Japan’s beloved sake: what it is and how it is made
Sake and rice grains
What is sake?
Sake is liquor brewed from rice. Its basic ingredients are 1.3 parts water to 1 part rice, and the magical Aspergillus oryzae (koji) mold, which provides the enzymes necessary to break down rice starches to fermentable glucose and still other sugars that shape its flavor. The complex and subtle flavors produced by these few and simple ingredients vary between regions and indeed, from between breweries. And just as there are different grape varieties in wine, there are different rice strains in sake. From the milling of rice to the pressing and filtering of each drop of the moromi mash (main mash), it is a labor-intensive process requiring two to three months. The many steps involved along the way are another factor behind the great variety of flavours found in sake.
The brewing process: the role of the brewmaster
The role of the toji brewmaster cannot be underestimated. He or she is in charge of selecting the raw materials and managing the entire production process. With sharp discernment acquired through years of experience, they closely monitor the changes that occur in the temperature and composition of the moromi mash as it ferments. Using biotics to their advantage, they guide the natural workings of the koji to craft a sake that befits their brewery’s product profile and reputation.
The sake maturation cycle
As sake is brewed mostly in winter, any one batch of it can be enjoyed at various stages of maturity throughout the one-year consumption cycle. From late winter to spring, freshly-pressed sake arrives on the market. Over the next months and through the summer it ripens, acquiring a richer, more mellow taste. These natural changes in its flavour profile are part of its allure, and dovetail with the appreciation of seasonal changes, a focal point of washoku (Japanese cuisine). As such, the enjoyment of sake is intrinsically tied to Japanese culinary traditions.
Sake with cherry blossoms
Combined with time-honoured techniques, cutting-edge technologies have enabled a great array of sake today. With its wide-ranging aromas and flavour profiles, sake complements not only washoku, but other world cuisines as well. As its popularity abroad continues to grow, more people are showing interest in the particular styles and distinctions of Japan’s many sake-producing regions. Make sure to try various types of sake yourself when you have the chance!