Saturday, January 29, 2011

Japanese Sake, rice wine or beer?

Sake is an alcoholic beverage of Japanese Origins of which rice is a principal ingredient. The Japanese sake (酒) or o-sake (お酒) is usually translated as alcoholic drinks in general, the specific term for the traditional beverage being Nihonshu (日本酒), meaning "Japanese sake".

 Japanese Dragon Sake Set
Japanese Original Dragon Sake Set

Sake can be translated also as "rice wine", but it is a beverage produced by brewing, so it is more closer to beer than wine, but with higher alcohol content: 15–20%.

The "Food and Agriculture Museum" at "Tokyo University of Agriculture" displays a great sake bottle collection.

Food and Agriculture Museum, Sake museum collection

Tokyo University of Agriculture - Sake bottle collection

The rice in Japan is kind of centerpiece of almost every meal, rice agriculture being introduced to Japan more than 4000 years ago. The rice used for brewing sake has larger grain (called shuzo kotekimai / sake rice) which contain a starch component (named Shinpaku or Shinpaku-mai) in the center. The "multiple parallel fermentation" process is distinguished by other brewing methods by combining the conversion of starch in sugar with conversion of sugar in alcohol (using yeast). This is the reason why the sake has such a higher alcohol content. The taste depends by the proper combination of malt, yeast (koji-kin / koji mold / Aspergillus Oryzae), steamed rice (named koji) and water (mizu) 

Japanese Rustic Green square Sake Cups - made manually
Japanese  Rustic Green square Sake Cups - made manually

Sake is not a distilled beverage, is non carbonated and usually free from additives and preservatives. 
In the making of sake, it is necessary to polish the rice (to remove the protein, oils from the exterior of them), leaving behind starch convert grain starch into sugar, and then convert the sugar into alcohol by means of yeast. Sake brewing combines these two steps by a simultaneous conversion that results in Sake having an 18% higher alcohol content than any other fermented drink.

Sake is generally almost transparent, and sometimes, if is properly kept for six months,  has a light amber color (if sake is allowed to age more than a year - it will turn a darker color and is better to avoid it). Pasteurized sake can be kept at room temperature, but always refrigerate your unpasteurized sake.

Sake can be served cold or warm in small ceramic cups (named ochoko / ja:猪口). The best taste is achieved when is served slightly chilled.  Sake sets are commonly ceramic and have a server and 4-6 cups. The server (a flask called tokkuri / ja:徳利) is bulbous with a narrow neck.  Nowadays you can choose from a large variety of sake sets ( the flask and cups may be bought as a set or individually) usually decorated with floral (spring blossoms, cherry blossom, orchids) and Asian motifs (dragons, landscape, geisha, written characters)

Samurai drinking sake

Kanpai !

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