Sake, Drink of the Gods
For those who are curious about the character of sake, I've composed an introduction to its culture and craft. Although it has been brewed for centuries, it has been known in the western world for little over a hundred years. Sake distribution has greatly improved with the export and popularity of sushi culture, but only recently has high quality sake become available in the United States. The rich variety of styles and increased availability add to the appeal of this truly unique beverage, and extend it's appraisal far beyond the sushi bar.
In Japan, drinking sake has long been considered a way to get closer to the deities, in both ancient and modern culture. As a symbol, it is intimately connected with social and religious ceremony. The essential elements of sake brewing are rice and water, as could be said of Japan itself. Rice has long been the staple food of Japan, and a symbol of fertility, while water is a universal symbol of purity.
The water used in crafting sake is perhaps the most defining element of its character, since water makes up at least eighty percent of its final volume. The ideal spring water contains traces of phosphates, potassium and magnesium, which assist in the making of sake, while the presence of iron and manganese hinder the process. Water with these characteristics is sometimes called goshinsui, "god water." The Kansai area has long been the brewing capital because it has very suitable water. Whether the water is hard or soft also determines how the wine will be crafted. Kobe is well known for it's hard water, which favors full flavored brewing, while nearby Kyoto has softer water, allowing for light and fragrant crafting. Hiroshima and Fukushima also have a reputation for soft, pristine water.
The best rice for sake brewing has a high starch content in its core. These grains are called shinpaku, "white heart." There are about sixty varieties of rice in use today, with formidable names like gohyakumangoku, and the vast majority of brewers use yamadanishiki. Unlike wines, however, sake is not categorized by varietals, but by the amount of polishing the rice undergoes. By milling away the outer layers, which contain fats and proteins, the brewer reaches a more abundant layer of starch. The outer layers produce undesirable flavors. The more the rice is milled, the more expensive the sake will be, as this is a costly process. This is not unlike the higher price commanded by low yield, high quality fruit on the vineyard. The milling has a direct relationship with the quality of yield. For example, ginjo sake has been polished at least forty percent, meaning sixty percent of the kernel remains, and daiginjo sake has been polished at least fifty percent. Some premium sakes are polished over seventy percent.
The polished rice is then washed and soaked. The more water each grain of rice contains, the easier it is to steam. A portion of the steamed rice is gently inoculated by hand with a mold called koji. The koji breaks down the starch into sugar, a process know as saccharization. It also imparts its own unique flavor to the sake. A yeast starter, moto, is created by combining yeast cells with inoculated rice, steamed rice and lactic acid to help start the fermentation.
Once everything is mixed in the main mash, or moromi, the saccharification and fermentation happen simultaneously. This means that while the koji is converting starch to sugar, the moto is converting sugar to alcohol. This unique simultaneous process produces the highest alcohol content of any naturally fermented beverage at about twenty percent.
At this point, the sake can be processed in a number of ways. Most sake is filtered to remove the sake lees, known as kasu. Some sake is sold as nigori, unfiltered or partially filtered sake. It has a cloudy appearance, with a mouth feel and generally sweeter flavor. Sake is then pasteurized and diluted from its cask strength to achieve the proper balance with sweetness and acidity before being bottled. Undiluted sake is called genshu. Some brewers use an addition of ethyl alcohol to achieve their desired balance. This technique forms a separate classification of sake know as honjozo. During the war, when rice was being heavily rationed, and the economy for sake was plummeting, the government recognized the practice of fortifying sake with grain alcohol. Pure sake, with no additives is known as junmai, and some purists feel it is the only worthy sake, but used in moderation, honjozo can produce delightful results.
Pairing sake with food is not limited to sushi, or even Japanese cuisine. However, the low acidity naturally compliments the lean, light profile of Japanese cooking. In Europe, highly acidic wines must cut through rich, high fat preparations. As it is with wine, there is always the subjectivity of appraisal in pairing food and drink. A junmai sake with good acidity would pair well with fried foods, while a complex daiginjo would probably not stand up well against a rich protein dish. For the Park Kaiseki event on Monday, July 10th, I have chosen to pair sake with Japanese food because it is a cuisine which I am very passionate about. I will also be preparing a Japanese dinner as the guest chef at Simpatica Dining Hall on Sunday, June 25th. If you have a thirst for the drink of the gods, or hunger for modern Japanese cuisine, this is a great opportunity to experience the marriage of Japanese food and drink. Kanpai!
David Padberg, chef de cuisine