Sake is the un-beer and un-wine


Sake seems more popular than ever. As there is now a healthy selection of kosher certified sakes on the market, and these are fairly easy to find, the biggest hurdle to getting into sake is probably the drink itself.

Despite what is commonly thought, sake is not rice wine. Wine is produced from fermented fruit. Rice isn’t a fruit. Sake is closer to beer, only it isn’t really a beer either. Sake is really a category unto itself. All one needs to produce sake is rice, water, a specialized mold and in certain styles of sake one also uses a brewer’s alcohol. Alas, after the ingredients list sake is actually very complicated.

First the rice is milled — or “polished” is the industry term — to expose the starchy core. Then the rice is washed, steam-cooked and cooled. Then a mold called koji is propagated and allowed to work its magic for 4-to-7 days. Next the rice is mixed with both yeast and koji to create the sake “mother” or “starter” mash, called moto, which is allowed to incubate for around seven days. Then, over the next four days or so, the mix is allowed to ferment, with more rice, koji, and water added in several batches. This staggered or phased process allows time for the yeast to keep up with the increased volume.

At this stage, it is easy to see why sake isn’t really like beer either. In beer production, the grain is malted to create the enzymes needed to convert the starch into a fermentable sugar. In sake, however, the enzyme to convert the rice into a fermentable sugar, the koji, has to be propagated and added.

Moreover, the conversion of starch into sugar in sake production takes place at the same time and, indeed, in the same vessel as the fermentation. In other words, in sake the rice is being converted into sugar at the same time as the yeast is converting the sugar into alcohol. In beer production, by contrast, these two stages are separate and apart.

This distinctive “multiple parallel fermentation” has to be done right, or the process won’t produce sake. For if conversion of starch into sugar happens too slowly, the yeast will starve to death, halting fermentation. And if it happens too fast, the yeast will be overwhelmed and won’t function, once again halting fermentation.

This mash of fermenting rice, yeast, water and koji is called moromi. It can take up to 32 days for the moromi to finish fermenting. Next, the remaining relatively fine sediment is removed, and the sake is carbon filtered. At this stage it can be pasteurized to make the sake shelf stable without refrigeration. It will then be given time to rest and mature, and then is usually diluted with water. Sake can ferment naturally to 20-22 percent alcohol, so typically it will be diluted to around 15 percent before bottling. Once bottled, sake is often pasteurized again.

Once cooled the bottles are labeled and ready for consumption.

For now, try to digest all this with what I’ve been drinking during its composition — a nice glass of California-produced Ozeki Sake Dry ($10; 14.5 percent abv; OK certified; comes in smaller various sizes) served on the rocks. This light, rather entry-level sake is dry with a refreshing fruitiness, with notes of sweet starchy rice, a hint of apple, a slight marzipan quality, and a whisper of green tea bitterness. Serve chilled. Pretty simple stuff, but makes for an excellent summer sipper, and pairs nicely with grilled chicken, light Asian dishes, sashimi and sushi. L’chaim!

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