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All-Access Sake

After more than a thousand years of history in Japan, the national beverage is ready to reveal its secrets
  • Sake
  • Brewery Tours

Sake has a surprising diversity of flavor profiles, and it isn’t always transparent either.

Ome, Tokyo / Daisen, Akita Prefecture / Tamba, Hyogo Prefecture / Nakatado-gun, Kagawa Prefecture / Yame, Fukuoka Prefecture - Nationwide

Sake comes across as a relatively uncomplicated alcoholic beverage made from rice. However, the basic ingredients needed to produce it—rice, koji, yeast, and water—stand in contrast to the diverse flavor profiles, especially thanks to recent technological developments in the industry.

The best way to understand the different types of sake and the many ways of consuming it is to take a brewery tour. Sake breweries can be found throughout the country, and many offer tours that explain, for example, how differences in rice variety and rice-polishing techniques can lead to quite different flavors. In tasting sessions after the tour, find out how well sake pairs with cuisines other than Japanese.

Many sake breweries occupy traditional Japanese structures.

Arguably Japan’s best-known beverage, sake holds a special place in Japanese culture. Brewed for over one thousand years throughout the archipelago, it retains an important place in Japan’s spiritual traditions and formal ceremonies. As sake has gone abroad and gained in popularity worldwide, the types of sake produced have become more diverse, as have the ways of consuming them.

Crash Course in Sake

Traditional sake barrels.

As for other alcoholic beverages, clean water is essential to making good sake, and many breweries take advantage of natural-spring water on or near their premises.

Clean water is essential to good sake.

Sake-making starts with steaming rice, which is then sprinkled with spores of koji, a fermenting agent used in countless ways in Japanese cuisine, which helps break down starch in the rice and convert it into sugar. The yeast then takes over in a process known as multiple parallel fermentation, converting the sugars into alcohol, and after a period of maturation, the mash is pressed and filtered into sake.

The relatively few ingredients and straightforward fermentation process belie a surprising level of diversity and complexity in sake, which stems from a variety of factors, including the presence or absence of brewer’s alcohol, the type of rice used, and the degree to which the rice grains are polished before steaming.

The use of brewer’s alcohol to maintain or increase volume came about as a result of rice shortages during the mid-twentieth century. Although obtaining sufficient rice is no longer difficult, many brewers continue this practice because it draws out more flavor and aroma. Nevertheless, sake made without brewer’s alcohol is referred to as junmai (pure rice) and boasts a rich flavor.

Sake is typically made with rice varieties that are different from those consumed as part of a meal. Known collectively as sakamai (sake rice), these varieties tend to produce large grains with lower protein content; larger grains, such as the prized Yamada Nishiki sakamai, allow for more of the individual rice grain to be polished away.

A comparison of table rice (left) and sakamai (right) used for brewing sake.

Polishing or milling the rice grain shaves off protein and fat and opens up the starchy interior for conversion to sugar. For regular sake, the grain is milled to 70 percent of its original size, whereas milling ratios of 60 percent and 50 percent (or less) are used when making ginjo sake and daiginjo sake, respectively. There are also junmai ginjo and junmai daiginjo varieties of sake, which is when the lower milling ratios are made without brewer’s alcohol. If in doubt, make sure that “ginjo” or “daiginjo is there if you are after a premium bottle.

The 35 percent printed on the label is the proportion of the original rice grain that remains after polishing.

Naturally, greater milling requires more work and more rice to make the sake, and consequently, the resulting sake tends to cost more. But this level of milling also yields sake with richer and more unusual flavors.

Sake in a Wine Glass?

It goes without saying that sake can be enjoyed with all sorts of Japanese food. But with a range of taste, different serving temperatures, and sometimes even carbonation similar to that in sparkling wine, sake is a remarkably flexible beverage that pairs well with many cuisines.

Generally speaking, the bolder taste of a junmai sake, suits food with stronger flavors, perhaps those with heavy sauces. Conversely, ginjo and daiginjo tend to have more delicate notes and go better with foods having similarly delicate flavors, such as seafood.

While sake overall is considered to have a somewhat dry taste, the major flavor palettes of sake can be classified as either karakuchi (dry) or amakuchi (sweet). The sweeter taste of amaguchi makes it suitable to be consumed by itself without food or perhaps as a dessert drink with fruit, while karakuchi is best appreciated together with food.

Taste and compare different flavor profiles, and ask the brewery for pairing suggestions.

Finally, the temperature at which you consume sake can also make a significant difference in the taste. Sake can be served cold, warm, or even at room temperature, but usually, higher-quality sake such as ginjo and daiginjo should be served chilled so that the flavor can be better appreciated. Drink less expensive sake warm—much like spiced wine on a cold winter day—so that you won’t notice much if the taste changes as the alcohol evaporates.

Sake Brewery Tours and Tasting

Inspecting sake storage tanks on a brewery tour.

There are many more types of sake than are discussed here. Since it can be hard to grasp all the particulars of the different types of sake and their special manufacturing methods, one of the best ways to learn about sake and discover one that suits your taste is to visit a sake brewery. For a start, here are a few select ones from across Japan that offer tours in English. You are never far from a sake brewery, so be sure to add one to your itinerary.

Most breweries offer sake tasting after a tour.

Kanto Region: Ozawa Brewery

Ozawa Brewery is Tokyo’s oldest sake brewery.

Based in Ome, Ozawa Brewery has been producing sake with mountain-spring water for over three hundred years and is Tokyo’s oldest sake brewery. The brewery has English brochures and even offers special tours in English several times a month.

During the roughly forty-five-minute tour, you’ll walk into their cool, dimly lit storehouses, come up close to the tanks where sake is stored, and even get a chance to peek at one of their key water sources—a 140-meter-long hole dug into the mountain behind the brewery. After the tour, head across the street and sample different types of sake on their pleasant, tree-shaded riverside terrace.

Ozawa Brewery’s sake is made from mountain-spring water.

Tohoku Region: Suzuki Brewing Company

With long, cold winters perfect for rice fermentation and abundant fresh water from plentiful snowfall, the northern Tohoku region of Japan is well known for producing excellent sake. Founded in 1689, the Suzuki Brewing Company uses locally cultivated rice to produce several varieties of sake, including a sweet, sparkling version that can be consumed like champagne. Free tours are conducted year-round, and the brewery has native speakers of English on staff.

Kansai Region: Nishiyama Brewery

Situated in a small town in the middle of rural Hyogo Prefecture, this brewery has been around for over 160 years. Nishiyama is known for crafting quality sake with local, organically grown sakamai varieties, including Hyogo Kitanishiki, Gohyakumangoku, and Tajima Goriki. Brewery tours in English are arranged on demand, so call ahead or book a tour by email.

Shikoku Region: Nishino Kinryo

This brewery, headquartered in Shikoku’s Kagawa Prefecture, has roots in the area that extend back more than 230 years. It conducts free weekly tours and tastings at the brewery in Tadotsu. It also operates a free sake museum in Kotohira, which features dioramas and videos about the brewing process and displays of different tools that were used in sake production during the Edo period.

Kyushu Region: Kitaya

Located in the Fukuoka Prefecture city of Yame, this brewery, characterized by its distinctively tall chimney, has existed for two centuries and primarily uses locally grown Yamada Nishiki sakamai. The brewery tours give you an opportunity to observe both their traditional facilities and their modern equipment, such as the high-tech koji-cultivating machines. To arrange a tour, it’s best to give advance notice by completing the contact form on their website.

By Glass or By Cup, Kampai—Cheers!

Competition with other alcoholic beverages in Japan’s domestic market as well as a surge in popularity abroad have spurred sake’s evolution. And better understanding of the microbiology coupled with new technology has already yielded new approaches to making sake as well as a diverse range of brews. With new brands and sake-inspired creations emerging all the time, delve into the world of sake and discover the diversity of this incredible beverage!

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