Sake 101

By Nick Spidaleiri, Signature Brands Sales Manager and resident Sake expert

Sake production may seem simple given that it has only three ingredients: rice, water, and yeast. But this is not the case by any means. In fact, creating sake is one of the most technical processes in the world of alcoholic beverage production.  But being the kind of guy that I am…I will try to simplify it here (and in the infographic, for those who prefer to read pictures instead of words)!

Sake production is a long process that the Tōji (Head Sake Maker) must manage very closely in order to produce high quality sake. Did you know that the Tōji craft is much like that of a winemaker? They create the sake based on the house style recipe that has been handed down for generations, even centuries.

Author's note: the rest of this post appears below this ginormous infographic.

Sake 101 Infographic - Sake Expert

Now let’s take you through the process that the Tōji manages


First the rice is harvested. I have to point out that sake rice is not your typical run of the mill rice (pun intended). Sake rice is a brown rice that is grown specifically for sake production; it adds complexity and a more sophisticated flavor profile to the sake beverage.

After harvesting, the sake rice is milled, washed then soaked for a certain amount of time in order for the rice to absorb the precise amount of water that the Tōji wants. The third step, one of the most important parts of making sake, is the steaming procedure. The sake rice is never boiled because the rice would cook unevenly while steaming helps create a consistent cook.

It's Getting Hot in Here

The sake rice is moved to the Koji room once steaming is completed. Koji is a cultivated mold that comes in the form of a fine dark powder that is spread over the rice. The Koji room is essentially a sauna for rice: it’s kept very warm with high humidity in order to speed up the mold growth process that typically lasts between 36-48 hours. The Koji room is where the magic happens, i.e. this is where the house style is integrated, as all Tōjis use a specific type of Koji.

In the fifth step (I was losing track there for a minute!) the rice is then taken from the Koji room and the yeast starter (Moto) begins to be made by mixing in the Koji, plain steamed rice, water, and yeast. It takes two weeks for the yeast starter to be created.

Moto Made Me Lose My Mojo

Creating the Moto is very grueling to me as you have to do the same process over and over again which is nothing like a winemaker who has to complete a wine just once and let time take its course.  

The Moto is transferred to a larger tank where more rice, koji and water are added over a four-day period. This is called the mash (Moromi) and it is left to ferment for 18-30 days. During this time, a careful eye is kept on the Moromi’s temperature in order to create the distinct flavor profile called for in the house style the Tōji is creating.

Moromo Moves On

In the eighth step of the sake production process, the Moromi is transferred into a pressing machine. Those who are real gluttons for punishment use the traditional method by pressing through a canvas bag! Once the sake is pressed it rests for two or three days in order to settle before it is filtered through charcoal. A sake that does not go through the filtration process is called Nigori, which looks like milk but has a complex flavor profile. Typically, Nigori is medium bodied with a rich finish.

Filtering then leads us to lucky (step) number nine: pasteurizing the sake by passing it through a pipe immersed in a tub of hot water to kill bacteria and stabilize enzymes that could potentially cause the sake to turn rancid.

Sake Time!

And for the grand finale, the sake is aged for around six months. When the sake concentrate arrives in the bottling room of the facility, it is then mixed with pure water in order to bring the Alcohol by Volume (ABV) down to around 16%, which is still far higher than that of wine or beer. Once packaged, the sake is ready to ship to the distributor who makes the final delivery to your favorite retailer or restaurant. Served warm or cold, sake is wonderful to enjoy with a delicious meal.

Not in this house! An example of the Tōji craft is the Zen Tokubetsu Junmai. This type of sake is only made in the middle of the winter and the Tōji does not specify his style.

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More Sake Styles to Consider:

Single?

An example of a single-rice sake is Kaiun Junmai Ginyjo. This sake is 100% pure rice Ginjyoshu, whose name means “hope and prosperity.” This is one of my favorites for its starchy notes and long dry finish.” [use Twitter widget for this]

Inyo: Japanese name for Yin-Yang symbol Inyo-Symbol.gif

An interesting sake style is the Gekkekian Black and Gold. The Tōji crafts two separate sakes, typically one where the rice is 60% milled and for the other the rice is 70% milled. Once each sake has been filtered, the Tōji will make a final blend of the two sakes to achieve the perfect balance of flavors. 

Wild Thing!

There’s a sake called Banraku which is a Yamahai style where the sake is allowed to sit without any controls and the natural yeast in the air helps bring the sake along. This creates a beautiful sake with many floral and tropical fruit aromas. 

Milky Way.

Gekkeikan Nigori and Shirakawago are two fantastic examples of Nigori. Both are creamy on the pallet with notes of Strach, nutty undertones and a sweet finish. Shirakawago is a very specific style as it is named after the village it comes from where producers here make only Nigori style sake. 

Sake & Sushi: did you know that in Japan sake is consumed at a much higher rate in sushi bars than in the izakayas that are supposedly designed for sake?

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