I previously said in my first article, “A Beginner’s Guide to Sake”, that sake was a drink of two main ingredients, but after the first article I realised that to understand the unique taste of sake I needed to inform you about all four of the wonderful ingredients and their purposes in making this traditional Japanese drink.

The four ingredients of traditional sake

The four ingredients utilised to produce sake are rice, water, koji and yeast.

Rice, as we have covered in the previous article, has those outer layers of the rice grain that are ‘polished’ off so that the starch at the heart of the grain can be fermented.

Water is also a key part of the process since every brewery will have their own water source and each water source will bring its own distinct individual flavours and characteristics to the brew.

Then there is yeast, which is added to turn the starch that is in the heart of the rice grain into alcohol. Yeast does this to all starches in all drinks across the planet. Without yeast we would have no alcohol, really we wouldn’t!

Yeasts occur naturally in nature and scientists have been cloning and breeding yeasts to ferment at different temperatures and at different speeds. Each individual yeast used will bring their distinct elements to the sake.

The final and most magical ingredient is Koji, the one element that makes sake different from any other brewed rice drink in the world. So, what is Koji then?

Koji is cooked rice [and or soya beans] that becomes inoculated with Aspergillus oryzae, a fermentation culture or mold. This culture grows naturally all across Japan and is used in many Japanese foods across the centuries, such as soya sauce, miso and especially sake.

The Koji production for sake stripped down to its basic steps goes like this. Add the culture to the steamed rice. Place this mixture in a warm humid place for up to 50 hours, traditionally in wooden trays. During this time the culture feeds by using enzymes that have developed to specifically break down carbohydrates and proteins, and this is important, into amino acids, fatty acids and simple sugars. It is these simple sugars that are converted into alcohol and carbon dioxide by the action off the yeasts.

However, the sakeness of sake comes from when Koji releases an amino acid called glutamate. To the sake this amino acid passes on the Umami, that sensation of intensely satisfying and savoury taste that is the ‘fifth Beatle’ of taste. Salt, sugar, sweet, bitter and Umami.

All food and drinks with Koji glutamate and the alcohol from the converted simple sugars will always create a deep flavour and rounded edge that can be hard to describe without the word, Umami. There is a familial word from the Japanese umami which can be translated as “pleasant savoury taste”.

The pairing of the Umami 

Now for the pairing part. What does it pair best with? Unsurprisingly enough, foods with high levels of Umami. Think salty and fatty, in a good way.

Here is a list of excellent pairing partners for sake due to their high levels of umami: Mushrooms, especially dried shitaki; smoked fish, or even fermented fish; cured meats; ripe tomatoes; Chinese cabbage; celery; spinach; fermented and bacterially developed foods such as cheeses, aged blue cheese, cured hams, pork, cured pork, fatty meats, fish sauce, soy sauce and especially oyster sauce; and finally the number one pairing is Sushi. Getting some idea now? It also goes amazingly well with Vegemite and Marmite. Honestly.

Sushi with some sake tasting! Photo credit Kent Wong.

Sake is a great drink to discover and in part three we will introduce you to the role it can play in drink mixing.

Remember more can be found out by asking at your nearest Japanese restaurant, and also by following @thesommelierUK.


More stories:

A Beginner’s Guide to Sake

Romance is in the Air with Champagne and Oysters