Sake - Wine from Rice
Sake, at its simplest, is a beverage made from fermented rice, in a process that closely resembles wine making, but which is called brewing. In reality, it is a more complex process that involves multiple steps, and results in a great variety of different styles. It is strongly identified with Japan, where it has been made since the 4th century BC, at the time of the introduction of wet rice cultivation in Japan. There were precursors to what we know as sake in China, but it evolved into its modern form in Japan. Until the 14th century sake was largely home made, used for family consumption, or in various rituals of the Shinto religion It was in the 14th century that large scale, commercial production of sake began, leading to its prominence as Japan's most important drink. It is still largely brewed in Japan, although there are sake breweries found in China, Southeast Asia, South America, North America, and Australia.
The process begins with special types of rice, grown specifically for brewing sake. The starches that ferment to make sake are concentrated in the center of the kernel. Other compounds which would adversely affect the flavor are found in the outer coating of the kernel. To remove that outer layer, the rice is polished (sometimes called milled), to remove the outer layers of the kernel, leaving only the heart of the rice for sake production. Exactly how much is removed determines the “grade” or quality level of the finished sake. The rice is then washed and steamed to convert the starches to fermentable sugars. Water, yeast, and a special mold called Koji are then added to the rice, producing what is called “mash” to begin the fermentation process. As it ferments, more water and Koji are added. When the fermentation is complete, the mash is pressed, and the resulting sake is filtered and then aged for about 6 months before bottling. At the time of bottling, water will be added to adjust the final alcohol level downward to about 16%
The vast majority of sake is made from rice which has been only lightly polished. This is the “jug wine” of the sake world, called Futsuu, and accounts for 75-80% of the sake made. It often has pure distilled alcohol added to fortify it, as the natural starches are too dilute to make sufficient alcohol
Premium sake is divided into several classification based on degree of polishing, and whether any alcohol is added. In premium sake, the added alcohol is far less than in Futsuu sake, and is added to bring out, and highlight specific aromas and flavors. Junmai and Honjozu sake are made from rice that has been polished until the remaining kernel is no more than 70% of the size of the original kernel. Junmai and Honjozu differ in that Honjoze has added alcohol, while Junmai does not. Junmai and Honjozu account for about 15-20% of sake.
The next grade requires that the rice be polished to no more than 60% of its original size, and the resulting sake is lighter and more fragrant. Sake of this grade is called Ginjo. If no alcohol is added, it is called Junmai Ginjo. The finest grade of sake, the lightest, most complex, and most delicate is called Daiginjo. The rice for Daiginjo sake must be polished to no more that 50% of the size of the original kernels. As with Ginjo, if no alcohol is added, it will be called Junmai Daiginjo. Together, Ginjo and Daiginjo sake accounts for only about 5% of all sake produced, and they represent the finest achievements of the sake brewer’s art.
Sake can accomany a wide range of foods, depending on the sweetness and grade. Junmai and Honjozu, as the fullest of the premium sakes, can pair with the widest range of foods. The traditional Tempura, Sushi, and Sashimi cuisines of Japan are natural pairs, but in non Japanese cuisine, they can work with many dishes, exceptions being very strongly flavored foods, i.e. spicy, or very richly sauced meats. You can pair a sweeter sake of this type with creamy dishes, and reserve a drier style sake for crisper, less fatty preparations. As you move to Ginjo and Daigingo sake, their lightness and delicacy calls for a more delicate food match. Either is delightful by itself, but the food pairings are best kept with delicate, white fleshed fish preparations, seafood, and shellfish. As with any sake, too strongly flavored foods will overwhelm the ethereal quality of the sake.