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Brewed as early as 4800 B C in the Yangtze valley (now in China), sake has been the staple alcoholic beverage of Japan for centuries and once upon a time of Chinese too.

Although erroneously called a rice wine, sake is a beer. It is brewed, but few westerners can associate this clear still beverage with beer.

     Sake comes in a staggering array of qualities. Today the majority of sake production in Japan, but now Oregon, California and Australia host sake brewers taking advantage of low ingredient and labour costs.

     Sake has played and continues to play an important role in the Japanese culture and religion. It is used in almost all Shinto ceremonies, and served at weddings, at christenings of buildings, at the opening of new homes, or even when purchasing land.

When the Japanese obtained the sake recipe in 300 A D only naturally occurring yeasts could be used. There were no cultivated yeasts. Some clever Japanese then invented

 “ chewing-in-the-mouth sake “. It was a ceremony during which a whole village would gather to chew up rice, chestnuts and millet and regurgitate in to vats. Then yeast would start the fermentation. Later on bakers accidentally discovered the efficacy of yeasts, and over time invented techniques to preserve them for future use.

     Today sake is brewed using highly scientific and hygienic techniques, and the product by all accounts has a finer, more distinct and deep flavour.

     During and after World War II alcohol and glucose were added to rice mash, increasing yields by as much as four times. Today, only the least expensive sakes are produced this way. Quality sake brewers never add anything other than pure water (the best is hard water from Kobe prefecture in particular the Fushimi district in Kyoto, Japan’s former capital. Fusihimi’s biggest allure is water quality. It is rich in carbonates, phosphates and potassium and contains little iron that can degrade sake or manganese that can discolour it. Today many breweries chemically filter city water to get the desired balance), koji, yeast and rice. Of the 120 000 rice varieties, only 46 have been identified as suitable for sake production.

     Sake production starts with polishing the rice. Polished rice yields better sake. (Some brewers polish the rice down to 50 percent of its original size using only the “ heart “ of the kernel). After polishing, the rice is washed, soaked, and then steamed.

The steamed rice is processed through three different stages.

     The first stage is the production of koji. To produce koji, fungi spores (aspergillus oryzea) are first mixed into the steamed rice, which is then stored in a humid and warm room. After approximately 34 hours, the mixture turns to koji.

     The moto (base) represents the second stage of the production. Moto consists ogf blending koji, water, yeast and steamed rice. The moto matures in approximately two weeks.

     The third stage involves making of moromi (sake mash) by adding steamed rice, koji and water to the moto. The starch in the steamed rice is converted to sugar by the koji, while the yeast ferments sugar into alcohol

     In this way two processes – conversion of starch into sugar and fermentation of the sugar take place simultaneously. (Parallel Combined Fermentation System).

     The fermentation of the moromi is completed in about five days. The next step is pressing to obtain the first crude sake. The liquid is then pasteurised at low temperatures and allowed to mature for approximately six to twelve months.

During the maturing process samples are tested for quality and flavour.
Sakes are then blended to achieve uniformity and balance.

     Sake consumption is decreasing. Japanese drink now more beer, and hard liquor . Sochu, a crude Japanese alcoholic beverage, is gaining market share due to its low price. In 1988 there were 1800 brewers, now this number is down to 1500, and chances are it will decline even more, as larger organizations constantly take market share from smaller brewers.

     Daiginjo-shu is considered to be the best quality followed by ginjo-shu, tokubetsu honjozo, tokubetsu-junmai and junmai-shu.

High quality sake should be enjoyed chilled.

     Sake served lukewarm indicates the presence of minor taste flaws.

     Some experts claim sake to contain 400 flavouring agents (congeners) and knowledgeable tasters have developed 90 different words to describe aroma alone. Regardless, even an untutored and untrained palate can quickly learn to distinguish good from bad.

     Fine sake shows discernable balance between sweetness and dryness, pleasing acidity, bitterness, astringency and alcohol.

     Some are aromatic (may smell of apples, bananas, strawberries, melon and other fruits), and display a brilliant clarity with shades of yellow.

     It is best to serve sake in small ceramic cups called tokkuri (specially designed chilled glass flasks). If unavailable, tiny teacups or sherry copitas can be used.

     Sake evaluation is similar to that of wine. First evaluate the colour which can range from clear to light amber. Sake must be brilliant, newer dull. Then smell it to detect fragrance and aromas.

     Some sakes are more aromatic than others. In a few regions brewers eschew aromas and produce neutral smelling sakes.

     Now sip and hold it in your mouth while sucking air in to explode flavours and aromas.

     Expose sake to all parts of your tongue to determine its sweetness or lack of it, body, taste, astringency and texture.

     Exhale to determine secondary fragrances called fukumi-ka. You can now spit it or swallow. Write down your first impressions.

     Sake does oxidize over time but not as quickly as wine. It is advisable to consume sake fully once the bottle has been opened. Brewers bottle several sizes, from one serving to several litre containers. Most frequent bottle size is 750 ml.

     Sake generally contains 17 – 19 percent alcohol and goes well with fish, and vegetable dishes, particularly those of junmai quality.

     Grilled salmon or pork dishes are better with fuller styles such as Gekkeikan (world’s largest sake brewer with a history of more than 365 years and supplier of the Japanese royal household), Ozeki and Hakutsuru.

     Sweet, unfiltered sakes (Yamahai and Omachi) should be enjoyed as dessert.

     Sushi and sashimi are meant for high quality and refined sakes.
     Here is a list of small quality oriented sake brewers each offering two or three brands of different quality.

     Takasago Shuzo, Akita Seishu, Nanbuijian Co.Ltd, Yama Togawa Shuzo, Sudi Honke, Tentaka Shuzo, Kaetsu Shuzo, masuda Shuzo, Miyozakuro Jyozo, Daimon Shuzo, Yoshida Shuzo, Rihaku Shuzo, Imada Shuzo, Tenzan Shuzo, Tamanohikari Sake Brewery and Chiyonosono Shuzo.

Canadian liquor control boards offer a few commercial products. In Toronto and Vancouver many agents carry consignment sakes of superior quality.

LCBO’s Vintages division offers a few fine sakes from time to time.

Fine sushi restaurants and Japanese restaurants offer a wide variety of sakes.
Contacts John Gauntner
Takako Shibata
Mai Ly

Junmai- shu . The rice is milled to remove 30 % of the outer cover. The sake possesses a prominent acidity solid flavour and full-body.

Honjozo quality contains a small amount of alcohol added prior to pressing. It has a light flavour , but more fragrance than junmai-shu quality sake.

Ginjo-shu is brewed from rice kernels polished by 40%. This sake is light in flavour and tends to be fragrant.

 Daiginjo-shu : the rice is milled to remove 50% of the outer cover. It is very labour intensive and ultimately the sake costs more. The resulting sake is light and fragrant, because only the “ heart “ of the kernel is used.

Junmai daiginjo-shu is produced like daiginjo-shu but here no alcohol is added. This sake is more solid than daiginjo-shu but more subtle in taste. Many consider this quality level to be the epitome of the art of sake brewing.

Article contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu

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