2005 | COLUMNS | ECKHARDT
The ABCs of Saké : A Beginner's Guide
By Fred Eckhardt
Operating U.S. Saké Breweries
Gekkeikan Saké USA
Third-largest U.S. producer
1136 Sibley St.
Folsom, CA 95630
Ozeki Saké USA
Second-largest U.S. producer
249 Hillcrest Rd.
Hollister, CA 95023
Fourth-largest U.S. producer
820 Elm St.
Forest Grove, OR 97116
(800) 550-SAKÉ (7253)
Takara Saké USA
Largest U.S. producer
708 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94710
(800) 4TAKARA (482-5372)
Smallest U.S. producer
4800 S. Alameda St.
Vernon, CA 90058
No website at this time
Aspergillus Oryzae, a relative of penicillium,
is the heart and soul of the simultaneous multiple parallel
ferment that makes saké brewing possible. A. Oryzae,
a mold, impregnates itself into the seedling that is the rice
grain to create koji. The koji rice (about 20% of the rice
total) generates sugar from unfermentable starches in the
rice, after which a yeast ferment of the new sugar can take
Breweries producing saké (a beer,
not a wine) in the U.S. have numbered 37 since the first was
established in 1902. There are now only five.
Honolulu Saké Brewery (1908–1992) was the longest
operational American saké brewery. It closed December
Choko (saké cup): Although saké
is served in a wide variety of cups and glasses, some are
unique. These include the tiny cups with which we have all
become familiar. Other than the distinctive sex-oriented items
and the spectacularly beautiful antique lacquered wood cups,
the most interesting are the kikizake choko, which have concentric
blue circles on the bottom against the pristine white ceramic
of the cup. This is the taster's cup, which makes it easy
to evaluate the clarity and color of the beverage.
Daiginjo, the pristine, purest saké
form, is brewed from the finest rice that has been polished
until as little as a third of the grain remains. There are
many grades of saké, most of which are based on the
polishing rate (seimei buai). Dinner rice is polished to about
93%, removing 7% of the outer shell. Ordinary saké
rice is polished to 70%, ginjo saké to 50-60%, and
daiginjo to under 50%, sometimes to 35%! Such polishing is
necessary because the outer layers of the rice grains contain
a much higher protein and crude lipid (fat) content. This
has the effect of adding a variety of amino acids to the ferment
and of generating strange off-flavors.
Emperor's saké: This has been a function
of the imperial household brewer since 905 C.E., when protocols
for saké were first outlined. This high level responsibility
was established because there are religious implications from
the Shinto religion.
Futsuu-shu: This is ordinary, everyday,
regular, cheap saké, nothing special, and often comes
out of a heating machine in restaurants.
Genshu saké is the original, undiluted,
full-strength product off the line. Saké is brewed
to a strength of 18–21% abv and must be diluted a bit
before it is distributed. This dilution can be rather thorough,
to 11% or 12%, or very lightly done for regular 16.5% saké.
History of saké: The Japanese were
drinking saké even before the Chinese began to influence
them (seventh century C.E.). It was a religious (Shinto) ritual
for them perhaps as early as the third century C.E. Saké
is essential to the practice of the Shinto religion. It was
presumed to be a gift of the gods.
Izakaya are the small "sit-down"
saké bars in Japan. These are renowned as the classic
Jizake is saké from the smallest
saké brewers in Japan, somewhat akin to craft beer
in this country.
Kura: A saké brewery, from the ancient
term for "store" house.
Literature: The literature on saké
is fascinating. America's most prolific saké writer
is John Gauntner, who lives in Japan and is the author of
three books. His free Internet Saké World e-Newsletter
is most informative. To subscribe, go to his Web site, saké-world.com,
click on the Saké Newsletter tab and click on subscription
Moromi is the main ferment of saké.
This takes place during a four-stage buildup. The first step
is the shubo, or yeast mash setup. The main ferment starts
with doubling the yeast mash size and is followed by two more
steps, each doubling the previous stage. When this is up and
running (four days), the main mash is set, but it needs a
couple more weeks to reach its peak.
Nigori saké is lightly pressed and
unfiltered saké, which has about 30% of its volume
as light, powdery sediment. It is light and sweet and serves
nicely as a fine dessert wine.
Oshaku, the Japanese pouring ritual, involves
pouring saké for one’s companion while (s)he
pours for you. One does not pour one's own libation.
Pasteurization: Saké is not protected
from souring, as is beer, by a healthy addition of hops, nor
is it protected by an injection of sulfur dioxide, as is wine.
It is susceptible to a nasty strain of lactobacillus and must
be protected by pasteurization, not once but twice. Unpasteurized
saké is called nama, draft saké, but it must
always be refrigerated. Most nama saké produced in
the U.S. has been pasteurized, is sold fraudulently as "nama"
(a downright lie), and is very low in alcohol, at 14% abv.
Quick fermentation method of saké
brewing (sokujo-moto): This is the modern yeast-mash production
method, which acidifies the mash by the direct addition of
lactic acid, saving about three weeks in the yeast-mash production
"There is NEVER an
occasion when one would order HOT saké."
Rice for saké brewing must be short-grain
rather than the long-grain Basmati rice. The best saké
is produced from rice that has been severely polished. (See
Seishu, "refined" saké,
is also called Nihonshu ("Japanese" saké).
This is saké produced by the traditional doubling method.
Tamon'in Nikki: The first printed and detailed
description of saké brewing dates to 1599 C.E. The
four-step doubling method was in full use by that date, and
saké production was similar to that used today.
U.S. saké: American saké brewers
market over 20 labels in this country. Australia, Brazil,
Korea and Taiwan also have saké breweries.
Very dry saké: This is called chokarakuchi.
At SMV +10 to +15, it is VERY dry (plus numbers indicate low
density). The dry-sweet balance has much to do with the final
taste. Amakuchi, or sweet saké (SMV -1 to -10), is
not as popular as the drier types. Low acid levels natural
to saké intensify the perception of sweetness in this
Warm saké (Nurukan): Serving temperatures
vary with individual tastes and the time of year. There is
NEVER an occasion when one would order HOT saké. For
reasons I don't understand, the average Japanese restaurateur
believes that Americans ALL want HOT saké with their
sushi. The warmest that saké should ever be served
is about 120°F/49°C, although the brewers usually
recommend something around 105°F/41°C. The ancient
Japanese recommendation is "mo hito hada" (another
person’s skin). That other person is expected to be
of the opposite sex, and the skin would be … well, I'll
let the reader guess where that temperature is to be taken.
Xavier, St. Francis, 1506–1552: This
Spanish Jesuit missionary to Japan was the first Westerner
to write about saké in the West.
Yeast: Saké yeast is similar to wine
and beer yeast, and the first strains were isolated in 1906.
Saké yeast lacks the ability to sporulate at low temperatures,
hence it keeps working in the manner of lager beer's bottom-fermenting
Zen monks and saké: Buddhism tells
us to not overindulge but otherwise is fairly friendly to
drinkers. Buddhist teachers are constrained not to deceive
their parishioners, so there is often the sight of empty saké
bottles outside senior priests' residences.
Fred Eckhardt lives in Portland, Ore., where
he brews his own cheap saké once a year. His current
batch, Tezukuri Nama Genshu (handmade and full-strength),
is almost ready! He's all twitchy and can't wait.