Want to learn more about Japanese culture as you take Japanese lessons? Then you should explore different types of Japanese cuisine and Japanese beverages (if you are of age). Sake is a popular Japanese beverage, and luckily, if you’re unable to travel to Japan, you can enjoy certain types of sake in the United States…
So next time you head out to eat sushi, you’ll be able to order and enjoy sake like a pro. Here’s everything you need to know about Japanese sake.
What is Sake?
Although the specific date and origin of sake remains open for debate, the earliest accounts of the alcoholic beverage have dated back to the 10th century.
Sake was brewed in temples and shrines, and by the 18th century, was a popular drink in Japan. At one point in the late 1800s, anyone was allowed to make sake, which created an explosion of breweries.
Eventually, many people opted out of sake making, and what were left were long-standing family breweries, some of which still operate today. The oldest Japanese sake brewer is Sudo Honke.
Sake is made from rice, and the alcohol content (15 to 20 percent) is higher than most wines.
How to Make Sake
Making sake is a three-step process. It’s a rice-based drink made from hulled, polished rice. The three steps in the process are koji, shubo, and moromi.
During the first step, spores of mold are added to polished and steamed rice. Since rice does not contain sugar, it has to be converted into sugar. This is done with the help of koji-kin (a type of mold).
The koji is then added to a yeast starter and mash to assist turning the starch into glucose.
In the second step, steamed rice, koji, water, and yeast are combined to spur the moromi process.
In the final step, shubo is combined with koji, steamed rice, and water, and everything is left to ferment. Once done, sake is pressed, filtered, and pasteurized before being stored cold.
The sake-making process is intricate, and often done slightly different in Japanese breweries. As with any alcohol, there are levels of quality.
In general, Japanese sakes are better than those produced in other countries—they’ve had more time to perfect the technique.
Types of Sake
Now you know that sake is made up of water, koji, mold, yeast, and rice, but different types of sake have a different concentration of ingredients.
Here are the four basic types of sake:
Junmai sake has no added sugars, starches, or alcohol. To make junmai sake, the rice is milled 30 percent, and there is 70 percent of each grain remaining.
Honjozo is a little smoother than Junmai, as a small amount of additional alcohol is added to lighten the flavor.
The 30 and 70 percent rice ratio is the same in Honjozo sake.
Ginjo has the same ingredients as Honjozo, but the rice is milled 40 percent, with 60 percent of each grain remaining.
To make Daiginjo sake, 50 to 65 percent of the rice gets milled away, creating a fragrant, full-bodied sake.
How to Drink Sake
- Sake is served in a tokkuri, which looks like a vase.
- You drink sake out of cups called ochoko.
- Do not pour your own sake. Let your friend or colleague fill your cup, then in return, you pour his or her sake.
- Don’t drink your sake until everyone’s glass is full. In Japan, everyone will raise their glass and say “kampai“ (cheers).
- Sake bombs (a shot of sake poured in a beer glass) are an American tradition, you may not want to do sake bombs in Japan.
Sake can be served hot, cold, or at room temperature. In most cases, the most refined, high-quality sake is served cold.
Start exploring different brands and types of sake. Make note of what you like and what you might pass on in the future. It’s a fun process, and eventually you will be a seasoned sake pro.
Order in Japanese
If you’re learning Japanese, use some of your basic phrases to order sake. It’s a fun way to practice what you’ve learned. Use greeting, simple phrases and remember to thank your server.
Sake in the United States
Like most U.S imports, there is a level of Americanization with sake. You can find sake bars around the nation and participate in more straightforward consumption methods, or you can have some fun and try things like the sake bomb.
Although many sake aficionados prefer Japanese sake, American brewers have started to up their game. In a land of craft beer, creating sake is second nature. And what’s even more interesting is that some of Japan’s oldest brewers have begun to dabble in craft beer. It’s a win-win for everyone, since the results will most likely produce some excellent new lines of sake and beer.
It’s a wonderful drink and tradition, much like wine and beer, and it has the power to bring people together.
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