Sake 101 – A crash course to the national drink of Japan: nihonshuCulture
Sake is perhaps one of the most Japanese beverages there is. Although it is widely available in the west these days, there's no better place to enjoy it than in Japan. To make the best out of your experience, some basic understanding of the science and tradition surrounding this drink might come in handy.
First off, the drink that's commonly referred to as Sake in the west is known as “Nihonshu” in Japan. The Japanese word “Sake” simply means “alcohol” in Japanese and applies to any intoxicating beverage, including beer, wine and strong liquor. “Nihonshu”, on the other hand, specifically means “Japanese Alcohol”, but is commonly only used for rice wine, and not other kinds of Japanese liquor such as Shochu or domestically made Wine (yes, that exists, too). For the sake of simplicity, “Sake” will be used to refer to rice wine in this article.
While the popularity of sake has increased drastically since the early 2000s, the same is not the case here in Japan. In fact, the number of sake breweries is in sharp decline, having dwindled from around 3200 in the mid-70s to less than half of that number today. The declining population of Japan is one part of the explanation, combined with an increased interest in other kinds of alcoholic beverages such as beer, wine and vodka, by the younger generation.
While it's unclear when exactly the process of brewing sake was invented, many sources point to the Nara period (710-794) as a probable time-frame. Initially, all production was controlled by the government, but around the 10th-century temples and shrines took over as the leading production centres. This remained the case up until the Meiji Restoration (1868) when the laws were changed, and any private enterprise was allowed to engage in sake production. For a short while around this time, the number of breweries nationwide is believed to have been around 30 000, but reforms that significantly increased the tax burden on these businesses led to the closure of many of them, and less than one third remained by the turn of the century.
In 1904, the National Research Institute of Brewing (NRIB) was founded by the Ministry of Finance. The institute is still in operation and has devoted its entire history to research related to refining and developing the process of sake production. Every year, the institute also oversees the Japan Sake Awards, where more than 850 breweries annually compete for the prestigious Gold Award.
Various types of Sake
There are a plethora of varieties of Sake, and unfortunately, this article won't be long enough to go through them all. But the most crucial factor that determines the flavour and quality of sake has to do with the polishing of the rice. In the middle of each grain of rice, there's a core which is rich in starch. The outer layers of the grain, on the other hand, consist of vitamins, proteins and fats, that while great from a nutritional standpoint, are less desirable when it comes to sake brewing. Therefore, the grains need to be polished before they can be used, and the degree of polishing is so vital that it is often specified explicitly on the label of the final product. Sake, where at least 40% of the grain has been removed, is classified as “Ginjo”, and if this number increases even further, above 50%, it earns the moniker “Daiginjo”, which is the highest rank among commonly produced Sake varieties.
Another word that often appears in front of the category is “Junmai”. This means that no additional alcohol has been added to the brewing process. Cheaper kinds of sake often have a portion of distilled alcohol inserted as a part of the brewing process, partly to extract more flavour and aroma from the rice, but also as a way to increase the amount of produced sake.
Speaking of rice, the kind of grains used, as well as factors such as their origin and the climate where it was grown, is another crucial aspect of the quality of the sake. If you are really looking to become a highly skilled sake sommelier, this is probably something that will take up a lot of your time. For the rest of us, it would be a bit overkill to dive deep into this.
Needless to say, you can enjoy sake at almost any restaurant or izakaya in Japan. But if you want to dig deeper into this exciting part of Japanese culture, you can also visit a sake brewery in person? The Japan Sake Brewers Association has a comprehensive list of breweries that accept visitors on their website: http://www.japansake.or.jp, and they occasionally also organises tours with English speaking guides where you can get a deeper understanding of the complicated art of making sake.
There are also countless shops in most major cities where you can try various sake tasting sets, sometimes led by English speaking sommeliers. An excellent place to start is Kurand, with several stores available in Tokyo. On their website, you can find more information about their various events. https://kurand.jp/en/