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Sake: The Other White Wine

Geek assumes that those reading this are well aware that sake is way more than that scalding -hot stuff out of a bag-in-box at Benihana. Though that beverage has its place, it is not very similar to the premium sakes being produced in Japan today. Premium ‘Special Designation Sake’ (Tokutei Meisho-shu) is a whole ‘nuther world: made from premium sake rice using a combination of modern & traditional techniques and most often served chilled, not hot.

Though we could go back about 2,000 years to the beginning of sake production in Japan (in a very different form back then), we won’t do that (you’re welcome). Instead, we will start in 1904. By then sake was refined and fairly similar to the beverage produced today. It was the ‘National Beverage’ so the Japanese government created the ‘National Research Institute of Brewing’, an agency dedicated to facilitating improvements and advancements in the art & science of sake brewing. Then in 1911 the NRIB created a national contest: the ‘National New Sake Competition’ where each year the ‘best sake in all the land’ was determined. The bragging rights for this distinction were huge, so the breweries embraced the competition with zeal, producing uber-cool ‘stunt’ sakes in very small quantities, not actually intended for sale.

Fast forward to the 70’s when sake’s massive sales decline began. Virtually no one under 30 wanted to drink sake any longer: that’s what their parents & grandparents drank. The youth wanted ‘western’ beverages like beer and Scotch and Coca-Cola. Among various efforts to reverse the trend, a few intuitive brewers said: ‘let’s make commercial quantities of our competition sake’, and the Ginjo sake boom began. These were (are) pristine, pure and delicious renditions of sake. They are served chilled and they pair well with a very wide range of foods.  Happily, these ‘new’ sakes clicked with consumers: first in Japan, and slowly but surely internationally (the U.S. is Japan’s #1 export market). The volume of sake produced today is still not where it was in the early 70’s when sake was at peak production, but the quality of the brews and the prestige accorded to the category has never been higher.

There is not enough space here for a full explanation of sake production techniques and of all the categories & styles, but Geek will highlight a few key points, and for those of you that want to dive deeper, we have very informed staff on our team as well as some great tools to help you and your staff understand more.

Note that sake rice is a different species than table rice. In table rice, the starch, fat, and proteins are distributed throughout the grain; with sake rice, the starch is all concentrated in the center of each grain. Hence you can ‘polish’ the outer portion of the grain and get rid of the ‘stuff’ and only the starch remains. It is then—thru a special phenomenon—saccharified (turned into sugar) and then fermented into alcohol. The level to which you polish the rice, getting closer and closer to the ‘white heart’ affects the quality and personality if the final product (as well as the cost of course). This is expressed with terms such as Junmai, Ginjo, and Daiginjo

Just as with wine grapes, there are different varieties of rice, each with its own needs climatically and each with its own flavor/personality. And just as with wine grapes, there are more and less prestigious rice types: Yamada Nishiki is the undisputed King of sake rice types. Add to this the regionality. Of course, sake is typically over 80% water, hence the water used is extremely impactful on style and flavor profile, from the crystalline Niigata sakes with water sourced from snowmelt, to the robust sakes of Hyogo with their robust, masculine well-water source. And though a brewery can now source rice from all over Japan, traditionally they used (and still mostly use) local rice. Since the length of Honshu (the main island of Japan) is approximately 1,300 miles, there will understandably be various rice types that thrive in the north or south (for reference, it’s about the same distance from Portland Maine to Orlando Florida).

And last but not least, add man, i.e., the Toji (brewmaster) who has complete control over how/when the numerous steps take place which can greatly affect the quality/style of the final product. Some of the optional styles of sake are: Nama (draft or unpasteurized sake), Nigori (‘cloudy’ sake), Genshu (undiluted), Taru (cedar-aged) to name a few.

The last important thing to note is sake and food. Sake is extremely nimble at the table, with the expected pairings of sushi/sashimi, but also goes fabulously with all sorts of cheese, tomato -rich dishes, mushroom-rich dishes and a lot more. The general sentiment that ‘sake doesn’t fight with food’ is spot on. And please note, sake is NOT just meant for Asian restaurants/Asian dishes; there aren’t too many ‘New Zealand’ styled restaurants, but we sure sell a bunch of New Zealand wine to our customers. Be inquisitive, explore. Have fun!


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