Sake for Beginners: Everything You Need to Know

Posted June 23, 2015

Stacy Brody

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For those of you who missed our Sake Seminar with John Gauntner, tough luck, too bad. You missed a really great seminar and a fantastic sampling with the Sake Evangelist.

Now, I feel bad. Maybe you had to mow the lawn that Sunday. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt and will let you in on some takeaway lessons on sake.

First off, sake is NOT rice wine. It’s closer to beer than to wine, and even then, the differences are clear and very important.

How is sake made?

Sake is produced from rice, so at least you’re getting that part right. Not the rice you buy in the grocery store (except in the case of this one brewer in Minnesota trying to make sake from arborio rice). Sake is made from rice varieties grown specifically for that purpose. In grains from these special varieties, starches are centralized and fats and proteins are mostly found in the hull. That way, when the rice grains are milled, fats and proteins are removed, leaving starch behind.

Some brewers indicate the level of milling on the label, as an indication of quality. If fats and proteins remain, off-flavors may arise during fermentation. These complex molecules get in the way of the basic progression starch → sugar → alcohol. So, more milling → higher quality. A generalization, but a generally fair one.

Once the rice is milled, brewing can begin...with the help of mold!

Mold?

Yes, mold. A very specific mold, not the green one growing on your week-old loaf of bread.  Aspergillus oryzae. This is one of those good molds - how else would we get sake? Your night out at the sushi restaurant just wouldn’t be the same in a world without Aspergillus oryzae, more simply referred to as koji mold. Without it, there would be no sake and also no soy sauce.

Anyway, getting back to the point of this article, which is sake, not soy sauce. Koji mold digests starches into sugars, which is essential. In winemaking, you start with sugar present in grapes, so yeast can start working right away. With sake, this mold must first digest starches to sugars, and only then can yeasts start working on turning sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide.

In one tank, starches are digested into sugars and sugars into alcohol simultaneously. This allows something special to happen - brewers can achieve high alcohol levels, among the highest in natural, undistilled alcoholic beverages.

How do I choose a sake?

Now that you know a bit about how sake is made, let’s talk about selecting sake.

First and foremost, you can feel safe knowing that a majority of the time you get what you pay for. The higher the price, the better the sake, and vice versa.

You may see a lot of writing on a sake bottle label. Don’t let that overwhelm you. Look out for this keyword: “ginjo.” The terms ginjo and daiginjo are indications of higher quality. For these types of sake, 40%, 50%, and sometimes as much as 65% of the original rice grain was removed in milling, thus removing the fats and proteins (remember?) that can give off flavors, and leaving behind the starch (starch → sugar → alcohol). Ginjo and daiginjo sakes are delicate yet fragrant. Brewers preserve natural aromatics by using special yeasts and maintaing longer, cooler fermentations. Being more delicate, ginjo and daiginjo sakes pair well with lighter, simpler foods. Do NOT serve these sakes warm - you’ll burn away all the beautiful, delicate aromas. Most of the sake that makes it to the U.S. is premium sake and meant to be served slightly chilled.

Responsible brewers sometimes add a small amount of distilled alcohol during production of non-Junmai types for various reasons. The goal is not to stop fermentation or fortify the final product (as is done in the wine world with Port), but rather to enhance the product with small additions. If you see the term junmai on the label, no additional alcohol was added during production. For basic “Junmai” sakes, at least 30% of the rice was milled away. These sakes are richer, with high acidity. Being bolder, Junmai sake can stand up to more boldly-flavored foods. These sakes may be served at room temperature.

What’s the Sake Meter Value?

When shopping for sake, there is no designation of sweetness of residual sugar. Rather, you can look for the Sake Meter Value, which is the specific gravity of the sake. (In English, because no one remembers this from high school chemistry, this means the density of the sake as compared to the density of a reference, i.e. water.). This number can be positive or negative. The higher the positive number, the drier the sake is, generally speaking. When the SMV is around 0, the sake may be rich and dry or sweet and light.  

“Nihonshu wa ryori wo erabanai,” a Japanese proverb which translates to English as “sake doesn’t get into fights with food.” So don’t stress when picking out a sake for dinner and remember that sake pairs with more than just sushi.

I hope I succeeded in carrying on Gauntner’s mission “to make you dangerous to yourselves - giving you just enough information to make you want to try more.”

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Stacy comes to Wine Library from the production side of the industry. After studying agriculture in college, she found herself working at a local winery and, at harvest season, snacking on as many Pinot Noir grapes as she could take before the winemaker noticed. She enjoys reading, hiking, and scoping out what's in season at the local farmers' markets.

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