some reason the milling rates for Junmai have been changed so there is no minimum milling rate, but that rate, whatever it is, at least in Japan, must be listed on the label. The first level in the Tokutei Meisho-shu includes Honjozo, Junmai, Tokubetsu Honjozo and Tokubetsu- Junmai. The seimaibuai has a maximum of 70 percent remaining on the grains, or 30 percent or more milled away. More care, craftsmanship and hands-on effort go into the making of these sakes. At this level and the following higher levels pure distilled alcohol may be added in small amounts at the end of fermentation to brighten aromas and flavors. Sakes labeled Junmai have not had alcohol added.
As Gauntner said more than once, if you just remember the word ginjo you will be in high quality territory. The highest levels are Ginjo and Junmai Ginjo,with at maximum 60 percent of the grain remaining, 40 percent milled away and Daiginjo and Junmai Daiginjo with a maximum 50 percent grain remaining, 50 percent milled away. Some kura may mill away as much as 70 percent of the grain, leaving a very tiny rice grain to be brewed into sake.
Snapshot of Sake Brewing Process
Sake is made by a complex process that starts with milling the rice, then washing it to remove rice powder, letting it soak to regain moisture, then steaming. At his point, a portion of the rice is sent to the koji room to be sprinkled with koji-kin and manipulated to encourage the growth of the mold for two days. Then another portion of the rice is mixed with water, prepared koji and yeast goes into the moto, or yeast starter tank. After two weeks, moving to a larger tank, more water and rice are added three times over four days, continuing to increase the yeast activity. The fermentation usually takes 20 to 30 days. The mash is then pressed, settled, filtered (or not), pasteurized (or not), then goes into storage in tank or bottle. Before the sake is bottled water is usually added to lower the alcohol and it may be pasteurized again. It is ready for shipping.
Kimoto and Yamahai and other Sake Terms
Any of the Tokutei Meisho-shu, premium level sakes, may have the terms Kimoto or Yamahai attached to their name. These terms refer to older, traditional methods of creating the moto. Kimoto was the original method of preparing rice for fermentation involving vigorous stirring of rice with poles or paddles. Yamahai came next when brewers figured out that adding water to rice and storing at higher temperature had the same effect without all the stirring. Some breweries, or kura, continue to use these methods with naturally occurring yeasts to create sakes with wilder, gamier aromas and flavors.
Other terms you may find on a bottle of sake:
Nigori is cloudy, because some of the lees are allowed to remain by using more coarse filter.
Nama is unpasteurized sake and must be refrigerated.
Genshu is undiluted, no water is added back to reduce alcohol.
Of Additional Interest
A date on the bottle usually indicates bottling date. If sake is stored in bottle rather than tank, the date indicates shipping date. Generally sake should be consumed sooner rather than later, although some kuras are purposefully aging sake. Premium sake is best enjoyed slightly chilled, but in the class we got to taste the same sake chilled and slightly warmed, and to me with that particular sake the warm one showed better.
Gauntner pointed out that sake is usually served in short porcelain cups or glasses, but noted that this is more a cultural choice. At the table you do not pour your sake, you pour for another person at the table and they, or someone else at the table pours for you. Having short glasses or cups helps avoid knocking glasses over. Nevertheless, white wine glasses work well for sake.
The best part of the class was tasting sake. We were provided sakes by quality level, milling level, rice types, yeast types, nama compared to pasteurized, examples of Kimoto and Yamahai, different press methods, different ages, an oddball group of sparkling, nigori, red rice, in different glassware, different temperatures and finally by region. This was definitely among the most intricate tastings I have ever been privileged to experience.
In the tasting by region I found that I preferred those from the northeastern part of the island moving west as far as Kyoto. They seemed to me to be more delicate and light. From the Kyoto Prefecture I particularly liked Gekkeikan Horin Junmai Daiginjo ($37, Sidney Frank Iimporting) with light floral, melon aromas and creamy mouthfeel. Kaiun Takatenjin Junmai Daiginjo from Shizuoka ($50, Vine Connections) was delicate, yet earthy with slightly sweet melon flavors finishing with a bit of spice. In the “oddball” group was an amazing aged, desert-style sake, Hanahato Kijoushu ($48 for 500 ml, VOS Selections, Inc.). It blew me away with a Madeira-like nose, nutty with a bit of citrus peel sharpness, sweet and creamy on the palate. A big standout in the Yamahai vs Kimoto group was Kikuhime Junmai Yamahai primarily for its balance. Its rich, malty, yeasty, resinous aromas and flavors were balanced with noticeable acidity.
The world of sake is full of interesting, exciting and delicious flavors that invite further exploration. Guides like John Gauntner help make the journey easier. Retailers and restaurants that specialize in sake offer opportunities for tasting and pairing sake with food. Maybe it’s time to further your sake education.