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Deciphering Japanese Sake: A Crash Course in Nihonshu

Sake, known as nihonshu in Japan, has seen a surge in popularity over the last decade or so alongside the rapid global rise of Japanese culinary culture. Despite its historically poor reputation as cheap liquor that tastes bad and brings horrendous hangovers, sake's rebranding as a classy and upscale beverage has made it a hit in Japan and other countries.

At first glance, a bar's sake shelf can be intimidating, especially if you don't read the language. When visiting Japan, how should one choose the best sake to enjoy their drinking experience? The following is a quick run-down of the brewing process and sake types, as well as some recommended methods for choosing and tasting sake.

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The Brewing Process

Sake is often referred to as "Japanese rice wine" for convenience's sake, but in reality it has very little in common with wine. Sake is brewed, not fermented, and its production process has more similarities to that of beer.

Production starts with unpolished rice cultivated specifically for brewing. The outer portion of each grain, which contains fats, minerals and proteins, is milled away, which is a difficult and time-consuming process that has been mostly automated in modern times. The rice is then washed then soaked in ultra-pure water meeting rigorous specifications--water quality has a big effect on the final taste. After this, the rice is steamed via high-temperature steam blasting, then cooled.

The next step is the creation of koji, which is steamed rice onto which koji-kin mold has been cultivated. This is a pivotal step in the production process, and careful precision and temperature control are required. Many types of koji are used throughout the industry, but most agree handmade koji is the best.

An old chimney at a sake brewery in Hiroshima (Saijo)

Brewers then move on to making the moto, the yeast starter. This is prepared separately and then mixed in stages with the koji, rice and water. This mixture, or mash, is known as moromi, and it is allowed to ferment with additional koji, rice and water added in over the course of several days. The finished moromi is pressed through a filter to separate out the sake.

Following pressing, some brewers filter their sake by adding powdered carbon, which can remove naturally occurring amber coloring and eliminates undesirable flavors. However, with advances in technologies and techniques today, this step is not always necessary, and some brewers prefer to skip filtering to retain certain flavor characteristics.

Finally, water is added to lower the alcohol content, which tends to be around 20% after brewing. Most sake is then pasteurized twice: once before aging and once again before final bottling.

Rice Polishing is Key: Understanding Sake Grades

A majority of sake you will find in the supermarket are low-quality, hangover-inducing concoctions best avoided by any drinker. These are known as futsu-shu (普通酒, lit. "ordinary sake"), and while good futsu-shu does exist, it is uncommon. Nada and Fushimi are famous sake production regions in Japan due to their high output volumes, yet few people realize that much of this is cheap, unpalatable futsu-shu.

Junmaishu (純米酒) is pure rice sake made using only rice, water and koji-kin, whose rice grains have been milled down to 70% of their original size or less to remove the flavor-impeding outer layers. Honjozoshu (本醸造酒) is similar to junmaishu (same milling requirement) but with a very small amount of other liquor added to the moromi before pressing, which increases yields and sometimes enhances or lightens the flavor. Tokubetsu-junmaishu (特別純米酒) and tokubetsu-honjozoshu (特別本醸造酒) are usually similar but with rice milled more than the standard junmaishu/honjozoshu requirements.

Ginjoshu (吟醸酒) is sake in which the rice grains are milled to 60% or less of their original size, and daiginjoshu (大吟醸酒) has rice grains milled to 50% or less (with some as low as 35%). These types of sake require additional time and labor but often have a more refined taste--and also a higher price tag. Junmai-ginjoshu (純米吟醸酒) and junmai-daiginjoshu (純米大吟醸酒) are ginjoshu and daiginjoshu made without the addition of other types of liquor. In other words, these are junmaishu that meet the higher-grade milling requirements.

Small Process Changes, Big Flavor Alterations

In addition to choosing good raw ingredients, producers tweak the brewing process in order to achieve certain flavors. The following terms show these process changes.
• Namazake (生酒): Sake that has not been pasteurized.
• Namachozo (生貯蔵): Sake that has been pasteurized once (rather than twice) before bottling.
• Muroka (無濾過): Unfiltered sake. Refers to sake that is not filtered using carbon powder.
• Nigorizake (濁酒): Cloudy sake that has larger particles from the moromi remaining through use of a larger-holed mesh during pressing, or by adding some of the lees back into the sake after pressing. Offers unique tastes and textures.
• Genshu (原酒): Sake into which no water has been added to reduce alcohol content, giving it a stronger flavor impact.
• Koshu (古酒): Aged sake (usually several years or more), usually featuring a darker color and an unusual taste that many first-time drinkers find to be off-putting. It is popular among long-time sake enthusiasts.

Sake Tasting Tips

With so many factors in play, how can you find a sake that's right for you? To start with, use the above information your advantage. Many people prefer to start with ginjo and daiginjo grade sake, which usually has sweeter, mellower, more accessible flavors. As time passes, try sampling a few junmai and honjozo sake for more interesting tastes.

When tasting, it's important to note that the vessel can make a difference. The same sake tastes different when drunk from a ceramic, metal, glass and wooden cup, and the texture, size and thickness of the cup also changes how the liquid hits the palate.

Before drinking, take in the smell of the sake. Does it remind you of apples, pears, or perhaps licorice? Next, take a sip and leave it in your mouth for a few moments, breathing in and out through your nose to ensure that the aroma and flavors intermingle. Note that sake is not meant to be consumed like a shot of vodka or tequila.

After swallowing, observe whether the sake has a long or short "tail"–in other words, whether the flavor lingers or vanishes quickly. This is also a good time to check how the aftertaste compares with the original taste.

Many brewers define their sake on a sliding scale ranging from karakuchi (dry) to amakuchi (sweet), and these terms are useful in describing a sake's flavor characteristics. Nihonshu-do is often used to numerically express this range, with numbers above zero being increasingly dry and negative numbers being increasingly sweet.

Finding a Sake That's Right For You

Although some enthusiasts are picky about minor brewing details or devote themselves only to high-priced types such as junmai-daiginjo, the basic junmai and honjozo usually offer more interesting flavors in the long run. Keep in mind that the same brand of sake tends to taste different from year to year depending on crop conditions, ingredients used, climate conditions and the skill of that year's production team, so it's more important to stick with producers you like (most of whom put out multiple brands) rather than remaining loyal to specific sake brands. Ultimately, it’s best to follow your gut when discovering what you like rather than worrying about brand or maker prestige. Use your knowledge of sake to enjoy it more, but don't let that interfere with your instincts. After all, no two people love the exact same sake.

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