Sakes vary in their level of sweetness, acidity, and priceRich and mellow, crisp and dry, or as floral as a perfume -- the wide-ranging flavors of sake, Japan's traditional rice-based alcoholic beverage, often surprises those who've experienced only futsu-shu -- mass-produced sake served heated in ceramic flasks. Premium sakes, frequently consumed slightly chilled in stemware to reveal their subtle nature, are known as jizake, which translates roughly as "country style." But for Japanese connoisseurs, the term implies much more.
Jizake makers employ time-consuming, detail-oriented procedures eschewed by futsu-shu producers. In some cases regional rice varieties, local water, and specific yeasts may contribute to a sake's individuality and distinctive flavor. Of the nearly 1,500 sake makers -- known as kuras -- scattered across all but one of Japan's provinces, most have been family-run for many generations. Now their sakes are finding a sophisticated international audience of devotees who are discovering their tantalizing nuances and low acidity, and how sake can equal wine in the way it enhances many foods.
An Elegant Evolution
For centuries sake (pronounced sah-KEH rather than sah-Kee) has been as central to Japanese life as the rice from which it is made. Bottles are placed on home altars for the delectation of the gods in the hopes that they will bestow good luck on the family. At traditional celebrations, a rite known as kagami-biraki, the bashing open of a sake keg with a wooden mallet, commemorates everything from weddings and housewarmings to company mergers.
Every Japanese schoolchild knows that the first sake was concocted by the god Susanoonomikoto, who used it to inebriate a fierce dragon before slaying him with his magic sword. The story may be apocryphal (although several present-day kura produce a "Dragon Slayer"-brand sake), but we do know, from transcriptions of oral histories, that Japanese villagers in ancient times figured out how to make a primitive form of sake. When wild airborne yeasts found their way into moldy rice and began to ferment, an alcoholic brew, closer to a milky white porridge than to the clear liquid we know today, became the drink of choice for festivities. The ancients soon concluded that the rice mold could be propagated and used to make subsequent sake batches. They thought the mold was a gift from the gods.Bowled Over: The zen of Japanese noodles
The brew's virtues weren't lost on the aristocracy, either. Just about the time wet rice cultivation caught on in the third century, it was noted in the Kojiki, one of Japan's oldest historical chronicles, that the Japanese imperial court commissioned a foreign brewmaster from China, where rice liquors were already enjoyed. Later the Engi-shiki, a written code on court behavior, informed of sake refinements in the 9th and 10th century. Although the stuff was still milky or yellow-colored, producers were beginning to strain the sediment. Sake was reserved for nobles and priests, but by the 13th-century, descendants of the court's sake makers had set up independent kura. At the time, 342 of them were open for business in Kyoto alone, and aficionados were already discriminating between the sakes of different makers.
It wasn't until the 16th century, with increasing technical advances, that sakes similar to those we have today began to evolve. Rice polishing, facilitated by the water wheel, resulted in a clearer, purer brew. Sake's stability improved vastly by heating it to 149 degrees Fahrenheit -- a pasteurization process, the Japanese love to point out -- in use 300 years before Pasteur made his famed discovery.
WWII changed modern sake considerably, but unfortunately not for the best. Rice shortages forced brewers to stretch their pure rice sakes by adding a good amount of brewer's alcohol and glucose. The practice denigrated sake but nevertheless, futsu-shus were widely consumed.
From Rice Grain to Sake
Sake, often called rice wine, is showing up in all types of restaurants -- not just Japanese ones. But because it's fermented from a grain rather than fruit juice, sake isn't technically a wine. As with grain-based beer, the process of sake making involves converting grain starch to simple sugars before fermenting them into alcohol. In sake brewing, a particular mold, koji-kin (Aspergillus oryzae), performs the conversion by releasing enzymes into cooked rice grains. This saccharification and then fermentation are sequential in beer brewing; in sake making, they occur simultaneously.
But the foundation for sake's fermentation is the critical interim step of making a starter mash (or pulp) known colloquially as the moto. The mash, made up of koji-infused rice, yeast, water, and usually lactic acid, ferments in a small tank for about 15 days. Alive with hungry yeast, the moto mash is transferred to large fermentation tanks along with plain cooked rice and water. Working in tandem, the koji breaks down the new rice starch while the yeast transforms the resulting sugar into alcohol. This method, termed multiple parallel fermentation, may be tricky to say after a few sakes, but the process magically yields a 20-percent mash alcohol content, the highest in any nondistilled beverage.
When fermentation is complete, brewer's alcohol may or may not be added to the mash. Next the sake is strained of its rice lees, filtered for clarity, blended with a bit of water to balance its flavor, and then pasteurized and bottled.
Aided by computer technology and machines, these procedures may be fully automated. Premium sake (jizakes), however, require many more intricate and time-consuming steps than this oversimplified explanation reveals. There may be delicate specialty rice that needs to be washed by hand, or slower, longer fermentation periods.
-- By Linda Burum
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