Deciphering sake labels for texture, aromas and finish
Ordering sake can be just as daunting as combing through a fine wine list. But the more you know, the less intimidating it becomes. Nancy Masumoto and Michel Tremblay visited 35 craft sake breweries while researching the fermented rice drink for their book “Explore the world of Japanese artisanal sake.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
KCRW: How long have people been drinking? Sake in Japan?
Nancy Matsumoto: We say 2600 years in our book. But it goes back way before that, but about 2000 years ago. You may say it’s a bit murky, but it goes back to the early people who let rice ferment on their farms to get something to drink.
How production techniques make Sake amended?
Michael Tremblay: Techniques have changed dramatically over the past 2600 years. If you go back to the earliest examples of the most primitive versions of sake, there is something called kuchikamizake, where villagers would chew grains and spit them into common jars and let them ferment. These days we have all kinds of modern techniques going on. With the advent of stainless steel fermentation tanks, we are able to make truly clean and pure sake. One of the most exciting technical advances right now is that brewers are learning how to polish rice, not just by percentage, but by controlling how much of the right amounts of protein and fat surround the starch chart. , which is a really exciting thing. happening in the world of sake.
Explain why rice polishing is important and how it affects the style of Sake.
Nancy Matsumoto: Polishing in modern sake has been a way to achieve very nice floral and fruity aromas – to achieve a more refined texture and flavor. And this in conjunction with the different yeasts that are used. But it tends to be what we call the Ginjo style of play, which is very polished. We have a rice polishing rate – the lower the number, the more highly polished the rice.
Do the different flavors of white and brown rice translate into Sake while drinking?
Michael Tremblay: There is a difference between sake-specific rice and eating rice. Sake-specific rice tends to have lower protein and fat content and higher starch content, which is what brewers want for making sake. They will be able to chop that starch into fermentable sugars and then ferment that sugar into alcohol.
Eating rice is high in protein and fat, which is why it tastes so delicious when you eat it, and it has that nutty taste. Now, in sake-specific rice, as the grain grows, the starches move to the middle of the grain forming a starch core. And that’s really important for sake brewers because it means they control how much fat and protein they eliminate.
The grading of sake depends on how much fat and protein you remove. In general, if you leave more of this outer casing out, you’ll get more of that grainy, salty, umami component in the sake.
How many strains of is there sake rice?
Michael Tremblay: Currently, there are about 113 sake-specific rice strains used in Japan. And on top of that, there is no shortage of eating rice which is also used for making sake, especially in the lower grades and for making sake. The reason there are so many is that each rice plant – like the vine – loves a certain environment.
In Japan, if you went from the northern city of Asahikawa on the island of Hokkaido and then descended to Naha on the islands of Okinawa, you cover almost 20 degrees of latitude. There are many different climatic zones. These days there is almost a revival of some of the older strains that were very difficult to grow in the early 1900s.
Since the rice varieties are so married to different microclimates, are rice farmers affected by climate change?
Nancy Matsumoto: Yes, they really are. This is a question we asked all the brewers we visited. They all universally said, ‘Yeah, it’s something we think about all the time.’ Much of what is happening is trying to produce climate-resistant rice. Many prefectures want to breed a classic sake rice with their own local prefectural rice type to classify something that will be a bit more weather resistant and suitable for their own climate. We’ve even seen breweries move north. There have been a few examples of this, because they know it will be better for them in the long term climate-wise.
Are there any similarities to the craft beer world in the United States, in that there is a lot of regionality and a variety of smaller makers across the country?
Michael Tremblay: In Japan, there are many artisanal jizakes, that is to say breweries. We can think of this word as meaning craft breweries or small craft breweries. If you go back 40 years, many breweries made a lot of sake for large breweries. The new generations said, “Well, we can’t keep making such amounts of sake that’s just more neutral. We want more personality-driven sake. To do this, we are reducing the quantity we produce, and we are going to make better quality sake.
Particularly at this time, Injo has been very popular, and the best grades of sake making tend to be very popular, especially in export markets. Sake brewers try to pivot with what the consumer wants.
Thinking about craft beer in the United States – [for a book-launch presentation] I was updating a world map and non-Japanese sake breweries. It’s amazing the number of breweries in the United States right now. In the two or three years since I updated this map, I must have added 10 new breweries in the United States alone.
Help us decipher Sake label. What should we be looking for?
Nancy Matsumoto: There are some basic elements on the label. First, you want to know who the brewery is. It’s listed there, usually the style, or the classification of the sake as well. In our manual, we have a whole section on classifications, including Kanji characters, so you can decipher the types of sake.
The label may indicate the variety of rice and the ABV or alcohol content. The meter of value of sake would speak of its sweetness or dryness. But it gets a bit technical. I think for basic enjoyment know the brewery name, classification and polish rate. Low alcohol sake is becoming much more popular now, so many people want to check the alcohol level.
What are some of the characteristics to keep in mind when tasting Sake?
Nancy Matsumoto: You want to know if it is sweet or dry. You want to look at the texture – some are really oily, water-like and delicate. Others are going to have real stickiness and richness. Often the ones you want to warm up will have this comforting texture. Some have very long finishes, very similar to wine, and some are very short. Then the flavors – there are certain yeasts that will give you very amplified fruit, melon, apple, banana flavors. Then you have the Kimoto and the Yamahai – you’ll get lots of savory characteristics on the nose, like grains, mushrooms or parmesan cheese. The ones that are going to be very high in umami are going to have some, so it’s a pretty wide range of flavors. It’s really fun to look for them.