SAKE - THE NIHONSHU SAKE GUIDE

INTRODUCTION

origine et elaboration

Considered ‘the drink of the gods’ by the Japanese, nihonshu sake, a fermented Japanese alcoholic beverage, has become an important symbol of Japanese culture. Made from rice, water, ‘koji-kin’ (a mould which secretes enzymes) and yeast, sake is generally served during a meal.

JAPANESE ALCOHOLIC DRINKS – A NEW TREND?

The choice of traditional Japanese alcoholic drinks is rich and varied. They are a result of over a thousand years of experiments and cultural exchanges with Japan’s neighbouring countries. Like its refined, high quality gastronomy, Japan has developed its own distinctive drinks culture. Enriched over the centuries, it has become one of the symbols of national identity. However, for a long time Japanese alcoholic drinks (including nihonshu sake) remained unknown in Europe, unlike Japanese cuisine, which has been very popular for a number of years. Sushi, sashimi, teppanyaki and yakitori are no longer considered particularly exotic by Europeans! For a long time the Japanese people, more reserved than other nations, were quite happy to keep their ‘liquid treasure’ to themselves. But today this unusual, subtle alcoholic drink has become widespread in Europe, even in remote regions. Why such a sudden passion for this drink? This is due to the growing number of high quality Japanese restaurants found in cities and the emergence of a new generation of consumers, seeking authentic gastronomic experiences. Another factor that needs to be taken into account is that, as in France, Japan’s level of alcohol consumption is falling. Producers are having to focus more on tradition and the creation of luxury products, which they are now quick to offer on the export market.

NIHONSHU SAKE, THE NATIONAL ALCOHOLIC DRINK, PAR EXCELLENCE

Although the Japanese have always considered nihonshu sake as part of their country’s culture (‘nihonshu’ means ‘Japanese alcohol/wine’), it was only officially recognised as the National Alcoholic Drink (‘Koksushu’) in 2012. This public designation has a two-fold significance: it emphasizes the importance of this alcoholic drink in the country’s economy and culture, while also acknowledging the often laborious work of the producers. it underlines the unique character of this beverage, thus facilitating its international distribution

RICE, WATER... AND SAKE

Nihonshu sake is an alcoholic drink made from fermented rice. The types of rice used are different to those grown for eating. They are cultivated in specific areas that are acknowledged for their quality, but often a long way from where the sake is actually brewed. The many different rice types are classified according to a strict official system. Why is there such strict control? The final characteristics of the sake depend on three key factors: the quality of the rice and its polishing ratio the quality of the water the brewer’s expertise Since rice keeps for a long time and can be transported over long distances, whereas water only remains fresh for a short period of time, the breweries tend to be near to good quality sources of water. The rice may be transported from very far away, with the most reputable coming from the regions of Hyogo, Okayama and Niigata. These produce several different varieties of rice, including: Yamada Nishiki, Gohyaku-mangoku and Miyama Nishiki. Although certain nihonshu sakes can be vintage-dated, this is still very rare. However, the majority of sakes have the brewing date on the bottle. This highlights a system that places greater value on certain areas and vintages, and which is just as complex as those for wine.

DEFINITION

Nihonshu sake is Japanese fermented beverage (like beer), and is made from rice, water, ‘koji-kin’ (a mould which secretes enzymes) and yeast. It has an alcohol content of approximately 15% and is generally served during meals. Considered ‘the drink of the gods’ by the Japanese, it has become an important symbol of Japanese culture.

NIHONSHU SAKE: RECIPE IN SIX STAGES

1. Rice preparation: polishing, washing and cooking

The first stage entails washing the rice to eliminate as many of the fats and proteins as possible located near the surface of the grain. The remaining part (between 30 to 80%) is called the ‘seimaibuai’ and concentrates all the starch in the grain. Once it has been washed – in some breweries this is still done by hand – the rice is then steamed.


2. Kome-koji propagation

Koji (aspergillus oryzae) is a mould frequently used in the traditional cooking of Eastern Asia, particularly in the preparation of miso and soya sauce. It is also used in the production of nihonshu sake to convert the starch present in the rice grains into fermentable sugars. Without this process, the yeasts would not be able to produce alcohol. The use of koji appears to be fairly simple, but in actual fact it requires in-depth knowledge of both traditional and scientific techniques: sprinkled over roughly 20% of the rice (isolated in a room where the temperature is carefully controlled), it propagates, converting the starch into glucose within 48 hours. The rice on which the koji propagates is called ‘kome-koji.


3. Production of shubo

The ‘shubo’ (or ‘saké mother’) is a culture which increases the presence of yeast and continues the conversion of starch into glucose. The Kome-koji is mixed with water, yeasts and cooked rice. This mixture increases the production of glucose, encouraging the yeasts to multiply and the culture to gain acidity (to protect it from airborne bacteria). A reduced version of the final product is obtained. The alcohol content is already around 10%, but its production is strictly controlled: at this stage, it can jeopardize the multiplication of the yeasts.


4. Brewing and fermentation

Once the shubo is produced, it is added – like a spoonful of yoghurt to hot milk – to the vats; water and the remaining rice is then added (rice that has been cooked but not yet affected by the koji). This stage requires four days, the time it takes for the koji to convert the starch into sugar and for the rapidly multiplying yeasts to convert the sugars into alcohol. As these two processes occur simultaneously, this is called ‘multiple parallel fermentation’: a phenomenon unique to nihonshu sake, through which alcohol can reach up to 22% (the maximum level authorized by Japanese legislation). But to produce a sake that tastes well-balanced, the more traditional producers prefer a lower alcohol content. The period of fermentation can vary, depending on the quality of the nihonshu produced and the techniques used. However, it generally lasts between 20 days (for the simple honjozo and junmai) to 40 days (for dai-ginjo and junmai dai-ginjo), at temperatures ranging from 8 to 15°C. If the nihonshu being produced is a honjozo-type sake, it is at this point that the distilled alcohol is added (before pressing).


5. Bottling preparation: pressing and filtering

Once the alcohol has been produced and its maximum (or ideal) strength has been reached, the liquid has to be separated from the ‘kasu’ (made up of dead yeast, koji and any rice that is still solid). This is an essential stage since nihonshu sake cannot be legally sold in Japan without being pressed beforehand. The legal designation for nihonshu sake in Japanese is ‘seishu’, which means ‘clear alcohol’. ‘Doburoku’ refers to a non-pressed sake.


6. Preparing for sale: filtration, pasteurization, bottling and storing

Once the nihonshu sake has been pressed it is, theoretically, ready to be drunk. However, like wine, it is common practice to ‘perfect’ the sake to improve its final taste. Since the pressing process by which the sediment is extracted from the liquid is fairly rudimentary, many producers carry out a standard filtration. They then dilute their nihonshu sake using pure water to reduce the alcohol content. Pasteurization is also a standard procedure among most producers, since it prevents the nihonshu from re-fermenting or turning sour in the bottle. Pasteurization can be carried out by passing the sake through pipes immersed in hot water, but the higher quality producers only pasteurize after the nihonshu has been bottled. It is even quite common to pasteurize twice: once in the bottle (or just before) and a second time just before the nihonshu is released onto the market. As is the case for many wines and spirits, the most popular sakes are generally those that have not been pasteurized, reduced or filtered.

NIHONSHU SAKE, A REFINED, COMPLEX PRODUCT

TWO CATEGORIES: WITH AND WITHOUT ADDED ALCOHOL

Junmai 純米

The word ‘Junmai’ means ‘pure rice’, this is applied to a nihonshu sake produced only from rice, koji, yeast and water, whose alcohol content comes from a 100% natural process.



Honjozo 本醸造

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Honjozo originates from the Edo period (1603-1868). These are nihonshu sakes to which distilled alcohol has been added to conserve certain volatile aromas. Since this fairly recent technique is often used to increase the alcohol content artificially, and the use of alcohol produced outside of Japan is permitted, the majority of the traditional producers only make junmai ‘pure rice’, using more traditional techniques.



THREE CLASSIFICATIONS WITH DIFFERENT DEGREES OF POLISHING

The nihonshu classification is determined by its ‘seimaibuai’: the percentage by weight left of each rice grain after polishing. The lower the percentage, the more the grain has been milled, resulting in finer, a more elegant sake. Superior quality nihonshu (the most renowned and most popular with connoisseurs) varies from 70 to 23%. This quality range is divided into three different groups :

Junmai ou Honjozo 純米/本醸造

Sake produced from polished rice grains which have been milled to 70-60% of their original weight.

Junmai Ginjo ou Ginjo 純米吟醸/吟醸

Sake produced from polished rice grains which have been milled to 60-50% of their original weight.

Dai-ginjo ou Junmai Dai-ginjo 大吟醸/純米大吟醸

Regarded as the most refined and luxurious of sakes and produced from polished rice grains which have been milled to 50% of their original weight.


OTHER TYPES AND CHARACTERISTICS

Like wines and spirits, there are many terms for nihonshu, which are used to describe its character and aromas. Amongst these are :

Genshu 原酒

‘original-alcohol’, which means undiluted. This sake can contain up to 20% ABV. Concentrated and strongly flavoured, this sake is often drunk ‘on the rocks'.

Hiya-oroshi 冷卸 / ひやおろし

‘to be stored in a cool environment’, i.e. in a cellar. This nihonshu sake is generally brewed during the winter, rested during the spring and summer, and then released onto the market in the autumn.

Nama 生

‘unpasteurized’. This nihonshu sake is highly appreciated by connoisseurs, as its characteristics are very similar to those of the liquid squeezed from the press in the brewery. However it requires special storage.



SAKE TASTING – A COMBINATION OF TRADITIONAL AND MODERN PRACTICES

1. Temperature Like red and white wine in France, nihonshu sake can be served in many different ways and at different temperatures, from chilled to very warm. There is a whole range of poetical vocabulary used to describe the numerous ways of serving nihonshu. Here are a few examples :

  • 雪冷 Yuki-hié : « as cold as snow » (5°C)
  • 花冷 Hana-hié : « as cool as a flower » (10°C)
  • 鈴冷 Suzu-hié : « as cool as coolness » (15°C)
  • 日向燗 Hinata-kan : « heated by sunrays » (30°C)
  • 人肌燗 Hito-hada-kan : « heated to skin temperature » (35°C)
  • ぬる燗 Nuru-kan : « heated-warm » (40°C)
  • 上燗 Jo-kan : « heated-quite hot » (45°C)
  • 熱燗 Atsu-kan : « heated-hot » (50°C)
  • 飛び切り燗 Tobikiri-kan : « heated-piping hot » (55°C et au-delà)
Generally, the finer the nihonshu sake, the more the rice grains have been polished and the more the sake deserves to be drunk chilled. Similarly, the more powerful the sake’s flavours, the less the grains have been polished and the sake can be drunk warm or even hot. However, there are some exceptions: certain ginjos and dai-gingos have such powerful flavours, despite a high degree of polishing, that they can be drunk at higher than usual temperatures. The alcohol content can also influence the way the sake is drunk: some nihonshu genshu sakes at 18% ABV are served on ice, like liqueurs and wine. Above all, it is a question of quality and taste.



2. Glasses Nihonshu sake is traditionally served in small ceramic, glass or metal cups. The main national competitions still use a variety of these cups: decorated with two concentric circles, the middles of which are painted blue so that the colour of the liquid can be better appreciated. However, it is becoming increasingly popular in some upmarket bars and restaurants to drink nihonshu sake in wine glasses.



Going further

In Japan there are more than a thousand breweries spread across the country, from north to south. The vast majority of the sake produced is drunk in Japan (about seven litres per person per year) and it is still difficult to find reputable brands outside of the country of origin. However, some high-quality sakes are beginning to be sold in France, a country recognized as producing and drinking some of the best alcoholic beverages in the world. Furthermore, a drop in local consumption has encouraged Japanese producers to export their best products and develop new markets. There is now a French blog on nihonshu sake, and the best Japanese restaurants, as well as a few French establishments, serve some very good sakes. This trend has even reached wine-merchants and supermarkets: a growing number of them distribute exclusive nihonshu sakes, such as Artisan and Kyo. It is essential that consumers try find out more about sake by talking to professionals and encouraging them in their work: as with wine, increased availability is the result of customer interest in the product.


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