Sake is the New Flame in Beer
Sake is a beer. Yes, that’s right, a beer, because it is made from grain: rice and water are the sole ingredients, unless one counts the fungus (Aspergillus oryzae) that changes the nature of the starches in rice from unfermentable to fermentable. This fungal action takes the place of sprouting the grain’s seeds, as is done to convert barley’s grain starch to sugar for regular beer production. And, of course, there’s also another fungus in sake production: yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae var sake).
Japan’s Kyodo News Service in Tokyo reported last year that sake exports will continue their expansion for the 13th straight year. Nearly a third of Japan’s sake exports are aimed at the U.S. market, with the arrival of over 3 million gallons last year, at a cost of $34.8M, an 18 percent increase over 2007.
Across America, sake inventories have been expanding. It appears that our home-grown Japanese-Americans are avoiding sake while the rest of us are drinking more and more of it. It seems that Americans are actually buying the expensive premium brands rather than the cheap stuff. Moreover, we may end up drinking more of the beverage than they do in Japan, where the younger generation is eschewing their rich legacy of traditional sake.
Here in the United States, sake selection has been growing rapidly, with the arrival of many new (and expensive) brands. While it’s true that they are showing up mostly in traditional Japanese-related outlets, they are also appearing in non-Japanese venues: New York City, Chicago, Boston and Minneapolis. Nonetheless, U.S. West coast cities of Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and San Diego probably top the list.
I’m guessing here, but I think there are now close to 500 brands from mostly small and relatively rare kura (breweries) now found in major markets across the country. Small sake-bistros (the Japanese call them izakaya―sit-down bars), each offering upwards of 20 different brands, are now appearing in major market areas. In the major metropolitan areas around San Francisco Bay, for example, there may well be over 30 such bistros. These small establishments also present some fascinating side dishes, beyond just sushi, to accompany their sake offerings, in the fashion of Spanish tapas bars.
True, the expansion has mostly flowered in traditional Japanese stores, but it is also spreading to non-traditional outlets such as the Safeway chain, and even to local organic markets. In San Francisco, don’t miss Beau Timkin’s True Sake shop, maybe our nation’s sole “sake-only” retailer, offering over 150 different sakes for sale.
In the absence of a bar specializing in good sake, the reader should search for a Japanese ethnic restaurant offering a selection of at least ten bottled sakes visible behind the bar. Just sample a few (chilled is best) and see what appeals to you. But be careful. Sake may be a beer, but it’s not light: the alcohol level is usually in the 15-16 percent ABV range, somewhat higher than that of wine. A small one or two-ounce sample should be relatively inexpensive and enough to evaluate. If a particular brand seems appealing, then go to a retail outlet with a good sake selection and buy a bottle. Please note that in addition to being expensive, Japanese-produced sakes are usually sold in 720ml bottles, not the 750ml wine bottles we might expect, although they do look alike. This is not an example of wily Asians attempting to cheat the stupid foreigner but rather a manifestation of ancient Japanese volumetric measures (i.e. four gō).
Don’t expect much from the five American sake breweries; because, aside from Oregon’s SakeOne (www.sakeone.com), they are totally clueless in this business. Sadly, all of them, including SakeOne, still supply Japanese-American restaurateurs with those dreadful sake machines that heat sake to coffee/tea temperatures (160F/71C or more). Unfortunately, Americans have come to expect hot sake in Japanese-American restaurants, thus ruining the taste and killing all interest in home consumption of high quality sake by their clientele.
Are There Styles of Sake?
There are two main sake style-systems. Normally, sake is finished out at genshu (full strength, about 18-19 percent ABV), after which the brewer usually adds water to reduce the alcohol content to the expected 16 percent. This is something like what the Bud-Millers group does to their beer in a process called heavy brewing. It saves space in brewing and aging and with no loss of quality when diluted to the usual strength at the end. The resulting beverage is called Junmai-shu (rice only).
Unfortunately, some sake is treated differently. In the case of Honjozo sake, companies add extra water down to about 13 percent, and then a dose of brewer’s alcohol to raise the ABV back up to 16 percent. Although not really fortification, it has the effect of reducing the character and intensity of the sake, especially regarding the pH level, making it less acidic.
Not in my sake cup, however, I want the real thing. Fortunately, Junmai (rice only) sake is how almost all sake imported into this country is classified. If it says Junmai somewhere on the label, it’s OK, and even if it doesn’t say that, as long as it is not labeled Honjozo.
The second level of qualification is based on the rate of polish used in the rice. The more the outer layers of the rice are removed (fatty acids and crude proteins mostly), the higher the quality of the finished product. Dinner rice is polished to about 93 percent remaining, but most sake is brewed from rice polished until only 70 percent of the original grain remains.
The most expensive sakes are made from highly polished rice. Junmai ginjo, (rice-only singing brew) for example, is polished to 50 percent or less, while that labeled Dai-ginjo (“great singing brew”) is very highly polished; sometimes leaving only 25 percent of the original grain. That much polish often takes close to two day’s time in a small brewery! No wonder it is so expensive. Most of these are very small operations that have been in business since the eighteenth century or even longer. If it were wine produced in such circumstances, in France for example, we’d rush to buy it and never even think about the price. These fine Japanese artisans deserve an equal chance.
Another price-enhancing ferment is called Kimoto, a yeast culturing method dating at least to the fourteenth century or even earlier. This is the original and lengthy natural production method similar in concept to the spontaneous ferment used in Belgian lambic brewing. The rice mash, when ready, is allowed to develop naturally. A modern variant is called Yamahai Kimoto, which is not as lengthy, because cultured yeast is added directly. In each of these, the brewer waits for a natural Lactobacillus growth to reduce the pH, as necessary for a ferment after the yeast has appeared. This rather complicated system takes about a month longer to produce finished sake. Today most brewers add liquid lactic acid with a system (sokujo-moto) developed in 1909. As the reader may note, sake production is historically a very labor-intensive operation.
Finally, there is nigori saké This is what we beer people might call hefe-sake. Nigori is cloudy from coarse filtration, removing all but a little of the tiny milky white rice particulate matter. It is usually sweeter, too. Thus, nigori sake takes the place of dessert wine in dining situations. It works quite well in that role.
And of course, one can find sake that is not pasteurized; which is quite a prize, because almost all sake is pasteurized (since as early as the beginning of our modern era, and not later than 1000 c.e.), not once, but often two or even three times. It is this almost constant pasteurization that popularized the consumption of warm sake in public venues. Why was that? Because unpasteurized sake will definitely go sour if it is not refrigerated or pasteurized soon. The taste of sour sake will haunt you to the last days of your life―don’t risk it! Fresh, unpasteurized sake is called nama. But it must be kept under refrigeration from the brewery to the store where it is sold. If namasake is on the open shelf in a store; that will be proof enough that it is not actually nama. You search for genuine nama in a refrigerated case, where it is often found at genshu strength (around 17.5 to 18 percent ABV).
Some Brands to Look For
One of my favorites of these new sakes is Kasumi Tsuru (“the Crane”) Junmai Yamahai Kimoto Extra Dry. The primitive yamahai kimoto ferment provides unique character, which doesn’t give much perception of dryness due to its low total acid level. There’s some subtlety here with fruit character and caramel notes. Best at room temperature, or modestly chilled at about 57F/14C. Good with shellfish and such, $29 for 720 ml, and also in 300 ml at about $16.
Yaegake Mu (“Emptyness”) black label Dai Ginjo, with an almost whiskey smokiness character along with some pear on the nose. This is a long time favorite of mine at just under $50. Serve chilled.
Watari Bune Junmai Ginjo 55 has an interesting lineage. It comes from Ibaraki-prefecture above Tokyo in Eastern Japan. The “55” refers to the polish rate percent of the very special rice this brewery brought back to life. The Watari-Bune rice is the parent of Japan’s most famous sake rice, Yamada-Nishiki. Watari-Bune fell out of use in the middle of the last century, but was resuscitated by Huchu Homare brewery’s owner, Mr. Takaaki Yamauchi. In 1991, he obtained 14 grams (1/2-oz) of seedlings from Japan’s National Research Institute to grow enough seedlings for local farmers to revive the rice as a crop. This produced 430 gallons of sake for a gold medal in Japan’s national sake competition. This is one of the best sakes of this new wave, with luscious fruit hints. I rate it at 88. Costs about $39/720ml and $17/300ml. Their Junmai Daiginjo is even better (35 percent polish), but the $100 price tag is not particularly genteel.
Fred Eckhardt is the author of Sake (USA), long out of print (1992), on homebrewing sake. He probably drinks more sake than he should, but hey! a person’s gotta do what a person’s gotta do. He doesn’t drink sake and beer at the same time, rather he partakes of one first and then the other, and then the one....