Japanese sake is sometimes called ‘rice wine’ in the West, but this is actually an inaccurate term, as the brewing process of sake is a lot closer to beer than it is to wine. The alcohol percentage is quite similar to wine though at around 15%, but the taste is completely different. Just like with wine and beer though, sake has many variations and subtle flavor differences. It also pairs well with many types of food, especially with Japanese food.
How Is Japanese Sake Made?
Sake consists of 3 main ingredients: rice, pure water, and koji (a kind of mold). If the sake is of a lower quality, alcohol is also added. For sake of premium quality, no alcohol is added and all alcohol contents originate from the fermentation process. The first step to make sake is to wash the rice in order to remove the rice bran.
After letting the rice absorb water, the product is drained, then steamed, and then it is mixed with koji and water. Then, it has to be left alone to ferment for 20 days. All ingredients are then compressed by a machine to separate them into sake and sakekasu (leavings). The sake, by letting it stand for a while, is separated into seishu (the product) and ori (dregs).
After that, the seishu is filtered, and its flavor and taste are adjusted. Disinfected by heating, the seishu is then cured at a temperature lower than 20 degrees for more than 6 months. Lastly, final adjustments are made before it is re-disinfected by heating. The seishu is then bottled and shipped.
If you want to make sure you buy a premium type sake, look for the words junmai-shu, ginjo-shu or daiginjo-shu, all these types don’t contain any added alcohol. A type of sake called honjozo-shu does contain added alcohol, and is better drunk after being heated up. The premium types of alcohol, in general, shouldn’t be heated up as it doesn’t do the flavor any favors.
Visiting a Sake Brewery
In Japan, you can find many sake brewers, and some of them welcome visitors. As at many breweries, there are no English speaking employees so if you’d like to visit a brewery to learn more about how sake is made, what types of sake there are, and have an extensive sake tasting, it is recommended that you book one of our guides to take you to one of the breweries.
This picture you see above was taken at the Watanabe Brewery in Nikko where we sometimes take customers.