Over the next two years there is going to be a lot of news surrounding Japan as they host the rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympics. You may decide to go and visit and if you do you must have a taste of some authentic Japanese sake, the drink Japan is best known for.

First thing to make sure you are aware of is that sake is not a wine. Not a rice wine, nor a wine made from rice. That’s right, it is not a wine. Actually since it is brewed, it is more like a beer, but it isn’t a beer either. It is just sake!

Sake barrels fermenting rice and water. Photo credit Jasmine Halki.

How it is made and how to spot the best

Sake is made of fermented rice and water. Every brewery in Japan has their own blend of rice, source of water, and the special ingredient koji (more about Koji in later writings). It is special to each brewery and each batch contains its closely guarded secret.

The rice grown for sake is different from the rice made for eating. In fact, there are more types of rice grown for sake than there are for eating. Just like the preparation of barley for brewing beer, the essential element needed for this alcoholic drink is the starch at the heart of the grain of rice. Surrounding the starch of the grain of rice are proteins and fats, so the outside of the grain is polished away. 

A rice field in Japan. Photo credit tokyofoodcast from Creative Commons.

There are 3 levels of polishing that help grades the sake. 30% of the outside of the rice polished away is the minimum amount before the rice can be considered for use in brewing. 30%-40% of the rice polished away puts the quality of sake one stage higher.

The top level of sake means that at least 50% of the outside of the rice grain is polished away. This is premium quality. In fact the higher the percentage of polished away rice the better. Some producers polish up to 70%! So always look on the bottle for that percentage because the higher the percentage number you see the better quality product you are receiving.

However, some sake has distilled alcohol added to it. So the first separator to understand is how to spot the difference. Junmai is sake made without adding anything to it, and if it doesn’t say Junmai on the bottle then alcohol has been added. The better sakes are always considered to be Junmai.

To put all the polishing percentages and Junmai together try to spot these words. On non-Junmai look for Honjozo [30%], Ginjo [40%] and Daiginjo [50%+]. Then for the Junmai Sake, held to be much better quality, keep an eye out for Junmai [30%], Junmai Gingo [40%], and Junmai Daigingo [50%+]. The phrases are very similar, but just look out for Junmai and the percentage if you find the Japanese words tricky like I do!

Now for pairing!

Well there is one thing that all sake has over most wines. Umami. This is a sensation left after drinking, a ‘savouriness’. It isn’t a flavour or taste, but more a sensation. As a result of this, sake tends to pair well with foods that also have an umami sensation such as fatty meats, especially pork, mushrooms, sushi, ramen, sashimi and tempura.

Some fatty meat and snacks perfect for some sake! Photo credit tokyofoodcast.

Equally it works well with even salty snacks like nuts and crisps, a blue cheese, or even with a rich Italian ragu sauce. Sake also works perfectly as a base in many cocktails, details to come in my next article.

For now, this was just your starter to the fascinating work of sake and food pairing. 

Oh and if you find your way to London, definitely visit Sakenoteca in London’s Soho, just on Poland Street, this would give you a great taste in the different variations of great sake. 


Follow The Sommelier Uk on twitter at @thesommelieruk.

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