Okay, this is the second week of our Asian food event and we have been enjoying a number of Chinese, Korean, Indian, Thai and Japanese recipes. However, I wonder how many of you have ventured into our beer & wine department and picked up a bottle of sake to try out a new taste to tickle you tongue? In our Western culture, sake does not play a very large role in beverage selections, but, as with exotic Asian foods, that has more to do with our lack of knowledge about sake than anything else. Let me arm you with just a little information and then encourage you to take a bold step, purchase a bottle, and experience sake for yourself.
If you check out our print ad, you will find that we have dedicated one page to describing our sake and Asian beer & wine offerings, so you can have some idea what you are looking at.
Sake is made from rice, water, yeast, and a mold known as Koji-kin, or Koji mold. But the land and the guilds of craftsmen who make the sake are also part of what gives each sake its unique flavor, aroma and taste. Here is a bit more about each of these “ingredients” -- although in truth, each topic could fill tomes.
The rice - There are nine different types of rice used to make Japanese sake, and each type yields specific flavor profiles. How sake is brewed and the water used are the other parts of the story. Finally, the degree of rice milling plays a major role in the final product.
The water - Sake in its completed form is about 80% pure water. The production process relies very heavily on good sources of pure water. The rice is washed, rinsed, and soaked before it ever gets close to the steaming process. Water is added to the fermenting process in the tanks along with additional of rice and koji (fermenting agent). Finally, a little water is almost always added at the end to bring the alcohol down from the naturally occurring twenty percent or so to around sixteen percent.
Yeast - Yeast in the production of sake is extremely important, as yeast influences many elements of sake taste -- most noticeably sake fragrance. And since our sense of taste is highly influenced by (if not dependent on) our sense of smell, this is crucially important.
Koji – The fermenting agent, which is steamed rice that has had koji mold spores cultivated in it. Koji creates several enzymes as it propagates, and these are what break the starches in rice into sugars that can be fermented by the yeast cells, which then give off carbon dioxide and alcohol. Without koji, there is no sake.
There are four basic types of sake, and each requires a different brewing method.
Junmai-shu: This can be translated as pure rice sake. Nothing is used in its production except rice, water, and koji, the mold that converts the starch in the rice into fermentable and non-fermentable sugars. Junmai-shu is made with rice that has been polished (milled) so that at least 30% of the outer portion of each rice grain has been ground away. The taste of junmai-shu is usually a bit heavier and fuller than other types, and the acidity is often a touch higher as well.
Honjozo-shu: A sake to which a very small amount of distilled ethyl (called brewers alcohol) has been added to the fermenting sake at the final stages of production. (Water is added later, so that the overall alcohol content does not change.) Honjozo, like Junmai-shu, is made with rice that has been polished (milled) so that at least 30% of the outer portion of each rice grain has been ground away. This, plus the addition of distilled alcohol, makes the sake lighter, sometimes a bit drier, and in the opinion of many, easier to drink. It also makes the fragrance of the sake more prominent. Honjozo often makes a good candidate for warm sake.
Ginjo-shu: This is sake made with rice that has been polished (milled) so that no more than 60% of its original size remains. In other words, at least the outer 40% has been ground away. This removes things like fats and proteins and other things that impede fermentation and cause off-flavors. But that is only the beginning: ginjo-shu is made in a very labor-intensive way, fermented at colder temperatures for a longer period of time. The flavor is more complex and delicate, and both the flavor and the fragrance are often (but not always) fruity and flowery.
Daiginjo-shu: Here the sake is ginjo-shu made with rice polished even more, so that no more than 50% of the original size of the grain remains. Some daiginjo is made with rice polished to as far as 35%, so that 65% is ground away before brewing. Daiginjo is made in even more painstaking ways, with even more labor intensive steps.
Now that you have all this knowledge at your fingertips why not pick up a couple bottles and see which type you like best.