Sake is one
of the most popular drinks in Japan, and plays an integral
role in Japanese culture and tradition. Sake has been made
in Japan for over 2,000 years, and significant advances have
been made in the production process throughout the years.
Though it is called rice "wine," the process of
making Sake has more in common with the brewing of beer. The
parallels with beer are many, because unlike wine sake is
not aged for more than six months. But sake should not be
compared too closely with beer, because it is not
carbonated, and is also considered a healthy drink because
many of the impurities in the rice are eliminated during the
lengthy and complicated brewing process.
basically four ingredients. The first and perhaps most
important is rice, and there are approximately 46 types of
rice used to produce sake. That may not seem remarkable
until you consider that there are more than 120,000
different varieties of rice in the world. Sake rice is
selected because it is has a larger kernel, and also because
it is easier to work with than other grains. In the first
step of the brewing process, the rice is
"polished:" machines mill the grain of rice to
eliminate the outer layers, leaving only the starch-rich
"packet" in the center of each grain of rice.
Interestingly the milling process was once completed by
hand, or rather by mouth. Ancient sake production saw
"chewing parties" as part of a Shinto fertility
rite: a whole village would chew the grains of rice with
nuts and spit the chewed product into a large tub.
Fortunately for quality control standards and hygiene, this
practice of producing kuchikami no saké ("chewing in
the mouth saké") has long since been discontinued.
rice is then steamed, and "koji" is scattered
folded into the steamed rice. Koji is a yellow mold (also
known as Aspergillum oryaze) that is grown very carefully by
the brewmaster (toji) in a dark place. The koji grows on the
steamed rice, and converts the starch in the rice into
sugar. Yeast and water are then added to the mixture, and
the quality of both of these ingredients plays a major role
in determining both taste and quality. The yeast most
commonly used is known as Saccaromyces cerevisiae, but the
experienced toji often experiment with other types of yeast.
The type of water used ranges from mountain spring water to
desalinated water from the ocean – the important factor in
both is mineral content, and of course water that has not
had chemicals like fluoride added is essential. The mixture
of yeast, rice, koji, and water (known as "mash")
is then allowed to ferment for between 18 to 35 days. The
temperature the mash is kept at helps to determine the
strength and dryness of the sake produced.
mixture has fermented, it is "pressed" to separate
the liquid from the mash. Traditional preparation methods
included placing the mash in canvas bags and then squeezing
the liquid out of the bags using a wooden box known as a
"fune." Modern methods use a machine that looks a
little like a giant accordion. The extracted liquid is then
filtered, and is often pasteurized to kill off unwanted
bacteria. Most sake is then aged for up to six months to
increase its potency and flavor, and then more water is
added to increase the yield and lessen the alcoholic
resulting product is then sold to the consumer, and can be
served alone or in cocktails. Most sake is best consumed
fresh, rather than leaving it to age any further. There are
more than 10,000 different varieties of sake, and though
there may be slight changes in the brewing process, the
steps outlined here form the basis of all sake production.