Sake ABC: How It’s Different from Wine

Sake and wine are often compared to each other. They are similar in the way they are brewed, have similar alcohol content of about 14-16% on average, and are often enjoyed by pairing with foods, but there are some fundamental differences. If you know their different features, you can enjoy both beverages and make your dining experience richer.

Regional Features: Climate, Water and Food Culture

What factors do you think of when choosing wine for dinner, a party or a nightcap? You might think in terms of either white or red, production location, grape variety, cuisine you will eat and price range. That can easily narrow it down for wine, but when it comes to sake that might not be the case.

Unlike wine that is made from locally produced grapes, sake is not always made from locally produced rice. There are a handful of rice varieties optimal for brewing sake, and they cannot be produced everywhere in Japan. For example, a brewery that experiences a cold winter is great for brewing sake, but not for growing sake rice. So breweries that can not grow those varieties buy them from other regions. However, in many regions, brewers and farmers are trying to develop sake rice varieties that can be grown in their local soil. These efforts have paid off, as we see more and more craft sake made from regional rice. However, the majority of sake production, especially for higher grade sake, requires sake rice varieties grown in specific regions.

What determines the regional flavor of sake is often water. Each brewery uses local water, which is usually sourced from underground. The mineral content and water quality are closely related to the soil of each region, just like the concept of terroir for good wine. Also, the climate of the region affects the flavor. Sake brewing takes place from autumn to winter, and the temperature during the brewing process influences the way rice ferments, and ultimately produces sake of different flavors. It is just like agricultural produce that is affected by the weather.

But probably the most important factor to know about as consumers is regional food cultures. Each brewery has usually developed sake flavors in order to accompany what the local people eat. Although there are many national brand sakes meant for national consumption, most of the craft sake brewed locally is produced to be paired with local food. The sake market is still too small to be sold by region in liquor stores, but if you are really into sake you can start checking the origin of production on the back of the label or check regional features online before buying it. In general, as Japanese cuisine focuses on seafood most sakes go well with seafood dishes. As Western food and ethnic food influences are currently seen in Japanese cuisine, more and more breweries produce sake for those cuisines. This is the realm of sake sommeliers, and it is fun to ask them about these unconventional marriages.

Rice Milling (Polishing) Rate and Drinking Temperature

It has nothing to do with regional differences, but you need to know that rice milling rate affects the flavor of sake, and this is something wine does not have. The more they mill, meaning the size of the remaining rice is smaller, the more the sake tends to have a cleaner taste and more flagrant aroma. The milling rate number indicates the size of the remaining rice, so the smaller the number the more it is milled. The classification of daiginjo, ginjo and others are determined by the milling rate. (For the classification, see the next page.)
Another way it is quite different from wine is that sake has a wide variety of drinking temperatures. Unlike wine, which is enjoyed chilled almost all the time, sake can be enjoyed chilled, at room temperature, lukewarm and hot. Each sake has its own best temperature at which to be enjoyed, and the recommended temperature is indicated on the bottle’s back label. There are some sakes that are good at any temperature, showing different flavors as their temperatures change. These types of sake are perfect for accompanying course meals from beginning to end, even without putting them in an ice bucket to chill all the time.

Sake Glossary

When you delve into the world of sake, you will come up with terminology you are not familiar with. Here are the ex- planations of the sake glossary that will help you enjoy sake more.

Daiginjo: One of the factors that de- termines the flavor is the degree of rice which is polished off. Sake classified in the daiginjo category has less than 50% of the original rice grain remaining. The “percent of remaining grain size”, “seimaibuai” in Japanese, is an important indication of how a sake will taste. The lower the number, the smaller the grain. In general, sake with a smaller number is more fragrant, elegant, and better to be consumed chilled.

Ginjo: The same formula applies for the ginjo category. This is sake whose “percent of remain- ing grain size” is less than 60%, which means that more than 40% of the rice grain has been milled away. Some distilled alcohol might be added.

Junmai: Literally meaning “pure rice,” jun- mai refers to sake brewed only from rice, water, and rice koji, which has no extra alcohol added during the brewing process. This type of sake tends to retain a solid rice flavor.

Brewing junmai daiginjo is more difficult and requires a higher level of technique; therefore, it is generally con- sidered the highest quality of sake.

Junmai Ginjo: If a sake is labeled jun- mai ginjo, it is made from only rice, water and rice koji. The rice is milled to more than 40%.

Honjozo is sake whose “percent of remain- ing grain size” is more than 60% and less than 70%, and has some added distilled alcohol.

Muroka means “not fine filtered with char- coal,” and it retains the freshly squeezed sake taste. Skipping either the pasteurizing or filtering process or both, it allows the rice’s richness to remain in the aroma, flavor and sometimes color of the sake.

Nigori is a coarsely filtered sake which has left the unfermented portion of the rice, giving the sake a cloudy white color or chunks of rice floating inside. Since the rice is still working in the sake even after being bottled, some nigori are spar- kling. Just be careful when you open it!

sake production pro- cess, hi-ire (heat pasteurization) takes place twice, once before storing the sake, and once before bot- tling, in order to inactivate kobo yeast. Since nama or nama-zake is made from skipping either one or both of these steps in the pasteurization process, kobo yeast is still active in this kind of sake. Na- ma-zake needs to be stored in a refrigerator.

Kimoto is one of the oldest traditional methods used in sake brewing. This system uses lactic acid bacteria that is naturally cultivated in the sake instead of using artificial ones. It requires a much longer time to make and requires more steps and labor as the bacteria are cultivated by hand. Although it’s extremely difficult to carry out this process, sake employing kimoto style has a solid body and a distinct flavor, the way all sake used to taste.

Yamahai is a short form of “yamaoro- shi-haishi-moto.” This style is quite similar to kimoto in terms of the process. Its name comes from the elimination of one of the processes called “yamaoroshi,” the most difficult part of kimoto style brewing. Yamahai style sake tends to be high in acidity, full-bodied, deep and rich.

Milled (polished) sake rice waiting to be steamed (left), and the process of stirring moromi to keep the temperature consistent in the tank. (right). Photos courtesy of Nanbu Bijin Brewery

Milled (polished) sake rice waiting to be steamed (left), and the process of stirring moromi to keep the temperature consistent in the tank. (right). Photos courtesy of Nanbu Bijin Brewery

Sake made in “kimoto” or “yamahai” style is often best enjoyed hot.

Share on Facebook1Tweet about this on Twitter