Everything I needed to know about Saké

Imagine life without alcohol. Civilization would drive us mad. We’re only human, after all.

– Michael Hoffman


The Japan Prestige Sake Association organised an evening of free-flow saké tasting to introduce various breweries and their premium products to Singapore. (There are over 1500 saké breweries in Japan, with 40,000 to 50,000 different brands). So, at the Fairmont Hotel, there was enough saké to satisfy the most ardent savant, bottles upon bottles upon bottles raised and ready to pour.

To a neophyte, the experience began with the kikichoko cups screen-shot-2016-10-30-at-11-02-00-amhanded out at the entrance, one per guest; each with a concentric blue and white design at the bottom, inside the cup; a design and hue chosen to enhance the appreciation of the color and clarity of the drink; while the cup’s wide mouth made possible a better awareness of the sakés fragrance.

Like grapes for wine, rice is the saké staple and this Japanese rice wine is produced by fermenting polished rice, sans bran.

Like grapes, the quality of the rice is paramount. Saké rice or sakamai is larger, stronger and has lesser protein compared to rice that is consumed. There are about 90 varieties of sakamai, of different grades and quality, and the terroir contributes substantially to their characteristics.

Alcohol from fermenting sugar in grapes produces wine, but saké is the result of brewing where starch from the rice becomes sugar before being converted to alcohol. There are several classifications and kinds of saké – complex and subtle – and it is the process, as always, that determines the end product. In its 2,000 years of production and consumption, the manufacture of saké has moved from experience and intuition to biotechnology and beyond.

Originally, after harvesting rice, farmers with no agricultural work over winter came together, each bringing a share of their rice crop, to spend six months making saké till the snow melted in spring. These brewers, known as Kurabito, came from families where methods of brewing were shared and handed down over generations. The master brewer – the Toji – is today the head of a brewery, responsible for the entire process, especially the fermentation of the mash or moromi, which determines the taste and fragrance of the saké.

To understand the weighty responsibility of a Toji, the diagram below gives, in some mind-blowing detail, the various stages of saké production.
img_20161030_0001Modern methods of saké production have moved beyond personal experience and technology to new age environmentalism.

  • One brewery plays classical music – specifically Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 and 41 – to encourage yeast activity during fermentation. Sound pressure being important, speakers have been installed on each barrel for the 30-day fermentation period, with music playing at 75~120db – as it was found to stimulate yeast activity and create a mellow taste with reduced astringency and bitterness. The Nagara-Gawa brewery plays ‘natural’ music – the sounds of a flowing river stream and bird calls – as one of the methods to add depth to the flavour of the saké during fermentation. 
  • Another manufacturer produces Space Saké using yeast that has been sent into space via a Russian Soyuz rocket. The yeast that spends 8 days in a space station has been found to have a refined and fruity flavor that sparks the imagination about space.
  • Yet another manufacturer, east of Kyoto, forsakes traditional yeast for yeast extracts from the petals of a special double cherry blossom native to the area. There are others who use yeast from flowers like the rhododendron and begonia.
  • popi140324Fifteen saké manufacturers participated in a quest for mellower tasting saké, placing bottled saké at a depth of 20 meters in the sea for half a year to promote ripening, on the premise that the delicate oscillation caused by the current would create a mellower taste. The jury, apparently, is still out on this one.                                             
  • Removing the bran from the rice grains is so critical that one brewery, the Daishichi, has developed a technology where rice grains are polished in equal thickness from the surface.

The poetry of the seasons extend to Japan’s rice wine. Seasonal saké match times of the year : the Hiyaoroshi is made from rice harvested the previous autumn, stored after pasteurization in spring, matured throughout summer and presented in autumn. The Shiboritate is an early spring draft saké, the Nama, a summer saké.

Given all this, how then does one evaluate a saké ?

If I sell my rags
And buy some sake
Will there still be loneliness?
So drunk
I slept
with the crickets!

                   (Santoka, translated by Burton Watson)

Satori (Zen for enlightenment) and haiku reveal the whole world in a single moment, a single experience … and so does saké , in a sip.

The descriptions are lyrical, elegiac.

  • It is like water that nourishes the heart (Shirataki Sake Brewery).
  • It is not arrogant but with profound appeal (Daishichi Sake Brewery).
  • This soothing, smiling liquor … (Emperor Ojin, 4th century A.D.)
  • Living only for the moment … singing songs, drinking sake, caressing each other, just drifting, drifting … ” — Asai Ryoi (1612-91), satirical novelist and Buddhist priest.

In more practical terms, it is worth keeping in mind that the flavour of saké changes dramatically depending on the cup from which it is drunk; it speaks to its umami (that fifth basic taste alongside sweet, sour, salt and bitter, meaning  ‘deliciousness’ in Japanese).img_20161030_0003

Like wine, saké can be served chilled, at room temperature, or heated, depending on the preference of the drinker, the quality of the saké and the season. Warm saké is usually served as a winter warmer, much like mulled wine.

Nihonshu-do, the saké meter value (SMV) is found on a bottle’s label, indicating the sweetness or dryness of the saké. Sweet saké registers a ‘-‘ and dry saké a ‘+’.

Store saké in a cool, dark place. Refrigeration is recommended, though not absolutely necessary except for unpasteurized saké. Once a bottle is opened, it is recommended that the saké be consumed within 2 or 3 hours, or refrigerated and finished over the next 2 to 3 days. Once opened, premium saké begins to oxidize and lose its flavour. If unfinished saké sits in a pantry or fridge for more than 3 days, it is best used for cooking.

And finally, there is no such thing as a vintage year for saké. It is not aged and is intended for consumption soon after purchase. (Some labels however, are aged deliberately).

Stored in a cool, dark place, a bottle will last from 6 to 12 months with no loss of flavour.

Some pictures by A A Thomas, others from brochures from the event. Additional information and picture of the submerged crate from http://web-japan.org/trends/11_culture/pop140324.html.

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