First, let me tell you a little about my background.
As a sake professional, I have spent the past 20 years working to raise awareness about Japanese sake and other alcoholic drinks from Japan. In 2013, I received the prestigious title of Sake Samurai from the Japan Sake Brewers Association Junior Council in recognition for my work in promoting sake and Japanese culture in general.
It was a surprise to receive an award like this, especially since the road that brought me here began with a passing interest in Japan; I never planned to be recognised as a sake professional. My connection to Japan originated at a young age with simply watching Japanese cartoons (anime) on TV. However, as I grew older the number of Japan-inspired interests grew as if there was something that kept drawing me back to be emotionally invested in the country. When I was old enough to go out to dine it was a natural choice for me to start frequenting Japanese restaurants and in doing so gained an even greater understanding of the food, culture and this amazing drink, sake.
My first experience of premium Japanese sake came in 1996 on my first trip to Japan. I travelled across the country over a period of 5 weeks, often eating in local izakaya featuring sake from the region. That was the moment when it truly struck home just how amazing Japanese sake is, and how good a partner it makes with a wide range of foods. I was also taken by the role of the izakaya as a meeting place, that brings people together in a friendly atmosphere where there was a comradery shared over sake.
This was the beginning of my love affair with the rich world of Japanese food and sake, and my personal desire to build a stronger connection with the country led to my desire to share my interests in and passion for Japan with others. The journey that then began to learn more about sake tasting and food pairings led to me becoming a sake professional.
SAKE AND WINE – SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES
While sake and wine share a place as drinks that can be especially enjoyed with food, there are several distinct differences. I usually don’t like to draw comparisons between the two as I feel it is important that they are seen as what they are, two very different beverages. However, if pressed, I will say that from a purely scientific angle, sake, by way of its amino acid composition is in general a better match to food in most cases. There is a phrase in Japan that simply states, “sake does not fight with food.”
One common trait of sake is that it makes for a good partner to food. Whether high in salt, deep fried, or full bodied, sake has the ability to make a good partner to all dishes no matter what you serve. In particular, where wine makes a poor partner with foods that are high in salt, one of the key traits of sake is that it matches extremely well with foods that are very salty.
When it comes to wine, you choose what to drink first, then look for a matching dish second. In other words, wine takes centre stage on the table because it makes you consider what to eat based on your selection of wine. You might even say that wine is the leader, and that food follows after. In that sense, sake and food both stand on an even setting. Sake is flexible in its pairing with food, and helps bring out the flavour of the food itself. Sake is a drink that combines a full aroma with the ability to perfectly match any food you put it with.
CATEGORIES AND VARIETIES OF SAKE
The three main grades of sake are: daijinjo, ginjo, and honjozo. The principle difference between them is the degree to which the rice used is polished. Daiginjo is generally considered a high-grade sake where an extremely large proportion of the rice has been polished away, making it in most cases delicate in style. In highly milled grades, certain rice strains are commonly used such as Yamada Nishiki, since it is known for its smooth and translucent mouthfeel and, when partnered with the right yeast, can produce stunning floral or fruity notes. junmai styles signify sake where the alcohol is derived from fermentation alone, whereas non-junmai grades do contain the addition of a small amount of brewers alcohol.
By comparison, the ginjo and honjozo categories retain a stronger aroma of rice, and are fuller both in body and flavour. These varieties are comparable in style to a fuller-bodied wine. It is important to note that when we discuss these characteristics of grades, rice and styles we usually talk in general terms, however, there are always exceptions to the rule. This variety and variation brought about by the many factors that can be manipulated during brewing and of course the skill and intent of the brewers, make sake such a fascinating journey of discovery.
In addition to this categorisation based on the proportion of rice polishing, there are also many varieties of sake based on other factors as well. For example, the type of sake rice used in production. Yamada Nishiki is one of the most famous, and is used in high-quality sake while other types of sake rice are used in sake where the aroma of rice is more strongly pronounced.
In addition to the sake rice itself as a component of sake, conditions such as differences in the distinct seasons in Japan and regional climates also give birth to variations. Sake brewers take into account a variety of conditions, such as the climate and the condition of local water in search of the right answer to the kind of sake rice to use and ideas about the kind of sake to create. This is also where sake brewers can show off their skill in brewing. Styles of drinking, from cold to room temperature and warm then have a further effect on the flavour of the finished sake, another of the points that highlights the depth and joy of sake.
ENTERING THE WORLD OF JAPANESE SAKE
Over the years, I have introduced sake in a variety of ways, such as at large-scale dinners, sake classes that teach professional knowledge, at tasting events, and more. No matter the situation, I have always strived to introduce sake of good quality so that guests can discover the wonders of sake and hopefully that sparks an interest in learning more about it. I feel the best way to learn about sake is by enjoying it with food and in doing so, you will can understand what great partners they make.
One of the easiest ways to appreciate sake is to try a variety of different sake at the same sitting. This gives you a chance to easily appreciate how styles can vary whether it be sweet, dry, full or light bodied and so on. Differences in sake can be subtle, but equipped with a little knowledge you will soon begin to appreciate its diverse offering.
For those interested in learning more about sake, know that you have an enjoyable journey ahead. Relax and enjoy your trip out into the world of Japanese sake.
With 20 years of experience promoting Japanese beverages, Andre Bishop is recognised as Australia’s leading authority on sake. As a pioneer of the local sake scene he continues to provide consulting, education and promotional services to assist both the industry and the consumer. He shares his passion for sake with others in order to encourage more Australians to discover the joys of sake and Japanese culture in general.
In August 2013, Andre was inaugurated as a Sake Samurai in Kyoto, Japan. This prestigious title has only been bestowed to a handful of non-Japanese sake experts around the world and is the highest honour awarded by the Japanese sake industry. Andre owns a number of award winning Japanese restaurants in Melbourne that showcase the depth and breadth of what sake has to offer. He is the Australian Brand Manager for the prestigious Dassai brewery and is one of the few non-Japanese to have been accepted into the often closed world of sake breweries and has worked as a sake brewer in Kyoto and Yamaguchi. (Web: www.sakemaster.com.au)
In early October 2017, I departed Sydney on an ANA flight headed for Japan. Early the next morning, I arrived at Haneda Airport and transferred onto a domestic flight. My destination? Hiroshima. As you are probably already aware, Hiroshima, along with Nagasaki, were the only tragic towns to fall victim to atomic bombings during World War II. This devastating past has led to the opening of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park to honour the victims of the bombings, as well as the symbolic Atomic Bomb Dome, which stands in place to promote world peace and is a highly popular tourist attraction.
However, the aim of my trip was not to visit those widely-known sites, but rather sake breweries with their roots in Hiroshima. In fact, Hiroshima is a rather prolific sake (Japanese rice wine) producing town and renowned for the sake event that is held there annually on the second Saturday of October. As of the 1st of October 2017, foreign tourists to Japan are now exempt from liquor taxes. This change is expected to spur on a highly increased demand for Japanese rice wines. The abolishment of liquor taxes is to encourage international tourists to visit sake breweries, distilleries and wineries, and, in turn, increase consumption in those regions whilst boosting the demand for Japanese alcoholic beverages around in the world.
With that in mind, I decided to visit the breweries around Hiroshima and have a peek at the big festival myself.
A BREWERY OF OLD IN THE PICTURESQUE TAKEHARA – FUJI SHUZOU
Situated an approximate 30 minute drive away from Hiroshima airport is a town called Takehara. The charming streets of Takehara have served as the backdrop for many a drama and anime because of how photogenic they are. Takahara has the Seto Inland Sea at its doorstep that helped to create its once booming salt industry and its stunning scenery earned it the nickname, “The Little Kyoto of Aki” (Aki was the former name for Hiroshima). Old wooden buildings still line the beautiful streets to this day, whilst the Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, filled with their rich histories, continue to uphold the town’s olden-day atmosphere.
One major characteristic of the town, which cannot be overlooked, is the district of buildings which has remained untouched in terms of historical appearance and usage. The streets of Takehara, which were completed during the early Edo period, are comprised of the main road in the centre of the town running from north to south and most street blocks branching out from there. I looked up and down the main street to see a sight dominated by predominantly merchant houses and warehouses – a snapshot of traditional Japan in the modern day.
I walked through the historic streets and arrived at a long-standing sake brewery – Fuji Shuzou. Takehara is blessed with a cool and pure underground source of water which it draws upon for tap water. The founder of Fuji Shuzou Brewery pinpointed Takehara over 150 years ago as the perfect location to produce sake due to its high quality water.
Sake, in the simplest of terms, can be described as wine made by filtering fermented rice. While it may sound simple when broken down into a one sentence description, it is an extremely complicated process. I was fortunate enough to observe this whole process at Fuji Shuzou on my visit there.
The first process is to polish the rice to be used in making the sake. Polishing the rice involves removing its outer layer and the type of sake to be made will determine how much the rice is polished. It goes without saying that, the more the rice is polished, the smaller the grain of rice becomes and the higher the cost of brewing the sake will be. After the rice is polished, it is then washed and allowed to soak in water. When it comes to producing the top-line ginjo variety of rice wine, it becomes a precise process decided by mere seconds.
The rice is then steamed to a very particular standard where the outside is slightly hard and the inside is slightly soft. Once the rice has been steamed, it is then cooled to varying temperatures depending on whether it will be used to make koji, yeast mash or unrefined sake. The steamed rice destined to become koji is sprinkled with koji mould and is allowed to sit for 2 days under strictly controlled temperatures to ferment. This process causes the rice starch to turn into glucose, which is the source of sweetness and umami in sake.
Next, the process to create unrefined sake begins by combining steamed rice, water, koji, yeast and lactic acid together. As the name suggests, unrefined sake is used to produce the sake we are all familiar with, and the process to create this vital product churns out what is known as “moromi”. Once the moromi has been mixed together, it is left to ferment and age for a month whilst being monitored and subjected to meticulous tweaks.
The fermented moromi is strained to give us sake. Freshly strained sake still contains some sediment, so it is left to rest to allow the clear layer to float up and separate from the sediment. The clear sake is then filtered and heat treated to kill off any bacteria and stabilise the wine itself. Finally, it is stored away and diluted with prepared water to create the perfect flavour.
After learning about the complicated processes behind producing sake, I tasted one of Fuji Shuzou’s creations – Ryusei. It was so delicious that it was impossible for me to stop at just one drink. I had to almost be dragged away as I tottered through the beautiful streets of Takehara with a cheerful sake glow on my way towards my next destination.
KAMOTSURU SAKE BREWING AND THE SAIJO SAKE FESTIVAL
I left Takehara and headed towards the town of Saijo. Saijo is one of Japan’s most prominent sake towns and is the home to a number of sakebreweries. The chimneys littered around the streets give the town its characteristic appearance as a brewing capital. As previously explained, rice must be steamed in order to make sake and while boilers are used nowadays, stoked fires were traditionally used, which is why the chimneys still stand today. Although the chimneys are no longer in use, they have been maintained as symbols of the town’s brewing culture.
Of the many sake brewers who flocked to Saijo for its ideal sake-making weather and water, I decided to visit Kamotsuru Sake Brewing for a tour. While each brewer essentially carries out the same process to make their wines, facilities differ from place to place. For those who are particularly interested,
it might be worth taking tours of different breweries to discern the various differences. A fun little aspect of the tour at Kamotsuru is the ability to experience what it is like to mix up the ingredients to make sake yourself.
The sake produced by Kamotsuru is said to be characteristically dry. They are harked to be the pioneers of producing the daiginjo style of sake. Kamotsuru are also known as the producers of the gold-leafed infused “Gold Kamotsuru” that Prime Minister Abe poured for the (then) President Obama to drink. Visitors can taste and compare the many different sake Kamotsuru has to offer whilst reading up on serving suggestions and flavour profiles.
The day I visited Saijo was also the day of the Sake Matsuri (festival) which explained the sounds of taiko drums echoing about, shrines being carried around the streets and the town overflowing with people. The main event of the day took place at the Sake Hiroba. Purchasing a 2000 yen ticket to the event granted me access to a park filled with over 1000 different sake from all over Japan and the prerogative to drink all I wanted to. The grounds were opened from 10am to nighttime which allowed for a day full of enjoying sake with friends.
While Japanese people are often seen as shy and reserved, they tend to let their hair down when it comes to festivals. The vibrant energy in the event area was somewhat chaotic, however, it was also another prime display of Japanese culture to soak up. There were also lots of snacks to complement the sake so it’s definitely an event for sake lovers. The festival is the perfect opportunity to dive into the sake culture of Japan and I highly recommend visitors to check it out on their next trip over there.
The exemption on liquor tax only applies to sales from breweries and wineries that have been approved for the exemption. At this stage, general retailers are not exempt. Make sure you pick up a bottle or two of sake if you happen to find yourself at a brewery.
Japanese rice wine, or sake, is an alcoholic beverage brewed from fermented rice. In addition to rice, its base ingredients are koji and water, where koji is a mould grown on the rice that kick-starts the fermentation process. The rice grain is polished and left to ferment. The flavour of the sake is established by the rice and water used, and most importantly, the amount of rice grain that is polished away.
HISTORY OF SAKE
Sake has been around for over 2,000 years and was traditionally used for religious ceremonies and court festivals. In the beginning, sake production was controlled by the government, but in the 10th century production was taken over by temples and shrines.
The Meiji Restoration saw a sake boom. Many breweries were set up by landowners who would brew sake from leftover rice crops, rather than let rice grain go to waste.
Today, sake is brewed not only in Japan, but also in Asia, America, and even in Australia. The Go-Shu Australian sake brewery operated by Sun Masamune is located in Penrith.
October 1st is official World Sake Day: Nihonshu no Hi, and is traditionally the start date of Japanese sake production.
Like wine, sake should be sipped and savoured, not drunk in shots. When drinking sake in a group, you will often hear the expression, “kampai!” — the equivalent of “bottoms up!” — but after making the toast, you should sip and enjoy the rest of your glass at your own pace. There is no need to down sake in one shot.
WHERE TO TASTE SAKE
In Australia there are plenty of places to enjoy sake with Japanese food. Head to your local izakaya and order away! Some izakaya have push carts on which sake is brought to your table. The restaurant staff may offer you a taste before you order. Take the opportunity to chat with the staff about your preferred flavour profile and ask for suggestions. If you would like to buy some sake in Sydney, Tokyo Mart, located in Northbridge Plaza, is a 15-minute drive from the city. Tokyo Mart has an extensive range of sake and other Japanese beverages.
TYPES OF SAKE
The labels on sake bottles carry a lot of legally required information that will assist you in knowing what to expect of your drink. For example, the label will tell you the type of sake, its alcohol content, its ingredients (in particular, if it contains distilled alcohol), the production date, the amount in the bottle, the name and address of the brewer, and the sake’s characteristics.
Sake is split into different categories depending on the rice polishing ratio, or how much grain remains after polishing. Sake is brewed from the starch inside the rice grain. Less polished rice with more grain remaining results in a full-bodied and richer sake. The more polished the rice, the cleaner and crisper the taste.
Occasionally, brewers may add distilled alcohol into a sake brew to adjust the taste. Sake made with pure rice and not containing distilled alcohol is differentiated by the prefix, junmai, meaning pure rice.
There are three main types of aroma and flavour.
Ginjo has a rice polishing ratio of 60 per cent. Ginjo sake is pure, refreshing and rich, yet light bodied. It includes dai-ginjo, in which the rice is most polished to less than 50 per cent remaining grain. Dai-ginjo is the most expensive sake as it takes approximately 40 hours to polish rice to less than 50 per cent of its volume.
Ginjo sake that does not contain distilled alcohol is known as junmai ginjo-shu, or junmai dai-ginjo-shu, depending on the rice polishing ratio. Ginjo is best served cold.
Honjozo has a rice polishing ratio of 70 per cent. It takes some ten hours for rice to be polished to this level. Tokubetsu honjozo is in the same flavour profile, but has a rice polishing ratio of 60 per cent. Both types of honjozo have small amounts of distilled alcohol added, resulting in a cleaner, more fragrant and drier sake. Honjozo may be served hot or cold.
Junmai has an unspecified rice polishing ratio and no distilled alcohol added. Junmai is rich, savoury, and full bodied, with a subtle aroma. It is not as polished as ginjo sake, and generally has a rice-like flavour. Junmai is best served at room temperature, or warm, to bring out the most flavour.
SAKE METER VALUE (SMV)
SMV is used to indicate the sweetness or dryness of sake. It is a measure of the density of sake relative to water. A negative SMV indicates a sweeter sake, while a positive value defines a dry sake, and is affected by the sugar content, or level of acidity. SMV is indicative of sake flavour and an average SMV is +3.
HOW SAKE IS PREPARED AND SERVED
Sake is served neat at either room temperature, chilled, or warmed. Temperature is dependent on the type of sake being drunk. The label on the bottle may include a suggested serving temperature. Sake should be warmed in a bath of hot water and not over an open flame. The best approach is to use a thermometer to monitor the temperature.
Some sake contains sediment. Sake with sediment should not be shaken. Move the bottle gently from side to side to mix the liquid before serving.
Most restaurants will serve sake in a small, bowl-shaped cup called a choko, poured from a flask called a tokkuri. A tokkuri is good for serving warm sake, as the narrow neck prevents heat from escaping, but a tokkuri can also be used to serve sake cold. A slightly larger cup is known as a guinomi and is used to serve both warm and cold sake.
Cold sake is sometimes served in a tall shot glass placed in a wooden box called a masu. The sake overflowing from the shot glass into the masu represents wealth and abundance. Start by drinking the sake from the shot glass, then either pour the remaining sake from the masu into the shot glass, or drink from a corner of the masu itself. If the shot glass comes in contact with a surface outside the masu, do not return the glass into the sake-filled masu, to avoid contamination.
There are quite a few sake breweries in the market. The more popular ones are Hakkaisan and Dassai. Each is brewed in different parts of Japan and are available in Australia at various izakaya Japanese pubs.
LIKE WINE, SAKE SHOULD BE SIPPED AND SAVOURED, NOT DRUNK IN SHOTS.