Sake, the fermented rice beverage from Japan, is gaining in popularity in the U.S., yet is still not the easiest drink to get to know. Labels packed with indecipherable Japanese characters, or poetic names like “Mirror of Truth” or “Demon Slayer” can be puzzling if not off-putting. And generic descriptions like “soft” or “fruity” can sometimes mislead.
It’s too bad, since the growing number of high-quality sakes available both nationwide and in the Twin Cities makes this a good time to get familiar with sake. Exports of the ancient Japanese brewed beverage have more than doubled since 2002, to more than 4.3 million liters in 2014, according to the Japan Shochu and Sake Makers Association. Minneapolis even has a sake house, Moto-i, that brews its own, one of the first in the nation to do so.
So herewith is a sake primer, with tips and insights gleaned from sake professionals and from a tour of sake breweries in the southwestern Japanese prefecture of Fukuoka.
The fermented and brewed rice beverage we know as sake has been made in Japan for 1,000 years. By the 12th century, it was produced at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples using techniques that are still applied today. For an up-close view of how those ancient methods have survived the centuries, I visited seventh-generation Kitaya Brewery.
Its president, Kohtaroh Kinoshita, took us through his immaculate, well laid-out brewery in the town of Yame to see how rice is steamed in large vats, cooled, then seeded with the mold Aspergillus oryzae, which breaks down starches into sugars. Since rice, unlike grapes, contains no sugars, this intermediate step is needed so that the added sake yeast can get to work fermenting those just-created sugars. Filtering and pasteurization follow, resulting in a higher-alcohol drink than wine or beer, anywhere from 15 to 17 percent. The vast majority of sakes are best consumed within a year of bottling.
Brewing is an art as well as a science, and guilds of toji (master brewers) oversee the minutiae of shepherding rice to the finished product, while presidents usually take a more hands-off, administrative approach. But Kinoshita is something of an anomaly; he studied fermentation technology at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and explains, “I am composer, conductor, and last, owner. The toji is like the concertmaster.”
He’s even something of a sake whisperer. As we climb ladders to peer into large tanks of carefully labeled moromi, or main mash, Kinoshita explains that knowing when it is ready to be filtered is a matter of listening to the subtle, bubbling sounds of fermentation: “I can hear the voice of the moromi, I can talk with moromi. Moromi says, ‘This is the day!’ ” His award-winning sakes are proof of his sensitive ear and palate.
For centuries, what was imbibed in Japan was futsuu-shu, or “regular sake,” an everyday drink extended with the addition of distilled alcohol. Then about 40 years ago, master brewers began taking advantage of advances in milling technique and experimenting with higher polishing ratios. They discovered that the more highly polished the grain, the more delicate and aromatic the sake. The era of the ginjo was born.
Premium sake finds a niche
Ginjo refers to a class of sake that has been milled down to at least 60 percent of its original size, and fermented longer at a lower temperature. All of this coddling results in a complex, aromatic and delicate flavor profile that has come to be associated with premium sake. John Gauntner, the foremost non-Japanese expert on sake, advises, “If you remember one word, remember ginjo,” because it signals quality and likely a good drinking experience. (For more on sake classifications, see below.)
In a cruel twist of fate for the sake industry, as quality has risen and a generation of adventurous brewers comes of age in Japan, sales in its native land have plummeted. Eighty years ago, there were 4,000 sake breweries in Japan; today there are only 1,200 certified to make sake, and an even smaller number actually do, according to Takayuki Kazuoka, assistant professor in the brewing and fermentation department at Tokyo University of Agriculture.
Foreign wines and spirits hold cachet for young consumers, while sake is seen as the uncool tipple of their grandfathers. American, European and South American wine and spirit makers have rushed into the market breach while Japanese sake makers have been forced to turn their sights abroad.
Tradition gets a twist
In Fukuoka, I found a generations-old dedication to quality, and among younger brewers, cutting-edge innovation underway with different rice varietals, yeasts, sparkling and aged sake. At Yamaguchi Brewery, another Kurume maker whose sake-making roots stretch back to the 17th century, I tasted a ravishing 22-year-old sake with an aged sherry-like depth of flavor and color. Eleventh-generation brewery president Tetsuo Yamaguchi has also embraced the challenge of making sparkling sake, which he says is so popular that his brewery has been unable to keep up with demand.
The takeaway message from my brewery visits? It’s an exciting time to taste and learn about sake.
Nancy Matsumoto is a Manhattan-based writer and certified sake professional, with a focus on food, agriculture and Japanese culture.