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Sake Production

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Sake is Japan’s national drink: an alcoholic beverage made from rice that seems to have been around since at least the 3rd century C.E. Often the word is written “saké”, to show its pronunciation and to distinguish it from the English word “sake” (as in “for God’s sake”). People sometimes refer to sake as “rice wine”, though the way it is made is quite different from the way familiar, grape-based wine is made. Sake also tends to have a higher alcohol content than regular wine: 18–20%, as opposed to 9–16%.

The drink is clear and usually served in a small cup called a choko. For tasting sessions, the choko is traditionally made from white ceramic and has blue circles inside on the base, the contrast of colours allowing the taster to appraise the clarity of the liquid. In such sessions, the sake will be served at room temperature, as chilling and warming can, apparently, conceal flaws in the drink. Outside of this more specialist context, however, sake is often served chilled or warmed, and some say that such changes in temperature bring out different flavours and qualities of the drink. Sake isn’t just for connoisseurs: indeed, about 80% of the sake drunk in Japan is non-premium futsushu – the equivalent of so-called “table wine”.

The various classifications of sake are based upon the particular way in which it is made. Not all of the rice grain gets used in sake production: it is the white, starchy centre, divested of the outer husk and bran layers, that is needed. As such, the rice must be milled or polished, and the degree to which this has been performed determines the grade of the sake.

Basically, the more of the outer layers that have been polished away, the higher the grade. To qualify as premium (i.e. not futsushu), the sake needs to have been made with rice of which at least 30% of the grain has been polished away. The remaining percentage of the grain (in this case 70%) will be indicated on the bottle and is known as the seimaibuai – polishing rate. The lower the seimaibuai, therefore, signifying a lower percentage of grain remaining, the more prestigious and expensive the sake. “Dassaisake, for example, made by the Asahi Shuzo brewery in Yamaguchi and reckoned one of the very best in the luxury Dai Ginjo category, has a seimaibuai of only 23%.

Another factor that decides how a sake is to be classified is whether or not any alcohol was added during the brewing operation. Traditionally, no alcohol at all was added, rice and water and little else combining in a natural fermentation process to produce the drink’s substantial ABV. During the Second World War, however, when not so much rice was being grown and the amount granted to sake brewers by the Japanese government was restricted, manufacturers began incorporating glucose and alcohol into the mix, increasing their yield by up to four times.

Although this practice may be frowned upon by purists (who favour the junmai variety of rice-only sake) and is associated with cheap futsushu (for which a great deal of extra alcohol may be incorporated), the addition of “brewer’s alcohol” has been found to bring certain flavours and aromas out into the drink that would otherwise remain behind in the discarded rice solids – something that had been discovered some 250 years before WWII, towards the end of the 17th century.

Sake is made by a process unique in the alcoholic beverage world, called multiple parallel fermentation. This has less in common with the way wine is made than with the way beer is made – with an important twist. Fermentation in wine- and beer-making takes place differently: in the case of wine, yeast interacts with the sugar naturally present in the fruit to produce alcohol; in the case of beer, there is no naturally-present sugar in barley grains, only starch which must first be converted to sugar before yeast is added. Fermentation in beer-making is thus a two-stage process in which, first, starch is converted to sugar and, second, sugar is converted to alcohol. Sake also requires these two conversions, although in contrast to beer, they do not take place one after the other but simultaneously, and in the same brewing tank.

None of this is to imply that there are not many steps involved in sake production, prior to and following the fermentation stage. Once the rice has been polished down to the required seimaibuai (a particular kind of rice is used with larger, stronger grains that will remain intact during the polishing process), it is soaked, steamed, and then a portion of it is used to make koji – rice inoculated with aspergillus oryzae mould. This koji is then combined with water, yeast and a further portion of the original rice to make the shubo or starter mash, which takes around two weeks. The rest of the rice, further koji and further water are then added, little by little, to make up the moromi or main mash, which is left to ferment for 2–4 weeks until the alcohol content reaches the desired level.

Any extra alcohol, if it is to be added, is put in at this point. The mash is then pressed, the liquid separated from the solids, and the liquid is filtered (usually through carbon) to produce nicely transparent sake. Most sake is pasteurised and diluted with water before being bottled, although varieties are available on which these processes have not been carried out. In general, sake is intended to be drunk within a year of production, which in the past was one of the major obstacles to its exportation. Sake doesn’t react well to light or heat. As such, it is never kept in clear bottles and, once open, a bottle of sake needs to be refrigerated and drunk within a week.

Traditionally, temperature control being crucial, sake was only made during the autumn and winter months, from October to March. Following the annual rice harvest around September, some workers of rural agricultural communities would leave their homes to go and supply the seasonal manpower required by sake breweries, living and working in the brewery all the way through to spring. The work was heavy and intensive – and is so still in the more traditional breweries that rely upon man- rather than machine-power.

One role that has been preserved over the centuries (although the traditional father-to-son conferring of the office has been replaced by externally-validated examinations) is that of the toji, or master brewer. This individual oversees the delicate brewing process from start to finish, and so indispensable is their expertise that, like many of the subordinate workers still employed in traditional manpower systems, they’re lucky to get a single day off in the whole six-month season.

The intensity of this and other positions in such traditional establishments may be one of the reasons why brewing as a profession – just like rice farming – is failing to attract fresh blood. While the rest of the world seems to be drinking more sake than ever before – and better quality stuff at that, as old brewing wisdom combines with new technologies – sake production in Japan, after peaking in the 1970s, has been on the decline ever since.