SAKE (酒)

Sake is a Japanese word meaning "Japanese rice wine". It is also called Nihonshu 日本酒 or "alcoholic beverage". In English, this word has come to refer to exclusively to the former.

The word "sake" can also refer to different beverages in different regions of Japan. In Southern Kyūshū, sake usually refers to a distilled beverage, sweet potato shōchū (imo-jōchū 芋焼酎). Shōchū is a distilled spirit made with kōji-kin (麹 or 糀), Aspergillus kawachii. In Okinawa, sake refers either to shōchū made from sugar cane, or awamori (泡盛, literally "heaping bubbles"), or kūsu (古酒, literally "ancient drink").

The history of sake is not well documented and there are multiple theories on how it was discovered. One theory suggests that the brewing of rice started in China, along the Yangtze River and was subsequently exported to Japan. Another theory traces sake brewing back to 3rd century Japan with the advent of wet rice cultivation.

The combination of water and rice lying around together would have resulted in molds and fermentation. Regardless, the first sake was called kuchikami no sake, (口噛みの酒) or "mouth-chewed sake," and was made by people chewing rice, chestnuts, millet, acorn and spitting the mixture into a tub.

The enzymes from the saliva allowed the starches to saccharify (convert to sugar). Then this sweet mixture was combined with freshly cooked grain and allowed to naturally ferment. This early form of sake was likely low in alcohol and consumed like porridge.

This method was used also by American Natives. Chinese millet wine, xǐao mǐ jǐu (小米酒), made the same way, is mentioned in inscriptions from the 14th century BC as being offered to the gods in religious rituals. Later, from approximately the 8th century BC, rice wine, mǐ jǐu (米酒) with a formula almost exactly like that of the later Japanese sake, became popular in China.

Centuries later, chewing was rendered unnecessary by the discovery of kōji-kin (麹菌 Aspergillus oryzae), a mold whose enzymes convert the starch in the rice to sugar, which is also used to make amazake, miso, and soy sauce. Rice inoculated with kōji-kin is called "kome-kōji" (米麹), or malt rice.

A yeast mash, or shubo (酒母), is then added to convert the sugars to ethanol. This development can greatly increase sake's alcohol content (18%-25% by vol.); as starch is converted to sugar by kōji, sugars are converted to alcohol by yeast in one instantaneous process.

Kōji-kin was discovered most likely by accident. Kōji spores and yeast floating in the air would land in a soupy rice-water mixture left outside. The resulting fermentation would create a sake porridge not unlike the kuchikami no sake but without the hassle of needing a whole village to chew the rice. This porridge was probably not the best tasting but the intoxication was enough to keep people interested in making it. Some of this mash would be kept as a starter for the next batch.

Experimentation and techniques from China sometime in the 7th century AD gave rise to higher quality sake. Sake eventually became popular enough for a brewing organization to be established at the Imperial Palace in Kyoto, the then capital of Japan. This resulted in full time sake brewers, and these craftsmen paved the way for many more developments in technique. It was during the Heian Era (794-1185), that the development of the three step addition in the brewing process was developed (a technique to increase alcohol content and reduce risk of souring).

For the next 500 years the quality and techniques used in brewing sake steadily improved. The use of a starter mash or "moto" where the goal is to cultivate the maximum amount of yeast cells possible before brewing came into use. Brewers were also able to isolate kōji for the first time, and thus were able to control with some consistency the saccharification (converting starch to sugar) of the rice.

Through observation and trial and error, a form of pasteurization was also developed. Batches of sake that began to turn sour due to bacteria during the summer months were poured out of their barrels into tanks and heated. However, the resulting pasteurized sake would then be returned to the bacteria infected barrels. Hence the sake would become more sour and, by the time fall came around, the sake would be unpalatable. The reasons why pasteurization worked and how to better store sake would not be understood until Louis Pasteur discovered it some 500 years later.

During the Meiji Restoration, laws were written that allowed anybody with the money and know-how to construct and operate their own sake breweries. Around 30,000 breweries sprang up all around the country within a year. However, as the years went by the government levied more and more taxes on the sake industry and slowly the number of breweries dwindled to 8,000.

Most of the breweries that grew and survived this period of time were set up by wealthy land owners. Land owners who grew rice crops would have rice left over at the end of the season and, rather than letting this stash of rice go to waste, would ship it to their breweries. The most successful of these family breweries still operate today.

During the 20th century, sake-brewing technology grew by leaps and bounds. The government opened the sake-brewing research institute in 1904, and in 1907 the very first government-run sake tasting/competition was held. Yeast strains specifically selected for their brewing properties were isolated and enamel-coated steel tanks arrived. The government started hailing the use of enamel tanks as easy to clean, lasting forever, and being devoid of bacterial problems (the government considered wooden barrels to be "unhygienic" because of the potential bacteria living inside the wood). Although these things are true, the government also wanted more tax money from breweries as the wood in wooden barrels sucks up a significant amount of sake (somewhere around 3%) that could have otherwise been taxed. This was the end of the wooden-barrel age of sake and the use of wooden barrels in brewing was completely eliminated.

During the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905, the government banned the home brewing of sake. The reason being that, at the time, sake made up an astonishing 30% of Japan's tax revenue. Since home brewed sake is tax-free sake, the logic was that by banning the home brewing of sake, sales would go up, hence more tax money would be collected. This was the end of "doburoku" (home-brewed) sake, and this law still remains in effect today despite the fact that sake sales make up only 2% of government income.

When World War II erupted, the sake-brewing industry was dealt a hefty blow as the government clamped down on the use of rice for brewing. Most of the rice grown during this time was used for the war effort, and this, in conjunction with many other problems, was the doom for thousands of breweries all over Japan. Previously, it had been discovered that small amounts of alcohol could be added to sake to improve aroma and texture. But by government decree, pure alcohol and glucose were added to small quantities of rice mash, increasing the yield by as much as four times. 95% of today's sake is made using this technique, left over from the war years. There were even a few breweries that were able to produce "sake" that contained no rice at all. Naturally, the quality of sake during this time suffered greatly.

After the war, breweries slowly began to recover, and the quality of sake gradually went up. However, new players on the scene: beer, wine, and spirits, became very popular in Japan, and in the 1960s beer consumption surpassed sake for the first time. Sake consumption continued to go down, but in contrast, the quality of sake steadily improved.

Today, the quality of sake is at the highest it has ever been, and sake has become a world beverage with a few breweries springing up in China, Southeast Asia, South America, North America and Australia. More breweries are also turning back to older methods of production.

While the rest of the world may be drinking more sake and the quality of sake has been increasing, it is not clear sailing for the sake industry. In Japan, the sale of sake is still declining and it is uncertain if the exportation of sake to other countries can save Japanese breweries. There are currently around 1,500 breweries in Japan right now, whereas there were about 2,500 in 1988.

Sake is produced by the multiple parallel fermentation of polished rice. The process of milling removes the protein and oils from the exterior of the rice grain, leaving behind starch. A more thorough milling leads to fewer congeners and generally a more desirable product.

Multiple fermentation means that there are multiple steps in the fermentation process — the starch is converted to sugar by enzyme action, and then the sugar is converted to alcohol by yeast. This is typical of beverages created from starchy sources, such as beers.

Sake brewing differs from beer brewing in two significant ways. In sake brewing, enzymes for the starch conversion come from the action of a mold called kōji, but in beer brewing the enzymes come from the malt itself. In sake brewing, the multiple processes of fermentation occur simultaneously in the same step, while in beer these processes occur in different, serial steps.

After fermentation, the product is heavily clouded with grain solids and is generally filtered, except in the case of nigori sake. Generally, the product is not aged because consumers prefer the flavor of the fresh product, which degrades quickly in the presence of light, air, and heat. A few varieties of aged sake serve a niche market, however, and can be purchased for a reasonable price if one knows who and where to inquire.

In Japanese, a sake brewery is called a kura (蔵, "warehouse").

By varying the brewing process, many different types of sake can be created. Categorized by brewing method, there are several types of sake:

KIMOTO (生酛) is the traditionally orthodox method for brewing sake which has been in use for at least 300 years, though very rare today. The mash is hand beaten and made into a paste which then ferments.

YAMAHAI (山廃) is a traditional method of brewing sake introduced in the early 1900s, where the starter or "moto" is left for a month to allow it to sour. The method was originally developed to speed production time, however, now it is used to impart a higher acidity and complex flavors.

SOKUJO (速醸) is the modern sake which is made by adding a small amount of lactic acid to the mash to speed the production time. Sokujō sake tends to have a cleaner flavor than Kimoto or Yamahai.

NAMAZAKE (生酒) is sake that has not been pasteurized and is best served chilled, and may be made with any of the above ingredients, or brewing processes.

GENSHU (原酒) is supposed to be undiluted junmai sake, around 18-20% alc. by volume. Most genshu is honjōzō-shu to make it more economical, however, the method of sake brewing is growing in popularity among premium brands as well.

MUROKA (無濾過) means unfiltered. This type of sake is made as traditional seishu (i.e. not nigorizake), but does not go through the charcoal filtering, so there is a small amount of cloudyness. In recent years, muroka nama genshu sake is growing in popularity as it has a large enough flavor profile so that it can stand up to full flavored western foods.

NIGORIZAKE (濁り酒) is cloudy sake. The sake is passed through a very loose weave to separate it from the mash. It is of course not filtered thereafter and there is much rice sediment in the bottle. Before serving, the bottle is shaken to mix the sediment and turn the sake white or cloudy.

DOBUROKU (濁酒) is the classic home-brew style of sake and is traditionally a cloudy milky color, as the most delicious flavors are found in the white residue. Doburoku is created by adding steamed rice at the end of fermentation, starting a second fermentation and raising the alcohol level. It is also unpasteurized. Please note that although the kanji for doburoku and nigorizake are the same and both are opaque, they are in fact different styles of sake, with doburoku being the "chunkier" of the two.

By creating a starter-culture of micro-organisms, a higher-quality brew is possible. The starter-culture, called "moto" (酛) is stored at 5-10°C, allowing the lactic acid micro-organisms to become dominant in the culture. Lactic acid is important to flavor and preventing un-wanted infections. Subsequently, the rice, kōji, and water is added at three separate stages. The mixture is called moromi (醪 or 諸味), and grows the mass by three additions. By initiating a brew with a starter-culture, the subsequent batches to moromi also increase the alcohol levels slightly.

There are two basic types of sake;
FUTSU-SHU (普通酒) which are the "normal sake" and
TOKUTEI MEISHOSHU (特定名称酒) "special designation sake".

Futsū-shu does not qualify for any levels of special designation sake. It is the equivalent of table wine and is over 75% of all sake produced.

On the other hand the tokutei meishōshu or "special designation sake" is distinguished by the degree to which the rice is polished and the added percentage of jōzō alcohol or absence of such additives.

There are four types of tokutei meishōshu (actually six, due to mixing and matching the junmai and ginjō varieties).

HONJOZO-SHU (本醸造), with a slight amount of distilled alcohol added. The distilled alcohol helps pull some extra flavors out of the mash. This term was created in the late 1960s to describe the difference between it (a premium, flavorful sake) from cheaply made liquors to which large amounts of alcohol were added simply to increase volume and/or give it a high alcohol content.

JUNMAI-SHU (純米酒, literally "pure rice wine"), made from rice only. Prior to 2004, the Japanese government mandated that at least 30% of the rice be polished away, no alcohol added, if the sake was to be considered junmai. Today, it can represent any sake milled to any degree, that contains no additives or distilled alcohol.

GINJO-SHU (吟醸酒), rice weight polished to 50-60%.

DAIGINJO-SHU (大吟醸酒), rice weight polished to 50% or less.

The term junmai can be added in front of either ginjō or daiginjō if no alcohol is added to result in either junmai ginjō or junmai daiginjō. However, distilled alcohol often is added in small amounts to ginjō and daiginjō to heighten the aroma, not to increase volume, so a junmai daiginjō without added alcohol is not necessarily a better product than daiginjō. In fact, most brews that win the gold medals at the Hiroshima Kanpyōkai (one of the most prestigious judging events) cannot be called junmai due to the small amounts of alcohol added.

In addition, there are some other terms commonly used to describe sake:

KUROSHU (黒酒), sake using unpolished rice (brown rice), more like the Chinese production method.

KOSHU (古酒), aged sake. Most sake does not age well but this specially made type can age for decades, turning the sake yellow and giving it a honeyed flavor.

TARUZAKE (樽酒), sake aged in cedar barrels. The barrel aging gives this type its characteristic spicyness. Also refers to sake casks broken open for the opening of buildings, businesses, parties, etc. As the cedar barrels imparts a flavor, premium sake is rarely used for this type.

SEISHU (清酒), the official name for Japanese sake, but excluding nigorizake and doburoku.

TEI-SEIHAKU-SHU (低精白酒), sake with low rice polishing ratio.

Generally and traditionally, it has been said that the lower the number of "seimai-buai"; rice polishing ratio (see below) is, the better the potential of the sake is. This is true with the majority of sake still at the present of March 2007, but in these a few years, it has been started to design sake intentionally with high number of rice polishing ratio such as 80% and to produce characteristic flavour of sake in the end, mainly for scent of artless rice itself to remain in.
* shizuku-dori (雫取り), sake which is separated from lees without external pressure by hanging moromi bags and allowing it to drip slowly.
* tobin-gakoi (斗瓶囲い), sake which was pressed into separate bottles usually using the shizuku-dori method, each containing 18 liters. The resulting bottles permits the brewer to select the best sake of the batch for shipping.
* shiboritate (搾立て), sake which has been shipped without the traditional 6 month aging/maturation period. The result is usually a more acidic, "greener" sake.

Some other terms commonly used in connection with sake:

KASU(粕), the sake lees left after filtering, used for making tsukemono, cuisine (sakekasujiru, etc.), livestock feed, and for making shōchū.

NIHONSHU-DO (日本酒度), = (|1/specific gravity|-1) x 1443
Specific gravity is measured on a scale weighting the same amount of water at 4°C and sake at 15°C. This means the sweeter the sake is, the lower the number gets. When they started to work with the nihonshu-do 0 was the break even point between sweet sake and dry sake. Now this point is +3. Most sake varies in nihonshu-do between sweetest -30 to most dry +15

SEIMAI-BUAI (精米歩合), the rice polishing ratio, meaning the left over weight after polishing. Generally, the lower the number, the better is the potential of the sake. Tei-seihaku-shu don't fit to this traditional formula.

In Japan sake is served cold, warm or hot, depending on the preference of the drinker, the quality of the sake and the season. Sake is one of the few alcoholic beverages that is regularly consumed hot. Typically, hot sake is consumed in winter and cold sake is consumed in summer. As heating serves to mask the undesirable flavors of lower-quality sake, it is said that the practice became popular during World War II to mask the rough flavor of low-quality sake resulting from scarcity of quality ingredients.

The most common way to serve sake is to heat it to body temperature (37°C/98.6°F), but professional sake tasters prefer room temperature (20°C/68°F), and chilled sake (10°C/50°F) is growing in popularity.

Sake is served in shallow cups, called choko. Usually sake is poured into the choko from ceramic flasks called tokkuri. Other, more ceremonial cups, used most commonly at weddings and other special occasions, are called sakazuki. The influx of premium sakes has inspired Riedel, the Austrian wine glass company, to create a footed glass specifically for premium sakes such as ginjō and daiginjō. Drinking from someone else's sake cup is considered a sign of friendship, or to honour someone of lower status.

Another item used by some traditional sake drinkers is a box, called masu, traditionally made of Japanese Cypress. In some of the more traditional Japanese restaurants, as a show of generosity, the server may put a glass inside the masu (or put the masu inside a saucer) and pour until a large amount of sake overflows and fills this secondary container.

Aside from being served straight, sake can also be used as a mixer for cocktails, such as the traditional Japanese tamagozake sake cocktails known as saketinis, or the modern American drink sake bomb.

In general, it is best to keep sake refrigerated in a cool or dark room as prolonged exposure to heat or direct light will lead to spoilage. Sake stored at room temperature is best consumed within a few months after purchase.

After opening the bottle of sake, it is best consumed within 2 or 3 hours. It is possible to store in the refrigerator, but it is best recommended to finish the sake within 2 days. This is because once premium sake is opened, it begins to oxidize which noticeably impacts the taste. If the sake is kept in the refrigerator for more than 3 days, it is best to use it to prepare or cook food.

Sake is often consumed as part of Shinto purification rituals (compare with the use of red wine in the Christian Eucharist). During World War II, Kamikaze pilots drank sake prior to carrying out their missions. Today barrels of sake are broken open (Kagami biraki) during Shinto festivals and ceremonies or following sports victories: this sake (called iwai-zake, literally "celebration sake") is served freely to all to spread good fortune. Sake is also served during the light meal eaten during some tea ceremonies.

In the New Year Japanese people drink a special sake called toso.

Toso is a sort of iwai-zake. It is made by soaking tososan, a Chinese powder medicine, overnight in sake. Even children sip a portion.