Een crash course in sake

Japan in a glass

A crash course in sake

About sake

There are plenty of misconceptions around sake. It is incorrectly labelled as ‘ricewine’ or considered a spirit while it is not. Authentic sake is irresistibly charming thanks to its soft and elegant character. Sake comes from a long and rich tradition of artisanal craftmanship. The production of quality sake is even these days in the hands of family-owned breweries who have carefully constructed their knowledge and expertise over the course of centuries. It is this history that you can find in your glass.

What is Sake?

Sake is a Japanese fermented beverage made using four main ingredients:

  • Rice | the base ingredient and a source of starch
  • Water | added during various key stages in the production process
  • Kojikin | Aspergillus oryzae, a type of fungus whose main function is the conversion of starch to sugar
  • Yeast | the catalyst for the conversion of sugar to alcohol

The production process

Sake is an alcoholic beverage resulting from a fermentation process. Rice is polished and steamed. Part of the batch is set aside and ‘koji-kin’ is sprinkled on top of it. Koji-kin is a fungus that will convert the starch inside the rice grain to sugar. In the next step, the steamed rice is combined with the koji-rice, brewer yeast is added and fermentation kicks off. In a final phase, the sake is filtered, diluted and if desired pasteurized. Most sake will be about 15% ABV (comparable to certain red wines) with a few outliers up to 20%.

Sake categories

It is not easy to simply pick up a bottle of sake and know what you can expect in the glass. Luckily, the classification of premium sake can give you a couple of anchor points. The classification is based on two axes: the polishing ratio and the addition of alcohol.

The polishing ratio ‘seimaibuai’ will have a major influence on the sake’s taste. The starch that can be converted to fermentable sugars is located in the core of the rice grain. By polishing the grain, its essence appears and all other elements that may have an impact on flavor will be removed. In general, a sake’s finesse and purity increases with a higher polishing ratio.

Following fermentation, a sake brewer has the option to add a small amount of neutral alcohol. The goal is not to increase the final alcohol percentage, but to enhance the sake’s aromatic intensity as well as softening its character. If neutral alcohol is added, the term ‘Honjozo’ is used. Sake that does not contain any added alcohol, consisting only of rice, koji-kin, water and yeast, will be labelled ‘Junmai’.

What is sake not?

  • Sake is no spirit   |   Sake is a fermented beverage and there is no distillation involved
  • Sake is no wine | Grapes contain sugar which is directly converted to alcohol during the fermentation. Rice on the other hand contains starch, which will first need to be converted to sugar
  • Sake is no beer | For beer, barley is soaked in water to trigger germination, and malted in a next step to convert starch to sugar. Rice used for sake however, is polished, so there is no germ present
What is sake not

Sake woordenschat

Daiginjo – 大吟醸

sake with a polishing ratio of at least 50%

Futsushu – 普通酒

‘ordinary’ sake, sake that is not bound by the rules of only four ingredients, with the possibility to use additives

Genshu – 原酒

sake to which no water has been added to bring down the alcohol percentage

Ginjo – 吟醸

sake with a polishing ratio of at least 70%

Honjozo – 本醸造

sake to which a bit of neutral alcohol has been added, usually done to round out the flavor, not to significantly increase the alcohol percentage

Junmai – 純米

‘pure’ sake, made with only four ingredients: rice, water, yeast and kojikin

Kijoshu – 貴醸酒

sweet sake, made by adding sake instead of water during the fermentation stage

Kimoto – 生酛

The most traditional fermentation method, where the mixture of rice, koji and water was mashed to a paste, exposed to the air, in order to produce lactic acid from stray bacteria

Koshu – 古酒

aged sake

Muroka – 無濾過

Sake that has not been filtered

Namazake – 生酒

Unpasteurized sake

Nihonshu – 日本酒

The Japanese term used for sake

Seimaibuai – 精米歩合

The degree of polishing

Seishu – 清酒

A legal term used for sake

Sokujo moto – 速醸酛

The most common product method where lactic acid bacteria as well as yeasts are added before the fermentation

Taruzake – 樽酒

sake that has been aged shortly in cedar wood

Yamahai – 山廃

an ‘intermediary’ fermentation method, were the use of a bit more water as well as playing with temperature would help in triggering a natural fermentation

Events to follow soon!

Events to follow soon!

The Kanpai Club

The Kanpai Club

If you prefer discovering sake at a slower pace and throughout the year, our subscription formula ‘The Kanpai Club’ is the way to go. Every two months, you will receive a bottle perfectly matching the season’s mood, completed with foodpairing tips and other information.

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