Saturday 18 July 2015

For goodness Saké

“Saké, that's that Japanese rice wine, isn't it?” For most of us this is probably the limit of our understanding, perhaps augmented by having had hot saké after a meal at a noodle or sushi restaurant – certainly it was my understanding until not very long ago.

But hey, this is Japan we are talking about, and nothing much seems to happen there without several layers of added complexity and tradition... And sure enough, once you dig in, there is a quite a bit more to saké than appears on the surface, as I discovered when I was invited to the Japanese Embassy in London for a tasting of medal-winning sakés from this year's International Wine Challenge

Mashing saké
For a start, while it is usually considered a wine, its production is a lot more like beer. Just like malt, but unlike grapes and other fruit, rice contains lots of starch but little fermentable sugar; it also lacks amylase, the starch-converting enzyme that barley has. That means it must be steamed then mashed with a special mould which converts the rice starch into sugar. After a few days you add water and yeast, the mould continues producing sugars and in parallel the yeast ferments them into alcohol.

To add complexity, not only are there dozens of different varieties of saké rice, but they can be prepared in different ways, giving rise to multiple grades of saké. More variation comes from the many types of yeast available – another parallel with beer brewing, where two different yeasts can produce utterly different results from the same wort – and the water used. Then to top it off, for some grades of saké the brewer adds a small proportion of distilled alcohol before pressing the liquid out of the mash, this dries the wine out a little and extracts more flavour from the mash.

That said, the range of flavour is rather narrower than with beer or wine. There are no added flavourings – no hops or spices – no tannic grape skins, and the grains are not roasted to alter their character, unlike barley malt. So most sakés are clear or very lightly coloured, and like a white wine the flavours range from dry and crisp to sweet and fruity, sometimes with lightly earthy or spicy tones. For instance, Katafune Tokubetsu Honjozo (a medium grade, above regular Honjozo) from Takeda Shuzo offered notes of melon and butter on the nose, with a touch of ginger in the body.

A big part of the difference in flavour comes from how much the rice is polished to remove the husk and the outer layers of the core, explained Nobuo Shoji of Yumegokoro Shuzo (Shuzo means sake brewery). It's expressed in terms of what percentage of the grain is left after polishing, and of course the more you polish away the less is left to mash and ferment so the higher the price. The most expensive Daiginjo might be 50% or even 30%, while everyday Honjozo or Futsushu table saké might use 70% or more of the grain.

To demonstrate he offered me tastes of two different sakés, his 70% Futsushu being dry and spiritous, with a pleasantly rustic and slightly chewy quality, while the 50% Junmai Daiginjo (Junmai means it's all rice, with no added alcohol) was smooth with notes of melon and honey, also dry yet with a sweet edge.

I found something similar with the sakés from brewer Kenji Ichishima of Ichisima Shuzo. His Hidematsu Aka, a 70% Honjozo style, was dry, faintly spicy and again spiritous, with light hints of pear and lychee, while Hidematsu Yamabuki (another Junmai Daiginjo) was rather smooth and mellow, dry-sweet with aromas of green apple and a little tropical fruit.

One thing that did surprise me was how strong most of the sakés were – there was very little under 15%, and some were over 18%. Kenji explained that there has been quite an improvement in fermentation yields in recent decades, but he added that 15% remains the norm – it became the standard, with stronger brews diluted to 15%, because it used to be that anything above 15% was taxed more highly.

Less surprising was the fairly traditional nature of all the saké on display here – with Japan's ongoing craft beer revolution, some saké brewers have diversified into beer, but not the ones I spoke to. There are a few saké variations – aged or sparkling saké for instance, and Aizu Homare's brewer said he also produces fruit-flavoured saké which is popular with younger drinkers and in North America. I guess alcopops get everywhere. Thankfully he had none of that with him, so instead I enjoyed his aromatic and dry-sweet Banshu Yamadanishiki Junmai Daiginjo, with an earthy and slightly funky nose that reminded me of a Saisonbier.

And that tradition is part of what the saké brewers are hoping to sell abroad. It's understandable – saké's flavour range is much narrower than many other drinks can manage, so they have added complexity in other ways, especially tradition and ritual. That said, there is definitely more depth and subtlety to saké than many of us non-Japanese initially realise, and it's amazing what flavours you can get from just rice and yeast. Try it, next time you get the chance.

Sadly, I couldn't take any photos – the embassy's worship of the jealous god Security means a blanket ban on photography, even when the subject is just a glass of liquid sitting on a white tablecloth.


  1. I have tasted Saké before, and in its native land. Regrettably, it didn’t leave much of an impression on me, but until I read your article Bryan, I hadn’t realised its production was so involved.

    I will ask one of my Japanese colleagues to bring me back a bottle, next time they go home. (Our parent company is Japanese), so I can give it a more serious going over.

    1. I think part of the problem is we don't know what we're looking for and don't have the vocabulary. It's the same reason most people drink wine and beer rather than *tasting* it, I guess.

      For example, I noticed afterwards that the tasting notes for one of those I tried mentioned shiitake mushrooms - I cannot recall what those taste like, but only then did I have an "Ah-ha!" moment, as I knew the flavour they meant and had been struggling to describe it.