Sake has a long, rich history. The national drink of Japan, it is specifically mentioned in the country’s first written history, The Kojiki, which was compiled 712 AD. In Japan, sake brewers are known as Tōji. Historically, the role of tōji would have been passed down from father to son. Today, modern tōji often attended university to study how to make sake. There are approximately 1800 sake breweries in Japan today, each producing many different types of sake.
What is sake made from?
Sake is made from fermented rice, which has been polished to remove the bran, koji, which is rice malt, and water. The rice used isn’t just any old rice – sake rice is larger and contains less protein than ordinary rice, making it unsuitable for consumptions, but perfect for making sake.
Contrary to popular belief, sake does not have a high alcohol content. The average bottle of sake weighs in at around 15%, roughly the same as your average wine.
The sake brewing process
Although sake is often categorised as being a rice wine, the sake brewing process more closely resembles that of beer. Sake contains no sugars, unlike wine which consists of fruits, so the starch from the rice is converted to sugar, which is then converted into alcohol. The sake making process can take up to 12 months to complete – this is because sake undergoes a period of maturation to develop the flavour. However, the concept of ‘vintage sake’ does not really exist, as sake does not mature in the same way wines do. Sake was once only brewed in winter, and some breweries strive to maintain this tradition. With the advent of modern technology, however, sake can now be brewed throughout the year.
Although there are numerous types of sake, they can be roughly categorised into two groups. Futsū-shu, which is ordinary sake and Tokutei meishō-shu, a premium form of sake. Premium sakes are not served hot, as this causes them to lose their flavour. From these two main categories spawn many others – sake that is undiluted, sake that is unfiltered, sake that is cloudy, sake that is clear – the list goes on!
Next time you enjoy sake, you’ll understand the craftsmanship that goes into its creation!