Sugar And Spice And All Things Rice

Saké. Everyone knows what it is. It’s Japanese rice wine, right? Well, that’s only partly correct. It is actually closer to a beer than to a wine in its method of production, and its range of styles and its combinations of savoury and sweet flavours make it ideal to drink with food. I’ve wanted to learn more about Saké for quite some time, and a recent tasting at Hanging Ditch with Alex Johnson of Eaux De Vie was a great introduction to the varieties and complexities of this enigmatic drink.

It turns out that the word “Saké” in Japanese refers to all alcoholic beverages in general. When it is obvious that the topic of discussion is Saké as we know it outside of Japan, then the word Saké will suffice. If further differentiation is necessary however, the Japanese will refer to Nihonshu or “the Saké of Japan”.

Making Saké is an infinitely intricate process. Of all of the Saké brewing parameters, the two that most influence the nature of the final product are the quality of the water and the type of rice used. Most of the historically important Saké brewing regions obtained their reputations because of their abundant supplies of good quality water. Hard water (kōsui) and soft water (nansui) each give Saké different characters, as do the presence of various minerals. Iron and manganese can seriously detract from the quality of the Saké, whereas potassium, magnesium and phosphoric acid are essential to the fermentation process.

All of the rice grown in Japan is short grained. The rice best suited to Saké brewing is larger than that used for cooking and it also has a higher starch content. Unlike table rice, Saké rice (sakamai) has its starch concentrated in the centre of each grain with the fat, protein, minerals and other components stored around the outside. According to many people, the best of the sakamai is Yamada Nishiki, but many other varieties also find favour across Japan.

The process of making Saké fundamentally differs from that of making wine because rice grains contain neither juice nor sugar. The high starch content of sakamai must be converted to sugar to permit fermentation to occur. To best access the concentration of starch at the core of each grain (the shinpaku or white heart), the sakamai is polished to mill away the undesirable compounds stored in the grain’s outer layers. The more that is ground away, the more starch and the fewer impurities there are in what remains, resulting in a finer quality Saké. The percentage of the remaining grain size (the seimaibuai) can be as much as 80% for cheaper Saké and as little as 35% for the very finest.

After polishing, the rice is washed (senmai) and then soaked in water (shinseki) prior to being steamed (mushimai). The condition of the rice after it has been steamed affects every subsequent brewing stage and a great deal of care is taken to balance the degree of milling, the soaking time and the steaming time.

It is at this point that the fermentation is started. Firstly, the long starch molecules must be broken down into shorter sugar molecules in a process known as saccharification. Unlike malted barley, rice does not contain the necessary enzymes to perform this task and therefore these enzymes must be added. A mould known as kōji-kin (Aspergillus oryzae) is cultivated onto about 30% of the steamed rice. The steamed rice on which the kōji-kin has been grown (known simply as kōji) is then mixed with the remaining steamed rice, water and yeast (moto) to form a mash (moromi).

The unique aspect of Saké brewing is that the saccharification and the fermentation take place at the same time and in the same tank. This is called hiekō fukuhakkōshiki or “multiple parallel fermentation”. The moromi is left to ferment for anything from eighteen to thirty two days.

Once the fermentation has been stopped, the moromi is ready for pressing (jōsō) to separate the newly made Saké from the fermented rice solids (kasu). The Saké is then left to settle for around ten days before being filtered (roka). The final stages of production for most Saké are pasteurisation (hi-ire) to stabilise it and the addition of water to reduce the natural alcohol level from about 20% ABV down to approximately 16% ABV.

For the sake of brevity I’ve somewhat simplified my description of the production process and I’ve not discussed the many different styles and subtleties that can be obtained, but hopefully I have given you some insight into the inherent complexities of the art of Saké brewing.

The Akashi-Tai brewery was founded by the Yonezawa family in 1886 in Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, a major fishing town to the west of Kobe famous for the high quality of its seafood, in particular its sea bream (tai) and its octopus (tako). The region’s fertile soil is ideal for rice growing and its pure spring water makes excellent Saké. The current master brewer (tōji) is fourth generation Kimio Yonezawa, whose innovative and slightly anarchic approach has made Akashi-Tai a kura (Saké brewery) of note.

The Hakuro Brewery is located north northwest of Tokyo on the Echigo Plain in the Niigata Prefecture. The area is renowned for its rice growing and for its heavy snowfalls, and the soft water of the Shinagawa stream produces a soft, light Saké. The area flourished under the Makino clan in the Edo period (1603-1868) and the Makino lord operated a Saké brewery that was handed down to the current owning family in the early Meiji period (1868-1912). The emblem of the Makino clan is featured in the logo of the Hakuro brewery.

We tasted a selection of Sakés from these two breweries, each one beautifully accompanied by Japanese canapés from nearby Umezushi.

 Honjozō Akashi-Tai

Honjozō Akashi-Tai

1. Honjōzō Akashi-Tai (15% ABV, £17.50/72cl)
Served with Sea Bream Nigiri

Honjōzō is a Saké which has had a small amount of pure distilled alcohol added to its moromi immediately prior to pressing. This lightens the overall flavour and also draws out some of the more fragrant and flavoursome compounds as they are soluble in alcohol. Honjōzō, and other grades of Saké that have alcohol added, cannot really be regarded as fortified as they are diluted to the same level of alcohol by volume as most other Saké. Rice for Honjōzō must have a seimaibuai of a maximum of 70%, the grains for this example were milled down to 65%.

A very pale gold colour, this had a gentle floral, citrus and fresh mushroom nose. The high amino acid content imparted a richness to the palate, a gentle sweetness cut through the savoury umami/Manzanilla flavours and the gently yeasty/bready character. Low in acidity and very easy to drink, a perfect match for oily, rich fish such as Akashi’s prized sea bream.

 Daiginjō Akashi-Tai

Daiginjō Akashi-Tai

2. Daiginjō Akashi-Tai (17% ABV, £35.00/72cl)
Served with Salted Octopus and Pickled Cucumber Salad

Rice for Ginjō Saké must have a seimaibuai of no more than 60%, that for Daiginjō Saké is milled even further: a maximum seimaibuai of 50% is required and it can be as low as 35%. This example’s Yamada Nishiki rice grains had been milled down to 40% of their original size. As with Honjōzō Saké, Ginjō and Daiginjō Saké each has a small amount of alcohol added.

Clear and colourless, this was crisper, lighter and fresher on the nose with soft aromas of banana and anise. Far more delicate than the Honjōzō above, a touch sweeter, fierier and spicier with flavours of apple, ramboutan and coconut. Tropical in richness yet fresh in flavour, it also had a pleasingly long finish. The sweeter, fruitier character was the perfect foil for the umami-packed octopus and even held its own against the lightly pickled cucumber salad.

 Junmai Nigori Hakuro

Junmai Nigori Hakuro

3. Junmai Nigori Hakuro (17% ABV, £32.00/72cl)
Served with Pork and Glass Noodle Inarizushi

Junmai Saké has the same seimaibuai requirement as Honjōzō Saké, but does not have any alcohol added. It is usually a little heavier and fuller flavoured than other types of Saké and often has a higher acidity. Ginjō or Daiginjō Saké made without the addition of extra alcohol acquires the prefix of Junmai to differentiate it, although conversely the Honjōzō prefix is very rarely used.

Nigorizaké is a cloudy, opaque Saké that retains a portion of the kasu, either as a result of filtering through a coarser mesh or through reintroducing some of the lees into the clear, filtered liquid. Although lacking the subtlety of Ginjō and Daiginjō Saké, Nigori Saké can display a huge array of flavours.

The Niigata rice variety Gohyakumangoku was used to make this Saké, with a seimaibuai of 60%.

Blueish hued and opaque, this presented aromas of melon, quinine and white pepper and the nose was actually rather wine-like in character. Full bodied and weighty with a viscous mouthfeel, the palate was soft, spicy and higher in acidity than the previous samples. The finish displayed an appealing touch of sourness, akin to that of fresh coconut juice. The combination of weightiness, acidity and spice worked excellently with the deep fried tofu, crispy pork skin and the slightly sweet glass noodle stuffing, both complementing the flavours and cutting through the richness.

 Genmai Yamadanishiki Akashi-Tai 2002

Genmai Yamadanishiki Akashi-Tai 2002

4. Genmai Yamadanishiki Akashi-Tai 2002 (14% ABV, £42.00/72cl)
Served with Teriyaki-style Freshwater Eel

When it is harvested, all rice is brown rice. As discussed above, Saké rice has to have the impurities in the outer part of the grain ground off before brewing begins. Even table rice has approximately 10% of its volume milled away to leave the white rice we know and love. This hugely individual Saké is possibly unique for its use of totally unmilled Yamada Nishiki rice and for its six year maturation period in both oak and enamel tanks.

Deep gold in colour, with Tokaji-like volatile notes of dried mango and quince fruit and nutty hints of oxidation on the nose. Much drier on the palate than the nose suggested, with flavours of toasted hazelnut, hints of cocoa and leather, a creamy umami element and a gentle saltiness were balanced by a firm acidity – very much like a well-aged dry Oloroso. The finish was long, intense and similarly firm. The familiarity of the aromas and flavours made this one of my favourites of the evening, its weight and structure perfectly matched the eel’s flavour and texture. Although, on paper, this should have been a perfect match for the firmer, saltier, more savoury octopus served earlier, the flavours were in fact too similar and strangely the flavours of the Saké and the octopus seemed to cancel out one another.

 Shiraume Ginjō Umeshu Akashi-Tai

Shiraume Ginjō Umeshu Akashi-Tai

5. Shiraume Ginjō Umeshu Akashi-Tai (14% ABV, £20.00/50cl)
Served with Melon macerated in Saké

Underripe sour plums (ume) spend six months macerating in Ginjō Saké. The plums have their stones left in to help to develop kirsch and Amaretto-like flavours. Two years of barrel ageing with no added sugar provides complexity and harmony, this elegant plum liqueur is sweetened at bottling.

Almond/frangipane/cherry pit aromas combined with the jammy plum fruit and a hint of toastiness to smell exactly like Bakewell tart. The palate retained the almond essence and sweet berry jam characters from the nose. Deeply coloured, viscous and sticky, its substantial acidity removed any trace of heaviness and kept it fresh and interesting all the way through the finish. Lovely!

Fired up on top quality Saké and excellent nibbles, I tottered across the road to Umezushi to finish my evening in style. As has become my habit, I let chef proprietor Terry serve a selection of his recommendations and I wasn’t disappointed. A glorious end to very enjoyable evening.