Saké, the national drink of Japan, is an alcoholic beverage brewed from rice. By strict definition, brewing from grains (such as rice) makes saké a beer. Rice in beer is shunned by serious brewers and beer lovers, so what’s going on here? Is saké simply light beer?
The same young people who have embraced Japan’s small but growing craft beer culture are beginning to look at traditionally brewed—craft-brewed—saké in a new light.
No. Saké, brewed for over a thousand years in Japan, makes the use of rice something entirely different and wonderful.
Unlike beer, saké is rarely conditioned, and hops and spices are absent. Only rice, water, yeast and an enzyme called koji are used. Even so, saké comes in a surprising range of flavors and styles.
In Japan, saké has been burdened with a dusty image—a drink tied to ritual and ceremony, as well as old-man drunkenness. In the past twenty years, however, there has been a revival of traditional brewing methods and the popularization of high quality saké. There are striking parallels to the renaissance of craft brewing in the U.S., Europe—and, recently, in Japan. The same Japanese who embrace good beer are also appreciating good saké.
A heightened interest in craft saké has taken place in the U.S., as well. Americans are increasingly shunning overheated, mass-produced saké—long a staple in Japanese restaurants—and are drinking saké brewed by small craft breweries. Craft saké is coming of age.
Saké—popularly called Japanese “rice wine”—isn’t wine. Saké is its own thing—a completely separate classification of an alcoholic beverage. “Saké isn’t some squirrelly Far Eastern variation on wine or beer,” said Chris Pearce, owner of World Saké Imports.
Saké is fermented rice: rice that’s been de-husked, polished, washed, soaked, steamed, worked on by enzymes, fermented with yeast and usually filtered and pasteurized. And that’s the short version of the saké brewing process.
There are close to 1,500 saké breweries (sakagura) in Japan and a handful in California and Oregon. These breweries produce many different styles of saké, with correspondingly different aromas and flavors. The types of rice, water and yeast used, as well as subtle or great differences in production methods, all contribute to the variations in saké.
The color of saké can be clear, faintly yellow, gold, amber or milky white. Aromas have been described by saké experts and writers, such as John Gaunter, Philip Harper and Beau Timken, as those of green apples, strawberries, melons, pears, honeysuckle, strawberries, chestnuts, bananas, floral and earthy.
Saké flavors incorporate some of the same descriptive terms as the aromas, and saké is often spoken of as either sweet or dry, with sourness and astringency present. Timken stresses that the sweetest sakés are never as sweet as a sweet wine. There are no sulfites present in saké, as in wine, and saké is stronger than wine, averaging 15 percent to 17 percent alcohol by volume. Some special sakés are 20 percent. Saké is also less acidic than wine.
“The ‘light and dry’ style of saké is giving way to full-flavored sakés,” Pearce said. “Saké brewers are going for a balance of sugars and acids.” Small, cutting-edge saké brewers in Japan are leading the way with new sakés.
As Americans learn more about saké, better quality styles have entered the U.S. market. Customers now know to order the best sakés served cold. More importers have appeared and bottle labeling has improved. Saké appreciation clubs have sprung up, such as the RKA Saké Club started by Benihana restaurant founder Rocky Aoki and his wife Keiko. Aoki calls saké “Water From Heaven,” which is also the title of his book on the subject.
A Little Saké History
Most historians believe that the first fermented rice beverages—the ancestors of saké—came from China about 6,800 years ago. Just as the Chinese gave the Japanese their first alphabet, saké also came to Japan, probably about 1,500 to 2,000 years ago. In early Japan, monks brewed saké, just as in early Europe, monks brewed beer and made wine. The use of saké in religious ceremonies parallels the use of beer and wine in the early Catholic Church. Some things are the same, the world over.
Eventually in Japan, as in Europe with beer and wine, private brewers began brewing saké in different regions of the country. Variations in types of rice and water led to regional differences in saké, along with brewing saké to accompany each region’s cuisine. Timken wrote in his book (co-written with Sara Deseran), Saké: A Modern Guide, that by 1575 rice polishing began and that by 1698 there were over 27,000 saké breweries in Japan. Again paralleling developments in Europe with beer and wine, Japanese industrialization furthered the production and distribution of saké.
In 1904 the Japanese government established the National Research Institute of Brewing (saké brewing, that is) and soon after, national saké competitions began. It was then that the formal classifications of saké began and in the 1930s, according to Pearce, that the first ginjo and daiginjo sakés appeared—exclusively for competition.
Timken wrote that saké first came to the U.S. in 1885 with Japanese plantation workers in Hawaii. There were some early saké breweries on the West Coast in the early 1900s—about 15, according to Timken—but these closed. U.S. saké production didn’t begin again until the 1970s. Timken said that in the 1970s Japanese saké breweries thought “the overseas markets represented a dumping ground for the saké that they themselves didn’t want.” However, this changed in the 1990s as the sushi craze swept the U.S. and Japanese saké breweries began to look overseas for increased sales.
For centuries, October to April was the traditional time period during which saké was brewed in Japan, with brewers taking advantage of the naturally cool weather before refrigeration was introduced. There’s also less airborne bacteria and wild yeast in the cold months, making open fermentation safer.
There are about thirty varieties of saké rice (saka-mai) that are used to brew saké, with new varieties appearing frequently. Saké rice differs from table rice in the size of the inner core of starch—the shinpaku—and the stalk averages six feet in height, as opposed to three feet for less expensive table rice. The most famous saké rice is yamada-nishiki, which derives from the ancient omachi rice, still used today.
Once the outer husk is removed from the rice, the kernels are polished to varying degrees to remove proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins. Modern polishing machines use vertical pivoted rollers. The activity heats up the rice, which is allowed to rest for 14-20 days.
Water makes up 80 percent of saké, and just as with great beers, the water source is of critical importance to saké brewers. Kobe and Kyoto were early centers of quality saké brewing because of their excellent water. Saké brewers look for potassium, magnesium and phosphoric acid in their water. They don’t like iron and manganese. Today, some of the best Japanese saké brewing areas are found in the Fushimi district of Kyoto Prefecture, Nada in Hyogo Prefecture, Hiroshima Prefecture and Niigata Prefecture.
Polished rice is soaked for a carefully measured amount of time (the more polishing, the less soaking) to soften the shinpaku for steaming, which opens the heart of the rice so the starches are exposed. Steaming also sterilizes the rice. The steamed rice is then cooled.
The rice goes to three places in the saké brewery: the koji room, the yeast starter tank and the large fermentation tanks.
The use of koji sets saké apart from other fermented drinks. The koji room is often referred to as the heart of saké making. This is a room traditionally made of cedar walls and ceiling that is kept warm and humid. Steamed rice is spread out on tables and sprinkled with the greenish-yellow powder called koji—aspergillus oryzae mold spores—that converts the starch in the rice into sugars that will be fermented. This process takes approximately 35 hours and skilled workers continuously monitor the rice, stirring and mixing the koji rice by hand.
The yeast starter tank—moto—sits in another part of the saké brewery. This tank is where steamed rice, koji rice, lactic acid and yeast are combined. The Japan Saké Brewers Association maintains a national yeast bank of at least 17 distinct saké yeasts. They are simply labeled as Saké Yeast #1 through #17. Not all these are still in use. There are some variations on these yeast strains, and some saké brewers are experimenting with new yeast varieties, such as wildflower yeasts. All quality sakés list their yeast on the bottle label.
Eventually, all the koji rice and the rice from the yeast starter tank are added to the large open fermentation vessels—the moromi—over a period of four days (skipping an addition on day two). The master saké brewer—the tohji—controls the flavor, aroma and body of his saké, taking measurements and adjusting temperature. Distilled water is also sometimes added to the moromi tank.
This process of brewing saké is known as multiple parallel fermentation. The difference from beer and wine making is that saccharification and fermentation take place at the same time.
Fermentation takes from 15 to 35 days. When finished, saké is usually pressed to remove the liquid from the rice lees. The remaining cakes of saké lees are called saké-kasu and are used for cooking. Saké can be pressed in modern large machines that resemble accordions or in older-style boxes in which the wet fermented rice is placed in cotton bags. An older method—shizuku—is to hang the bags of wet rice and allow the saké to slowly drip into a vessel.
Most, but not all, sakés are filtered and pasteurized and allowed to age for three to ten months. Sometimes sakés are blended and water is added to adjust flavor and aroma. There is usually a second pasteurization before bottling.
An older style of saké brewing that is still used by some saké brewers is the yamahai method. This is a process in which airborne lactic acid is allowed to “infect” the rice in the moto, similar to traditional lambic beer production in Belgium. Yamahai sakés are described as rich and deep in flavor. In the more modern production method of introducing lactic acid bacteria in the moto, lighter and more aromatic sakés are created.
Although the highest quality sakés are usually best enjoyed cold, heated saké, called kan, is still enjoyed by many. Saké is first poured into a ceramic flask called a tokkuri, which is placed into hot water. The Japanese have several terms for heated saké, depending on its temperature, which ranges from about 75 degrees Fahrenheit to a blistering 140 degrees (only suited for the harshest sakés). Hot saké is drunk from a small cup called a choko. Experts agree that dry sakés are best suited for heating.
Cold saké is served in clear glass or a traditional masu—a square cedar box, which is often lacquered. Masu are the original measuring cups for a portion of rice—180 ml. In Japan, saké bottles are usually either 720 ml (four masu servings) or 1.8 liter (10 masu servings). It’s the larger bottle that is most often poured from at a saké bar. In authentic saké bars and restaurants in Japan and the U.S., a glass of saké is placed in a masu or a saucer. The saké is poured into the glass and allowed to overflow, thus giving the customer a bit more than the measured serving.
Saké cocktails have become popular in recent years, with the sakatini heading the list in popularity. In his book, Timken lists recipes for over 20 saké cocktails. Snacks eaten while drinking saké are called sakana and the small, cozy saké pub is called an izakya.
When saké is encased in a wooden cask wrapped in a rush mat, it’s called komokaburi. These casks are ceremoniously opened with a huge mallet at special personal and business events for good luck. Such a ceremony is called a kagamibiraki.
When buying saké for drinking at home, the bottles should be stored in a cool, dark location. The fridge is best, especially if the saké was purchased at a store that kept the saké cold. Once opened, it should be drunk right away, but will keep for a few days if kept tightly closed and in the fridge. Saké doesn’t go bad as quickly as wine.
Saké bottles sold in the U.S. may be the traditional Japanese size of 720 ml, but are often also 300 ml (a single serving, usually sold in a restaurant). U.S. saké brewers often use the more common wine bottle size of 750 ml.
The labels on saké bottles are a wealth of information, although usually written in Japanese. Included on the labels are the alcohol by volume, the yeast type, the percentage of rice polishing, the amino acid level, the acidity, the bottling date and the saké meter value. The date may be based on the common calendar or the Japanese calendar (based on the Imperial reign). The saké meter value (nihonshu-do or SMV) measures the relative sweetness or dryness of the saké. The scale usually runs from about -3 to +10, but may be higher or lower. Negative numbers indicate sweetness; positive numbers dryness. The “neutral” point on the saké meter value scale is not zero, but +2 or +3, because sakés have become drier in recent years. Many factors affect the sensation of dryness or sweetness on the palate, such as the saké’s acidity, the type of brewing water used and the temperature of the saké. Saké experts such as Timken and Gaunter caution that the SMV should only be used as a rough guide.
The Future of Saké
Besides the fuddy-duddy image saké has for some young Japanese, there’s another drink that heavily competes with saké in Japan—shochu. This is an alcoholic drink distilled most often from sweet potatoes, rice or barley. It’s not as smooth and delicate as saké. Last year, sales of shochu outpaced saké in Japan for the first time ever. Timken said that many saké brewers have responded to the shochu attack by brewing sakés that are sweeter, fruitier, lower in alcohol and sparkling. He calls these “New World Sakés” and expects them to become successful in the U.S.
According to Pearce, there are at least 10,000 different sakés being produced today and close to 200 of them are currently available in New York and Los Angeles. The bulk of saké sold in the U.S.—80-85 percent—is domestically brewed. There are four saké breweries in California and one in Oregon. The biggest difference between Japanese and U.S.-brewed saké is that domestic brewers don’t use true saké rice. It’s not commercially grown in the U.S. and is prohibitively expensive to import.
Saké imports to the U.S. have doubled in the last ten years, Pearce said, with 2,993,240 liters imported last year. To put that in perspective, he added: “For every glass of saké consumed, Americans drink 160 glasses of wine.”
Timken, who owns True Saké, the first American retail store (in San Francisco) dedicated exclusively to saké, said that in the U.S., the unfiltered nigori style of saké is the style that appeals to many first-time saké drinkers. “It’s fluffy white and sweet,” he said, “a novelty that is a good starter for saké drinkers.” Nigori is 50 percent of Timken’s sales. He said customers then move to other sakés. “Whatever brings them to the saké table is okay with me.”