The Japanese have almost religiously been worshipping their sake for centuries. Outside the country, many are only familiar with this rice beverage as a warm “little extra” at inexpensive sushi restaurants. However, the community of aficionados is growing rapidly. As is the case with so much in Japan, the artistry lies in the details.
“You see,” says Jörg Müller, “with wine it is the raw material that makes the product, with sake it is the production process.” That is true. But not quite the whole truth, rice is also important. Sake is somewhat confusing for the non-Japanese. This even starts with the word. “Sake” is generally translated into “rice wine”. Although it is common knowledge that wine is made from grapes. Furthermore, yeasts convert the grapes’ sugar into alcohol. Rice does not contain any sugar.
The process is more like brewing. With beer production, the grain’s starch is transformed into sugar first which the yeasts can then utilise. “But not with sake,” objects Jörg Müller. The man with the name as German as beer and fried potatoes operates as an importer of high-quality sakes to several European countries. Which is why he knows that with rice wine, the transformation into sugar and into alcohol happens simultaneously.
This is not the only subtlety. Added to this, there is a whole range of quality levels, which beginners can scarcely tell apart. And the word sake is written just like the Japanese word for salmon, which is only pronounced a bit differently. Lovers of Japanese restaurants can quickly find themselves in an embarassing spot.
Generally speaking, these are rather difficult conditions to inspire the masses. But this does not seem to apply to sake. For the past few years, it has already risen to become the trend order in bars. High-end restaurants provide a sake menu including an experienced sommelier.
Why is this? Perhaps it is the accuracy the Japanese have to spare for so many supposedly everyday things like tea. “Retrieving something pure and enlightening out of the chaos,” raves Takeaki Ishikawa, president of the sake brewing association, “that is the Japanese philosophy.”
Polishing is precision work
Brewers usually select varieties with as much starch as possible from more than eighty rice varieties. The brewing water’s mineral content plays a part too. Substances such as iron, magnesium and phosphoric acid are valued because they react with the yeasts. Water hardness is chosen to produce soft or hard sakes. Many breweries are situated next to suitable springs as a result, similar to Scottish whisky. The Hyogo region is therefore just as famous for its water as for its many breweries.
First of all the grains of rice are polished for up to 72 hours. This removes the outer layers containing protein and oil. What is left is the grain with as much starch as possible, preferably of the shinpaku variety. This carbohydrate is considered to be a particularly subtle flavouring agent. The more outer layers are removed, the better the sake quality is. Sounds trivial, “but it is one of the most important quality criteria,” explains Noel Pusch, Sake Sommelier of the Year 2014. Subtleties, as said above.
Top products are brewed from no more than 30 percent of the original rice grain. After polishing, the grains are given a bit of time to cool down and absorb some humidity. As a result, they will not crack during the washing process afterwards. The finest grains have to have the dust removed within minutes so that they do not swell up too much.
In the next step, they are steamed on a conveyor belt while the master brewer keeps an eye on the stopwatch. If the process is too short, the grains will be undercooked. “If they are in the steam for too long, they will ferment too quickly for the desired flavours to develop,” explains Müller.
A micro-organism called Aspergillus oryzae comes into play next. This mould generally plays a big part in Japanese cooking. Miso and soya sauce, amongst other things, are produced with its help. A snack called natto, a preparation of fermented soya beans, is a popular test of courage for foreigners who want to hold their culinary ground in front of the Japanese. The mould is also responsible here for its unique fermentation flavour and slimy consistency.
Once sprayed onto the steamed rice, the Aspergillus oryzae gets the multiple conversion of starch into sugar and alcohol going in the rice mash. A few days later, yeast is also added to the mixture, which is now called koji in Japanese. Similarly to inoculationof wine barrels with yeast, the steamed, fermented rice and water is mixed to keep the fermentation active. The fermentation is usually completed after two to three weeks, the cooler it is the better.
Master brewers - highly esteemed
The liquid is now extracted during a filtration process, sometimes by adding a bit of distilled alcohol to extract more flavours. The finished sake is carbon filtered once more, usually pasteurised twice at 60 degrees Celsius and diluted to an impressive 15 to 20 percent alcohol.
The sake matures even more in the bottle over nine to twelve months. The processes, in which oxygen, amino acids and the temperature play a part among other things, are not clarified down to the finest detail.
Toji is the job title for sake brewers in Japan who are responsible for the correct processes. They are highly respected for their craft as expected. The name is derived from a mythological figure who, according to legend, was involved in the invention of alcohol and was later worshipped as the patron of winegrowers. The toji belongs to the Shinto religion, which most Japanese follow. In this religion, many things and even events like wind and thunder are considered to be animate beings.
Not only does this make it easier for the Japanese to accept robots as care assistants for the elderly, but rice wine is also assigned personalities specific to its containers.As their creators, tojis are regarded in society as being on the same level as creative artists, for example, musicians or painters. The toji is also responsible for the mood of the team during the long winter months, which according to religious interpretation influences the harmony of the end product again. “Whether it is a fine sake or a boring alcoholic drink made out of rice and water, this is solely down to them,” knows Yoshiko Ueno-Müller, who was the first woman to pass the Master of Sake Tasting test. The toji title was historically passed down from generation to generation. Today, tojis are either particularly experienced workers or they have graduated from a sake brewinguniversity.
Religiously worshipped and popular for drinking games
In the the 3rd century, Chinese chroniclers wonder for the first time in writing about dancing and drinking Japanese. This book does not reveal exactly what put the Japanese in such a good mood. But it certainly was not sake.
The Japanese adopted the agricultural technique of wet farming from China during the following century. This made production quantities which were significantly greater than demand possible for the first time.
Sake quickly became an everyday drink. At the latest from the 9th century on, it appears as a drink for all kinds of ceremonies and drinking games.
Brewing was the monopoly of the Emperor, who had breweries built for mass production. The imperial family also invested in researching and optimising the brewing process early on. However, the fiscal sovereignty was less concerned with qualitative than quantitative progress. The taxed volume earned good money.
As of the 10th century, more and more monasteries developed into centres of production and were to remain so for the next 500 years. The addition of yeasts and the preservation by means of heating were applied here long before Louis Pasteur recognised the effect.
After 1868, during the reign of Emperor Meiji, Japan rapidly transformed from a feudal state into an armed, industrial monarchy. Legislation allowed anyone to open a brewery. Japan had 30,000 brewery owners within a year. Many of the businesses soon closed though under the burden of ever increasing taxes. Around the turn of the century, sake made up almost half of the direct tax income. Large landowners in particular survived by integrating excess yields from their agricultural areas into sake production. The most well-known names still exist today.
Technology leap of the 20th century
Sake production was often a matter for farmers until well into the 20th century. They ground the rice with water in a pretty laborious process. Traditionally, the girls chewed the rice mash before spitting it into a tub. The spittle’s enzymes then took care of the fermentation.
The alcohol yield was considerably meagre, which is why the earthy wines based on the Kimoto method of brewing are rare today. This also holds true for undiluted, unpasteurised and unfiltered sakes. With the latter, the deposit is shaken carefully before drinking so that it is distributed evenly in the bottle.
The first modern research institute was founded in Takinogawa in 1904, and its results radically changed production. The chemical knowledge regarding hygiene, the process and the control of fermentation using the koji mould turned the farmers’ brew into a clean industrial product. Enamel steel tanks were introduced into cellars.
The state prohibited private brewing mainly to finance the war against Russia. The law still applies today, although sake only makes up a tiny two per cent of the total tax income.
The shortage of rice in the Second World War led to additives such as alcohol and glucose, which the majority of cheap sakes are based on today. Beer, wine, whisky and the grain spirit shochu became more and more popular in the second half of the 20th century as a result. In 1960 for the first time, the Japanese drank more beer than sake. As the term is not subject to legal protection abroad, cheap producers were more than happy to use it. “In the 1980s,” remembers Ueno-Müller, “sake was simply old-fashioned.” The native Tokyoite knows what she is talking about.
More and more of the roughly thousand remaining breweries have shifted towards producing premium products. They will continue to concentrate on this at least as long as the law still applies that the brewery’s licence expires once the toji retires without a successor.
Sake still has its religious significance today. The poet Rihaku, who wrote extensive poetry about sake in the 8th century, is still worshipped as the saint of sake today.
Large barrels decorate temples. The Shintoists worship their many deities in shrines, including one for the sake god Matsuo-sama. Every brewery also has and reveres one of these shrines. The sacrificing person communicates with the deities by drinking sake. Sake is also served free of charge at Shinto festivals to generally spread luck and happiness.
Japan extends from Hokkaido in the north with its Central European cool winters to 3,000 kilometres south as far as the subtropical Okinawa. Sake was originally only brewed in winter. Temperature control now allows for this all year round. Ambitious producers often still prefer to brew small fractions in winter, and some are also adopting the traditions again.
The vintages are not distinguished with sake, and it does not generally mature particularly well. One exception is the yellowish koshu that can age for many years with its honey notes. Taruzake, which is stored in barrels made from the Japanese cypress species Cryptomeria, is often opened on festive occasions after years. Fukurozuri means dripped off from small linen bags, similar to “taille” in champagne, and is one of the highest quality products. “Good sake,” according to Ueno-Müller, “makes people happy.” And many of them like it fizzy.
“Fizzy is the style that is growing most rapidly,” adds her husband Jörg Müller. It is no accident that the floral and fruity, light, sweet flavour components are reminiscent of prosecco. The sparkling wines appeal to the tastes of the masses. However, without any regulations, the quality does differ. “From CO2 injection to bottle fermentation, everything is possible” says Pusch, who has worked in London for a long time, “where the signs also point to light and fruity – and good quality.” Japanese-influenced cuisine is well established in Britain’s capital with its large Japanese community.
Practically every newspaper and magazine in the city has its “best sake places in town” ranking. The Shoryu chain has an uncontested spot on this list. Their blockbuster at the moment is Nigory Cloudy Sake, which Japanese scientists certified a cholesterol lowering effect. Visitors to the many sake bars simply look for the most exotic name on the cocktail menu.
“Sake is extremely varied with its different styles,” knows Fabien Lainé. “Junmai-Ginjo and Nigori,” an unfiltered variety, “are particularly popular internationally.” The qualified sake sommelier has already worked in several countries, and like many foreign sake fans he is fascinated by the Japanese culture and its huge respect for the product.
Exports to Great Britain, however, made up just two per cent of the overall worth with a total value of 2.8 million euro in 2016. With 123 million euro ($137 million), exports reached record highs for the seventh year in a row.
The most important buyers are based in Southeast Asia, namely Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. Most foreign sake fans live in the USA, where every third exported bottle is opened.
While there are only roughly a thousand Japanese producers left, breweries are being built in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The 51 million US dollar (45 million euro) turnover in the USA has not just bolstered importers. There are now sake breweries from Honolulu to Texas and right up to Maine.
Spirit producers have discovered sake as a sideline, as have glassblowers like Riedel, who are assisting with an appropriately shaped glass.
Names like Nøgne ø (Norway), Ontario Spring Water Sake Company (Canada) or Konsha del Delta del Ebro (Spain) reveal the passion for sake all over the world.
But what is to become of sake in its homeland? “The Japanese pay great attention to what people abroad think of them,” revealed brewery owner Yasakuta Daimon recently to the British Guardian. “So if we are successful abroad, this could boost sales at home again too.” Possibly. Allan Noble, son of Australian and Japanese parents and Director of Sun Masamune’s brewery in New South Wales is doing good business with his sake in Australia. However, he glows with pride when he says that he exports eighty per cent of his production to Japan.
The classification of premium sake is determined by the Japanese Ministry of Finance. It depends on the degree to which the rice is polished. Six levels are being differentiated.
Junmai Polishing ratio: No specifications, better bottlings are generally polished to less than 70% Additions: Brewed purely from rice and water
Honjozo Polishing ratio: Less than 70%, better bottlings with addition "Tokubetsu" less than 60% Additions: Up to 10% brewer's alcohol
Ginjo Polishing ratio: Under 60% Additions: Brewer's alcohol, on the last day of fermentation Process: Long-term cold fermentation at 5-14°C
Daiginjo Polishing ratio: Less than 50%, often down to 35% Additions: Brewer's alcohol Process: Very cold fermentation, at 5-9°C
Junmai Daiginjo Polishing ratio: Less than 50%, often down to 35% Additions: None Process: Very cold fermentation, at 5-9°C
Futsushu is a standard quality, to which alcohol, glucose, glutamate and a few other things may be added. It accounts for approximately 80% of the produced sake and is known for causing a hangover.