For Goodness Sake

ice is an inert starting material for fermentation, yet sake, and related rice drinks, is made across the globe in astounding amounts. How does this work? When one brews beer, the malt (i.e. partially sprouted grain) contains proteins (enzymes) that cleave single sugar molecules off of the backbone of rigid starches. Without the scissor-like toil of such enzymes, yeasts would have nothing to eat; they wouldn’t be able to excrete their waste product, our beloved alcohol. In short, brewing beer without those enzymes would be impossible. Rice, as a starting material for brewing, is like malt in the fact that it is also full of starches and has no free sugars. Unlike malt, however, rice doesn’t contain any enzymes that can free up and provide yeast with the sugary fuel of fermentation. Some perceptive individual, many, many years ago discovered the solution—a mould named Koji. The sake-making process starts with the aggressive milling of special sake rice grains, which differ markedly from regular food-grade rice. The degree of milling, in fact, is the single most important characteristic that determines not only the price, but also the flavours, aromas and quality of all sake. Milling is vital as it sloughs off the outer layers of the rice (that contain proteins and minerals, which would produce unwanted flavours during fermentation) to reveal a small heart of pure starch. These virgin starch balls are carefully steeped, steamed and then subjected to mould. The Koji spores attack the rice with two sets of precision chemical cutting tools. The first enzyme scythes the starches into smaller segments, which then enable a second enzyme to slash single sugar molecules off of those fragments. This process is repeated numerous times, under the watchful eye of the master brewer, who must keep a tight balance between such enzymatic swordplay. Next, fermentation can begin with specially selected, suicidal legions of fungi trained to devour those freshly emancipated sugars. A short lifecycle is complete when the yeasts excrete their waste product of pure alcohol, and then expire.

Mold spores, microbial swordplay, liberated sugars and peppered grass. Sound familiar? We didn’t think so. But Keith Hoffman does the dirty work to bring us the goods on sake.

Not quite. Sake is not a wine, as wines are made from the fermentation of sugars derived from fruits. The sake-making process is more akin to beer brewing. The end alcohol content, however, is much different with sake having ethanol concentrations between 12 and 20 percent. And premium sake should be enjoyed cold. The steaming-hot stuff served in sushi bars is universally low-grade swill.

Like sushi, sake was invented in China. Both delights were, however, perfected and taken to obsessive, cultural and delectable heights in Japan. Most of the sake you are likely to encounter will be Ginjo grade or above. Until recently, Ginjo was exceptionally rare, as it was only made for Japanese competitions and not sold to consumers. Only during the last 20 years or so has Ginjo been widely produced and sold. To make Ginjo, a number of age-old processes have disappeared or been highly modified. Wood storage and fermentation vats are no longer used, completely different strains of yeast are employed, different rice is used and the milling process now routinely results in grains being reduced down to 40 to 50 percent of their original size. One can often hear faux connoisseurs wax on about how the ‘ancient techniques’ employed in Japan produce sakes that are obviously far superior to, for example, the excellent efforts of the American sake industry. Well, when you hear that, take it with a lot of salt, as the modern methods used by both are equally young.

È Although

invented in China, sake was perfected in Japan where it is enjoyed in all manner of settings. generally brewed at lower temperatures, allowing delicate smells and taste to materialise. As discussed, the extent to which the rice is milled is the single largest determining factor of sake quality. Ample milling provides the brewer with a rice heart of pure starch, free from any impurities that could impact negatively on the flavours and aromas produced during the brewing and ageing process. If complexity of aroma is what you like, then ask for the Ginjo style that emphasises smell over taste, known as ‘kaori ginjo’. A Ginjo made to focus on flavour, rather than aroma, is the other main type, ‘aji ginjo’.

The deceased moulds, yeast carcasses and vacant rice remnants are eventually filtered away. Now, the savoury components created during this microbial epic can develop and mature. And how. In fact, sake allegedly contains more orders of magnitude and flavours than even the finest wines. Thank you Koji, we will remember your name. KNOW YOUR… SAKE TERMS Japanese sake labelling, product names, brands, etc. can be hard to figure out. Further complicating all this is that some vendors disagree about where a brand name ends and a product designation begins. In short, learn the basics below, try them all, find out what you like, and then just simply ask a knowledgeable shopkeeper or waitress for it verbally.

• Daiginjo. Super premium sake, with rice

milled down to just 40 to 50 percent of its original size. It features all of the greatness of Ginjo, and more. Either one of the first two terms can be mixed and matched with one of the last two terms in various sake recipes. For example, one can enjoy a Honjozo Gingo, a Honjozo Diagingo, a Junmai Ginjo, or a Junmai Diaginjo, with the latter being the ultimate, and most expensive, of all sake. Other terms you might run across are ‘Nama-sake’ and ‘Chozo-sake’. Nama is completely unpasteurised (most sake is pasteurised right before bottling to help preserve it), fresh as can be from the brewing process, and even contains living yeasts. It is, therefore, prone to spoil fast so drink it quick! Peppery and grassy notes dominate. Chozo can be thought of as a ‘semiNama’ sake. Like Nama, it’s stored without pasteurisation, but it does endure one round of heating to semi-preserve it. The idea is to be

• Junmai. Sake is made only with rice, water

and Koji, period. Junmai delivers everything that is good about sake: body, acidity, flavours, layers, aromas and richness. The essence of sake.

• Honjozo. Made with rice, water and Koji, but

also has the addition of pure alcohol after the regular Junmai-style brewing process is over. The addition of alcohol was once used as a cost-saving ploy during WWII, when supplies of rice were legally restricted to food uses only. In modern days, it’s used as a way to enhance the aromas and mouth feel of certain sakes. Honjozo provides an aromatic and smooth sake, with hints of minerality (which I love in sake as well as wine). Finally, Honjozo is renowned for a clean, sharp finish.

• Ginjo. A premium sake, with rice milled down
to at least 60 percent of its original size, this is

able to ship it, but still capture those unique Nama tastes and aromas. One final word you are going to see to describe a sake style is ‘Nigori’. This simply means ‘cloudy sake’ as the brewer has purposefully not filtered out some of the spent rice solids. Nigori sake can range from a small amount of rice and lees to an almost cottage cheese texture. The flavours and aromas of Nigori are less elegant as the lees and rice overpower most nuances. Iwai-zake? A term you should trot out if you find yourself in Japan. To be asked to a native who knows how to party, as this is a special sake. Iwai is served directly from a newly split barrel, to be enjoyed during raucous celebrations.