Yesterday at the International Fair, I picked up a sake serving kit. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I didn’t know one blessed thing about this rice beverage. Research was needed…nay, demanded by myself.
“Self”, I said, as this is how I refer to myself…”Self, I need to know about sake. Do you know what this means?”
“Research, as always”, I responded, moping about my subsonscious.
“It also means drinking sake!” I reminded myself.
“Oh yeah!” I said, my mood elavating. It’s these brief conversations with myself encourging me to drink and eat that I have come to admire in myself. It has also appeared to have worried many of my close friends. That’s okay. They’ll get sake if they ask nicely enough.
There are somethings you do need to know about sake. For example:
- Sake is closer in relationship than to wine, as it’s a fermented grain, rather than a fruit. But it’s not carbonated, making it smooth as a wine. So it’s like beer, but not when it’s like wine. We’re also sure that it’s not vodka (i.e. A distilled spirit). In short, sake is it’s own beast.
- Most good Sake is best served chilled rather than heated. You want to serve it at just below room temperature, at approximately 55-65 degrees. Anyone serving you heated sake is probably serving you the cheap stuff, as heat tends to mask any of the less-than-refined flavors. But heating the sake also masks the subtle nuances that good sake can provide.
- Inevitable exception to the ‘must be chilled’ rule: There are some Sakes which do taste better warmed rather than chilled, specifically premium ginjo-shu. Note the phrase ‘warmed’. Read up on the types of sake to get a better idea if, when and how your sake should be warmed.
The more the rice was milled prior to fermentation, the higher the quality of sake…we think. As sake-world.com states:
“By milling the rice further and further, more and more of these unwanted fats, protiens, and nasties can be ground away before fermentation begins. This leads to cleaner, more elegant and more refined sake. It also allows more lively aromatics to come about.”
It sounds good to me.
Sake is best understood at a baseline where there are two different set. Alcoholic added sake and no alcohol added sake. Generally speaking, sake without alcohol added is of a higher standard than those with alcohol added as alcohol is sometimes used to (again) mask impurities in the cheaper sakes, or increase the yields. However, there are some sakes which add a little alcohol in order to help pull out more aromatic and flavorful compounds that are soluble in alcohol from the fermenting mash when the completed sake is pressed away from the unfermented solids.
From there, there are sub-sets of both the ‘No alcohol added’ and ‘Alcohol added’ sakes.(All taste descriptions come from sake-world.com)
Honjozo-Shu: Honjozo is sake to which a very small amount of distilled ethyl alcohol has been added to the fermenting sake at the final stages of production. Water is added later, so that the overall alcohol content does not change. Honjozo is made with rice that has been polished (milled) so that at least 30% of the outer portion of each rice grain has been ground away. This, plus the addition of distilled alcohol, makes the sake lighter, sometimes a bit drier, and in the opinion of many, easier to drink. It also makes the fragrance of the sake more prominent. Honjozo often makes a good candidate for warm sake. Note that most run-of-the-mill cheap sake has an excessive amount of brewers alcohol added to it, which is not good. Honjozo has only a very small amount of added alcohol.
Ginjo-shu:This is sake made with rice that has been polished (milled) so that no more than 60% of its original size remains. In other words, at least the outer 40% has been ground away. This removes things like fats and proteins and other things that impede fermentation and cause off-flavors. But that is only the beginning: ginjo-shu is made in a very labor intensive way, fermented at colder temperatures for a longer period of time. The flavor is more complex and delicate, and both the flavor and the fragrance are often (but not always) fruity and flowery.
Daiginjo-shu:Daiginjo-shu is ginjo-shu made with rice polished even more, so that no more than 50% of the original size of the grain remains. Some daiginjo is made with rice polished to as far as 35%, so that 65% is ground away before brewing. Daiginjo is made in even more painstaking ways, with even more labor intensive steps.
No Alcohol Added:
Junmai-shu:This can be translated as pure rice sake. Nothing is used in its production except rice, water, and koji, the magical mold that converts the starch in the rice into fermentable and non-fermentable sugars. Junmai-shu is made with rice that has been polished (milled) so that at least 30% of the outer portion of each rice grain has been ground away. The taste of junmai-shu is usually a bit heavier and fuller than other types, and the acidity is often a touch higher as well.
Junmai Ginjo-shu: A higher premium Junmai, brewed with labor-intensive steps, eschewing machinery for traditional tools and methods, using highly polished rice (at least 60%) and fermented at colder temperatures for longer periods of time. Light, fruity, refined.
Junmai Daiginjo-shu: The Highest premium Junmai, it’s brewed with very highly polished rice (to at least 50%) and even more precise and labor intensive methods. The pinnacle of the brewers’ art. Generally light, complex and fragrant.
Aha! So, now…time to buy some research!