It was as well when I went to my first seminar on sake, given by John Gauntner, one of the world’s leading authorities on the subject, that he laid down a few ground rules. ‘Things are rarely black and white in the world of sake’ he said, and, as if to emphasise the point, ‘vagary rules, exceptions abound and rest assured that some of what is taught here will be contradicted by someone, somewhere down the line’. So far so uncertain then and as I was to find out subsequently, vagary and vagueness were useful starting points because sake is no ordinary alcoholic beverage but product of a complex interaction of social, cultural and economic elements woven into one complex Japanese tapestry. Why wouldn’t it be? It’s been brewed for centuries in Japan, so it’s bound to be the subject of a host of different interpretations of style and quality and drunk in a variety of situations.
For centuries, read millennia. Modern sake brewing in its present form can be traced back to the Nara-Heian period of the 8th – 12th century. By the turn of the 20th century, there were about 30,000 breweries. According to the 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (1910 – 11), ‘there are about 20,000 sake breweries in Japan, and the annual output is about 150 million gallons’, or 682.5 million litres. Compare that with the total of 676 million litres of sake produced in Japan today and it’s an almost identical amount to that produced 100 years ago. Disregarding the traumas of the Pacific War (WW2 to us), sake production increased from the time of the Britannica entry until its peak in the 1970s. Since that time, it has fallen by about half back to those 1910 levels, and by a third since the year 2000.
There’s a major difference though. While today’s 1,200-odd active breweries each produce an average of some 563,000 litres, or roughly 65,200 cases of the standard 72 centilitre bottle each, those of 100 years ago produced on average just 34,125 litres, or just under 4,000 cases each. So while production of sake over the years has fluctuated, each brewery today produces on average 16 times as much as its far more numerous predecessors. Given that that includes such industry giants as Hakutsuru and Gekkeikan, it demonstrates that the main victims of the decline of sake in Japan have been the traditional family breweries whose lineage stretched back, and in some cases still does, tens of generations. At just six per cent of alcohol consumption today, it’s a sad reality that the claim for sake as Japan’s national beverage can no longer be made as it’s been outstripped by both beer and shochu.
According to Yoshiji Sato, a drinks journalist with Shuhan News, sake is not a young person’s drink and his observation was confirmed by the fact that I came across few young people in Japan who seemed to enjoy it . ‘Young people prefer beer, wine or schochu, anything but sake’, said Yoshiji, and again his obervation was echoed by a number of sake producers I met. The fact that sake has virtually halved in consumption over the past 20 years wasn’t just a question of young people shunning it as something their parents or grandparents might drink, but many had also been put off by their first experience of drinking cheap, basic sake, including the distilled Chinese stuff. Despite the decline however, brewers are upbeat about the trend towards premium sake styles which are becoming increasingly fashionable and popular. There’s a similarity with Sherry here, an industry in decline thanks to overproduction of cheap stuff, but starting to get back on its feet, albeit in niche styles.
The decline of sake in Japan has been accompanied by a growing appreciation of its premium styles in the west. This is partly from pressure within the sake industry to export a product whose decline has spiralled almost every year for over 20 years since its peak of 1.7m kilolitres in 1975. And in part from an expansion of Japanese and Asian restaurants in the West and the knock-on effect of the fashion for all things Japanese (not that sake’s multiplicity of tiny brands is susceptible to branding in the same way as Sony or Honda). The biggest importer by some distance is the United States, whose imports in 2007 of 3,852 kilolitres, worth $29.6 million, were up 14.6 per cent in volume and 12.4 per cent in value from 2006, followed by Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Canada and more recently China in volume, although Hong Kong is the next highest in value after the United States. As John Gauntner has pointed out, ‘Americans like their wine, but it’s less established, so the country is more open to new trends. Europeans taste sake and say “yes, it’s good and clearly a quality product”, but the next drink they have is wine’.
Nevertheless, Gauntner believes in its potential in the UK and Europe ‘as Europeans surely have a more refined palate than North Americans’. Out to impress that palate, a younger and more dynamic generation of sake brewery owner has seen the script on the wall and it’s in anything but kanji or hiragana. Younger Japanese have begun to travel abroad, like their wine counterparts, holding tastings, tutorials, seminars and dinners in order to promote their product to western markets. Ken Ohashi for instance, a wine merchant based in Utsonomiya west of Tokyo, has come to London to give tutorials on sake styles and sake regionality through the Wine & Spirit Education Trust to sommeliers and the press. Out of the brewing season, Philip Harper, the only British sake master brewer in Japan, also travels regularly to the UK where he has given talks to the trade, press and public under the auspices of the British Sake Association. And sake has had a helping hand from Michelin-starred chef, Heston Blumenthal, who has espoused the virtues of sake and the way in which it helps, through its high amino-acid content, to bring out umami in different foods.
According to Chris Hughes of Tazaki Foods, one of Europe’s leading suppliers of Japanese food and drink products, sales of sake have doubled in volume in the UK since he started working with Tazaki a year and a half ago. While encouraging staff in restaurants and bars to learn more about how sake goes with food, he feels that lack of training and an understanding of what sake is can be a barrier and that not enough brewers are convinced of the virtues of travelling (many don’t speak the language) to sell their products in the UK. He cites London’s Sumosan and Umu however as restaurants that are particularly successful with sake because the sake sommeliers in both are knowledgeable, enthusiastic and keen to impart their knowledege of how sake goes with food. Getting more Japanese to come out of their shell and creating ways of providing information and training about sake will be a key challenge over the coming years.
The Sake Industry
There are an estimated 1,400 Japanese sake brewers in Japan today, with roughly 1,200 active ones. Traditionally sake is Japan’s national beverage although today it has been overtaken by beer and schochu (spirit).
Like burgundian domaines, most sake brewers are family operations with many dating back more than 10 generations to the Edo period and before.
The most traditional areas for sake are often based on the quality of the water which is generally soft. Such areas include Nada and Itami in Hyogo, Fushimi in Kyoto, Ikeda in Osaka, Niigata and Hiroshima. Hyogo, Kyoto and Niigata prefectures account for roughly half all Japan’s sake production.
There are many different varieties of rice used for sake, the most popular being Yamadanishiki, Gyohakumangoku and Miyamanishiki . These three varieties make up 71.6 per cent of the total sake rice cropping area of 14,660 hectares. Sake rice is characterized by its larger grain size, smaller protein content and higher viscosity.
Rice is well suited to Japan’s temperate-wet climate. Despite the differences in rice varieties often based on region, there is no clear distinction in flavour conferred by the variety as there is in the case of grape varieties and wine.
Sake master brewers are revered within their industry some having more than 40 years of brewing experience behind them. There is one solitary non-Japanese master brewer, Philip Harper, an Englishman who works for the Kinoshita brewery in Osaka and has published two books: The Book of Sake, A Connoisseur’s Guide (pub.Kodansha Europe Ltd.), £14.99, and The Insider’s Guide to Sake, £8.99.
How Sake is Made
Sake is an alcoholic drink, normally of 16-17 per cent alcohol (and up to 20 per cent) which is brewed, rather like beer. The sake brewing season takes place from late autumn after the rice harvest through to the spring.
Sake is made from the fermentation of rice which has had the outer layers of protein and fat removed to leave the starch. This can vary from 65 to 30 per cent of its original size.
At the brewery, the rice is washed, steamed and cooled and then spread out on mats where a proportion of the remaining starch is broken down into fermentable sugar by the addition of koji, or rice mould.
A yeast starter, called a moto, is added to the initial mash, which becomes dense and stiff over a few days. More koji-inoculated rice is added three more times to the fermentation which takes place at around 15C, or cooler for higher grades of sake. The fermentation takes two to three weeks for everyday sake and a month or more for the premium grades.
After the fermentation is over, the sake is pressed from the lees, pasteurized (normally) filtered, matured and cut with water (usually) before bottling.
While type of rice, rate of polishing, quality of water and other aspects of the fermentation process are all important, perhaps the most significant contribution to the style and flavour of sake comes from the aims and ideas of the toji, the sake master brewer, and the owner, often one and the same person.
How Sake is Drunk
Sake takes many different shapes and forms. It can be semi-sweet or dry, chilled or warmed, pasteurized or unpasteurised, still or sparkling, clear or cloudy.
Sake is normally drunk young although there are exceptions. It can be drunk at different temperatures and while it’s normally drunk slightly chilled, it would be wrong to think that sake drunk warm is for novices and tourists. Some of the best sakes are also drunk warm although the concept of a fine drink consumed warm is hard for the western palate to get its head, or tongue, around.
Most sake is basic futsuu-shu, everyday sake sold in cheap tetrapaks and drunk in bars by the vast army of office workers stopping off for a drink on their way home, or drunk at home. A higher grade known as honjozo has a limited amount of brewer’s alcohol added If no extra alcohol is added, and at least 30 per cent of the rice is polished away, the resulting sake is known as junmai. Premium sake made from rice polished down to at least 50 per cent of its original size is known as ginjo and daiginjo.
Sake is normally served in china decanters called tokkuri and drunk from small ceramic, china or porcelain cups, known as ochoko, or larger sized cup, guinomi, and also wooden bowls or glasses. Wine glasses are ok too. Its flavours are often flowery, fruity or spicy and even ‘ricey’ and it can be sweet or dry, according to style of manufacture.
Traditionally there isn’t a sake and food culture as there is food and wine. However, certain aspects of sake, such as its high amino-acid content, make it particularly food-friendly with sashimi and sushi although some find the rice in sushi and sake too much of a good thing. It goes well with food high in umami like eel and with tempura and tofu dishes, but can also be drunk with non-traditional Japanese food such as risotto and Indian curry.
An A – Y of Sake Styles
Amakuchi – slightly sweet sake.
Atsukan – sake served warm.
Brown sake – sake made from brown rice.
Daiginjo – fragrant premium sake made from rice polished to 50 per cent or less.
Futsuu-shu – everyday sake.
Genshu – sake undiluted from its original 20 per cent alcohol.
Ginjo – premium sake polished to 60 per cent or less, light and refined.
Honjozo –a cut above everyday sake, light and fragrant, with 30 per cent or more of the rice polished away and distilled alcohol added.
Junmai – light and fruity pure rice sake with no added alcohol with two subclasses: junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo
Karakuchi – dry sake.
Kimoto – original traditional sake with natural lactic acid bacteria, made by pole-ramming.
Koshu – aged sake.
Nama – unpasteurised sake.
Nigori – cloudy, often sweet, sake.
Red sake – sake made from red rice or colour enhancing processes.
Reishu – sake served cold.
Sparkling sake – sparkling sake, usually lower in alcohol.
Yamahai – a ‘wild’ traditional sake style made with natural lactic acid bacteria.
Useful contact addresses:
Wine & Spirit Education Trust
020 7089 3800