I had my first encounter with sake back in college, when I worked at a Japanese restaurant. In those days -- the late `80s -- sushi bars served only one type of sake: the warm, disgusting kind served in little ceramic bottles. I stood by, mystified, as otherwise-sophisticated diners washed down their high-rent sushi platters with tiny cups of steaming swill. What did they see in it?
It wasn’t until years later that I learned of the existence of premium sakes, meant to be served chilled instead of heated. Could these sakes actually be worth drinking? Oh, yes.
I’ve never been much of a spirits drinker, so I found sake to be much more my speed. Rather than having a strong alcohol flavor that made me want to reach for the nearest mixer, chilled sake was smooth and delicate -- more like wine.
But despite its wine-like qualities, sake is actually brewed like beer.
Sake production begins by polishing away the outer layer of short-grain rice to get to its white starchy core (the outer layer contains high levels of protein that can give sake off colors and flavors). After the rice is cleaned, soaked and steamed, a Japanese mold called koji is added to convert the starch in the rice to sugar. More steamed rice, yeast and pure water are added to the mixture, and the yeast converts the sugar into alcohol. The sake is filtered, pasteurized (except in the case of some specialty sakes) and bottled. After a very brief aging period, it's ready to drink -- the fresher the better.
As in winemaking, it’s the quality of the ingredients -- in sake’s case rice and water -- that make the difference.
Thousands of different rice varieties are grown in Japan, but fewer than 30 are suitable for making sake. At least 30% of the rice’s outer layer is removed for sake rice (compared to 20% for table rice), and the more the grain's outer layer is polished away, the better the sake's flavor will be. At least 40% of the grain must be milled away for a sake to be labeled "premium." Sometimes as little as 30% of the grain remains after this process, which is why it takes more rice (and more money) to produce premium sake.
Water also plays an important role. Sakes made with mineral-rich, hard water have a more robust character, while soft water results in more delicate-tasting sakes.
At every stage of the process, the brewer (or toji) must monitor and adjust the water content of the steamed rice, the spread of yeast over the grains, alcohol content of the mash, acidity levels, brewing time and temperature.
Maintaining ideal conditions for sake's fermentation process is also important, because the conversion of starch into sugar and sugar into alcohol must occur simultaneously. This double-fermentation is much more complex than that of beer or wine.
The production process will vary depending on the variety of sake that’s being made, whether it’s ginjo, genshu or nigori. Ginjo sake is ultra-premium, made from rice that is polished down at least 40%. It's typically light-bodied with a slightly fruity aroma. Genshu sake is full-bodied with a higher alcohol content. Nigori is known as "cloudy sake," because its coarse filtration leaves particles of rice floating in the liquid, giving it a milky appearance.
As Americans have become more wine-savvy in the last couple decades, they’ve also become more sophisticated when it comes to sake. My neighborhood sushi bar carries at least a couple dozen premium chilled sakes, and if it’s still serving the hot generic stuff, I haven’t seen it.
For years now, the U.S. has been home to about a half-dozen Japanese-owned sake breweries, most of them based in California. There’s one “sakery” in Oregon’s Pinot Noir country, however, that stands out as unique. SakéOne, which produces sakes under the Momokawa and Moonstone labels, is partially owned by Momokawa Brewing Japan, but its toji -- Greg Lorenz -- is an American. Although Lorenz makes his sakes in the traditional Japanese manner, he brings to the table an intimate understanding of the American palate.
For those accustomed to evaluating wine, identifying sake’s aromas and flavors can be a bit challenging. The aromas of sake tend to be more subtle than those of wine, ranging from fruity and floral to nutty. Some of the aromas and flavors -- like bananas, anise and ginger-spice -- aren’t often found in wine, which can throw some people off.
Lorenz was happy to offer some tasting guidance.
“Identifying aromas is one of the biggest hurdles for many who come from wine to sake,” he told me. “My best piece of advice is to keep an open mind and refrain from expecting the same aromas you would normally find in wine.”
Sake obviously pairs well with the delicate flavors of Japanese food, he said, but it goes way beyond that.
“I’m always amazed that certain sakes tend to go well with foods that are not really common in Japan,” he said. “For example, the Ruby -- which is our fruitier sake -- tends to pair well with mild, creamy cheeses.”
Tomato sauces are another good pairing, particularly for drier sakes like the Momokawa Silver. “There’s something about the acidity in tomatoes that sweetens the sake slightly, and I find that to be a particularly pleasant experience,” Lorenz said. “So that would mean that foods like pizza -- with cheese and tomato sauce -- will work with lighter sakes. Lasagna is actually one of my favorite pairings.”
Steak is another unexpected match for bolder sakes. “Steaks and heavy meats tend to do really well with our “G,” he said. “G is a genshu sake, so it’s a little bit stronger and bolder. There’s just something about the meat and the body of the G.”
These were not the sort of pairings I was expecting -- I’d been thinking more along the lines of light seafood dishes and pastas. But now I can’t wait to try the sake-and-pizza combination, just to see if it works. Of course, I’ll have to try that one at home, since I doubt there’s any sake to be found at my go-to Italian restaurants.
And speaking of drinking sake at home, there’s no need to go out and buy a set of tiny ceramic cups or wooden boxes for serving. Chilled sakes are best served in a wine glass, to bring out their aromas. (If you feel you must spend money on drinking vessels, Riedel makes a stemless “O” glass for sake.)
And once you’ve opened the bottle, you should drink the sake within about a week. If you’re drinking the really good stuff, that shouldn’t be a problem.
Here are a few particular sakes that you should consider trying, and when doing so, you might toast to the hope of better days for the Japanese people in this time of terrible trouble:
Momokawa Organic Junmai Ginjo Sake ($13): With aromas of banana and spice, this balanced sake is smooth and silky, showing flavors of baked apples and a touch of honey. 90
Momokawa Ruby Junmai Ginjo Sake ($12): This sake has aromas and flavors of ripe melon, with tropical fruit accents. It’s round and lush on the palate, with a bit of sweetness. 88
Momokawa Silver Tanrei Junmai Ginjo Sake ($12): A very pretty dry sake with green apple and pear aromas. It’s soft, smooth and well balanced, with delicate pear and melon flavors. 88
Moonstone Asian Pear Infused Gingo Sake ($12): Infused with natural fruit, this sake smells just like Asian pears. It’s a medium-weight sake, with crisp pear flavor and little sweetness. 88
“G” Junmai Gingo Genshu Sake ($20): If you find typical sakes a bit delicate, this is the one for you. It’s bold and intense, with a tangy, creamy character that takes a little getting used to. This is a love-it-or-hate-it sake. 87
Momokawa Organic Nigori Genshu ($13): With elements of citrus, honey and creamy custard, this smooth and lightly sweet sake would be a lovely match for fruit-based desserts. 88