Learning about sake



Visiting the Speciality & Fine Foods Fair this morning was a foodie’s round-the-world delight. So many countries represented there! Yet, I spent most of my time in the Japanese part, trying matcha, sea weeds, umami treats, pickled peaches… I was asked – Do you like sake? I do, yet this is not my idea of expertise. I have tried a few with Michelin star meals – I particularly remember a chilled one at HKK, served in a peculiar glass with a little pocket so the drink could be cooled down but not diluted by ice cubes. I jumped on the occasion – a crash course session on sake was about to begin. Presented by Ryosuke Manabe, sommelier at Umu, no less!

The first question should really be – how well do you know Japanese rice? I sense a hesitation there. I know what you mean – if I want to buy rice in my supermarket, I’m likely to find Basmati. The Japanese one is more likely to be in the more specialist aisle with the sushi essentials… Yet it is a gourmet rice! Once upon a time, grains were selected one by one for the aristocraty, meant to all be the same size, meaning the heat would be conducted more evenly. This exceptional quality is still achieved but with high tech technology: grains that are misshapen, damaged, coloured are detected using a special light course and air blown from the other. It’s quite impressive to see. The rice is then polished (hence its semi-transparent colour): when the bran is removed, 80% of the starch can be easily digested. It gives it this distinctive sticky texture (as good hot than cold, again, think sushi!) and a certain sweetness.

Rice can also be milled and used to make crackers, often served with… you guessed it, sake! We tried a couple – satisfying, salty, super tasty. Little did I expect there were so many varieties though… Mostly, you can separate them in two groups: Senbei are made from “normal” rice and often brushed with soy sauce and mirin while cooking, Arare are made from glutinous rice. They then can be zarame (dusted with sugar), goma (with sesame seeds), nori (with seaweed), miso, age (deep-fried), etc…

Then of course, there is sake, beautiful sake. The same way, grapes matter for wine, so do the types of rice. There are a hundred different ones to choose from to make that spirit – we focused on the 3 main ones:
> Yamada Nishiki: also called the King of Sake Rice, making sake very fragrant and well-blended.
> Omachi Rice: less fragrant but bolder with a wonderful earthiness
> Gohyakumangoku: light and fruity.

The grain then needs to be milled. The more you mill it, the more fats, proteins and amino acids you shave off meaning a purer sake. This defines categories – Ginjo sake has rice at least 40% or more milled away, Daiginjo sake has at least 50% or more milled away for example. Once refined, the rice is then washed, soaked and steamed.

What next? Well, sake, like beer is brewed. The starch (at the heart of the grain) needs to turn into sugar. This is when the Koji fungus comes in – it’s all about the perfect balance of steamed rice, koji yeast and water. Incubate, let the sugar created ferment into alcohol, press, filter, mature, bottle drink! Traditionally made through the winter, sakes hit the market just before spring. Most are to be drunk within the year – no need stoking them with your wine collection!

We tried a few – Akashitai (nice sharpness), Narutotai Shiboritate Nama (better chilled, unpasteurised, a lovely creaminess), Gekkeikan Iwaimai (stone fruit flavours, soft on the palate), Ninki-Ichi Gold (juicy, more on the tropical side), and my favourite Kinmon Akita X 3 Blanc (because it used 3 times more Koji! Earthy but well balanced). Leaving the session we visited the sake counter curious now about the sparkling sakes. The Awayuki has peach notes, the Ninki-ichi is more lemony, smaller bubbles too. Both are so easy to drink it’s almost dangerous. Trust me, this is what you want to be drinking all weekend! Remember I said sakes were to be drunk young? A few are aged – I couldn’t resist sipping some of the Yamabuki Gold (a mix of 16 and 20 y o sakes). As complex as a sherry, nutty, umami… I’m told it’s a perfect match to Stilton.

Oh, what I would give for a sake trend to take London this autumn! Meanwhile, you will find me at the Japanese Centre in Piccadilly, they have a good range there…


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