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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
(800) 564-6261

Ozeki Saké USA
Second-largest U.S. producer
249 Hillcrest Rd.
Hollister, CA 95023
(800) 637-9217

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)

Yaegaki USA
Smallest U.S. producer
4800 S. Alameda St.
Vernon, CA 90058
(323) 587-7588
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 place.

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.

FACTOID: The Honolulu Saké Brewery (1908–1992) was the longest operational American saké brewery. It closed December 31, 1992.

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 Japanese pub-type.

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 information.

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 sequence.

"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 also daiginjo.)

Seishu, "refined" saké, is also called Nihonshu ("Japanese" saké). This is saké produced by the traditional doubling method. (See Moromi.)

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 beverage.

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 yeast.

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.


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