How sake is made – the brewing process

How sake is made – the brewing process

It is time to shine the spotlight on the mystery of sake brewing. When you, the lover of sake, understand each step of sake brewing, all the technical terms, like muroka and nama, will become clear. I also hope that seeing the complexity and precision of sake making will make you appreciate this fascinating brew even more!             1. Rice comes first   Sake brewing starts with rice. Long before the kura (brewery) owner assembles his brewing team for the season, the rice farmers plant foundations of next season’s sake. Sake rice – sakamai – is different from table rice. The stalks are taller, the grains are bigger, and it is harder to grow. Rice affects sake flavour, and breweries try their hardest to secure the required amount of chosen rice variety. They don’t always succeed. Once rice is deliverd to kura, it is milled to remove the outer layer of proteins and fats, and to expose the starch centre. High starch content encourages fermentation, and fats and proteins can give sake off flavours. The degree of milling – normally between 30 and 65% for premium sake – dictates the resulting grade of sake. The more is removed, the higher the grade, the finer the sake. Sake milling is done at the brewery, or at a specialised milling plant. After milling, brewers leave rice sitting for a couple of weeks, to absorb ambient moisture . Once it is ready to use, it is washed to remove milling powder still clinging to it, carefully soaked to absorb a little more water, and finally steamed. Steaming is done on the morning of the first day of the brewing cycle. Once rice is steamed and ready to go, it all begins!   2. Koji – the essential sake brewing step   Sake brewers have a motto: “Ichi: koji, ni: moto, san: zukuri”. It translates as “first koji, then the yeast starter, then fermentation”, denoting the order of importance of each in sake making. Koji mould (Aspergillus Oryzae) is a friendly fungus that has been used to ferment food in Asian cooking for centuries. Most people have eaten food made with koji mould: miso, soy sauce, tempeh. Its role in sake making is to produce enzymes that will convert starches in rice into sugars. This is crucial. The sake yeasts cannot process the long carbohydrate chains of rice grains. Something needs to break them down into simple sugars. In beer brewing, that job is done by grains themselves during the malting stage. Grains naturally contain enzymes that can start the starch to sugar conversion. Sake rice, however, is milled, and all such anzymes are removed. Once the rice has been...

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How to buy sake – the ultimate 5 step guide for beginners

How to buy sake – the ultimate 5 step guide for beginners

Learn to shop for sake in 5 simple steps How many times have you looked at sake on display in a store and walked away? It’s just so…foreign. Everyone knows a thing or two about wine. Here, in Australia, even the most staunch wine avoiders can rattle off the list of common styles – merlot, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay…champagne! We all know something about wine. When it comes to sake, however, the vast majority of people know nothing. Nothing at all. That doesn’t mean people don’t want to know, interest in sake is exploding all over the world. The information vacuum is starting to fill up – now you can buy books about sake, read blogs about sake, and even buy the world’s first magazine about sake. Still, it takes time to read and process all that information, and in the end, the labels are still in Japanese. What to do? Well, you can read on! I’ve written the world’s first “How to Buy Sake” guide, and I promise you,  after reading it, you will be able to walk into that bottle shop and confidently choose the bottle you are likely to enjoy. Step 1 – Understand sake grades The grade of sake is the single most important bit of information you can work with when choosing sake. Sake grades are not some arbitrary designation by a brewer. Although once they were! Now, grades of sake are defined by the Japanese government and breweries must strictly adhere to every rule. So, what makes a grade of sake? Two things. Ingredients and rice milling rate (seimaibuai, pronounced say-my-boo-eye). Sake is made of rice, which is polished (milled) at the beginning of production. The milling is needed to remove outer layers of rice that contain protein and fats.  The more is removed, the  higher the starch content of raw materials. This seems a bit counter-intuitive, as we are trained to think of proteins and fats in grains as nutritionally useful. Proteins and fats, though, cannot be digested by the sake yeasts. Yeast needs sugars (converted from starch) to work with. The outer layers of rice, if left in place, will stunt fermentation process and contribute a lot of “off” flavour to sake. So, simply, the more rice is polished, the more proteins and fats are stripped away, the more refined the flavour will be. Ingredients are the second part of the grade puzzle. All premium sake can only contain rice, water, special kōji mould (used in food fermentation in Asia) and sake yeast. In some instances, a small amount of distilled alcohol is added at the end of the brewing process, just before sake is pressed and stored for maturation. That is all, no preservatives,...

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