Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Buying Great Sake

On occasion, I'll write blog entries about my avocations - rock and ice climbing, playing the Japanese flute, drinking green tea, winemaking, mushroom hunting and finding the perfect Sake.

Today's entry is about buying Sake, which can be very confusing.

Sake is made from rice, water, Koji (Aspergillus Oryzae, a starch dissolving mold), and yeast. It is not a distilled beverage and is generally between 15% and 17% alcohol. Sake takes approximately one month to brew, followed by a six month aging period and is meant to be consumed soon after purchase. Try to buy a sake bottled within the last year. There is no such thing as a vintage Sake.

Interpreting a Sake label can be challenging. The most important elements reflect the addition of alcohol and the processing of the rice. You'll find one of two designations about alcohol

Honjozo - Sake to which a small amount of distilled alcohol is added
Junmai- No added alcohol

Premium sake is brewed with special Sake rice in which the starch component (the shinpaku or "white heart") is concentrated at the center of the grain, with proteins, fats, and amino acids located toward the outside. With increased milling, sake makers can remove the fats, proteins, and amino acids that lead to unwanted flavors and aromas in the brewing process. Ginjo-shu (premium Sake) has at least 40% or more milled away. Daiginjo (super premium Sake) has at least 50% or more milled away. Sake bottles list Seimaibuai, the amount of the rice grain left after milling.

Another important element is the level of dryness. The Sake Meter Value (Nihonshu-do) is the specific gravity of a Sake. It indicates how much of the sugars created from the starches in the rice were converted to alcohol, and how much remained to contribute to sweetness. By historical convention, the higher the number, the drier the Sake. What is the range? In theory, it is open-ended. In practice, + 10 or so is quite dry, -4 or so is quite sweet, and +3 or so is neutral.

Acidity affects how the flavor spreads, and also the sensation of sweet and dry. The range is quite narrow, with 0.7 being low and 2.0 being quite high. 1.2 or so is average.

Good Sake is made from special Sake rice. There are dozens of types of Sake rice, which is different from eating rice, but only a handful that are truly worth remembering. The most important of these is Yamada Nishiki.

Yeast mainly affects fragrance, and then flavor. There are dozens of yeast strains, each with its own subtly different characteristics, mostly affecting fragrance, but also flavor. Learning to discern the characteristics of the various yeast strains is part of the fun of learning about Sake.

Other elements you may find on the label are

Amakuchi -Sweet in flavor
Jizake - Sake from smaller sake breweries
Karakuchi - Dry in flavor
Nigori - Unfiltered sake which has a white milky color
Yamahai - Sake brewed in a way that allows wild yeasts to grow. This is rarely done since the aroma is "gamey".

My favorite Sake is Wandering Poet, a Junmai Ginjo made by Rihaku Shuzo, Shimane Prefecture. Brewed slowly at low temperatures using traditional brewing techniques and Yamada Nishiki rice with 45% milled away, it has a well-rounded flavor, extraordinary fragrance, and a clean finish.

Let's analyze the label:
*Junmai Ginjo means no alcohol added and at least 40% of the rice grain has been milled away. I tend to prefer Junmai Ginjo instead of Junmai Daigingo, because the Ginjo has more intense flavor and character. I tend to eat a lot of raw/unrefined foods and I prefer my sake a little less refined.
*Sake Meter Value/Nihonshudo +3 means that this is neither overly dry nor sweet
*Alcohol 15.2% means that it is relatively low in alcohol for a sake
*Acidity 1.6 means that it is a crisp sake, relatively high in acid, that goes well with food
*Seimaibuai 55% means that 45% of the rice grain has been milled away
*Yamada Nishiki means that a premium rice has been used
*Yeast # 9 means that a specific strain of yeast was used. Many ginjo yeasts are #9-based strains which creates a great fragrance and a consistent fermentation.

Sakes are available at many liquor stores throughout the US, but often they are from inexpensive American producers. The best Sakes are available online and from a few regional specialty stores that import fine Sake. Interestingly Trader Joes often has fine Junmai Ginjo type Sakes at a great price.

Sake should be served chilled, not warmed. Warming is only done with inferior Sakes to hide the impurities.

So drop by your nearby Trader Joes, pickup a bottle of a Junmai Ginjo Sake and serve it chilled. You'll have a great Sake experience.

1 comment:

John3 said...

Wandering poet's pretty good. Have you tried Wakatake? I think I would have to say that one's my favorite. I don't know all the information you discuss however, which is quite interesting.