Sake 101

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Everyones social media feeds are filled with experts on every subject making declarations about the trends of the year. It may be a bit tiresome, but there must be something to it given its pervasiveness. We’ll spare you Top10 list of trends of 2015, but today we will focus on one emerging trend in American restaurants, that we’ll be covering a bit more in-depth this year: sake.

Sake in America is not quite on the same level as craft beer or sour beer, but it is definitely on an upward trajectory. Lucky for you, you read Nopalize so you are far ahead of the sake trend! Today we’ll begin with a cursory introduction, but more importantly we’ll dedicate a lot more attention to sake this year, because, alas there is a lot to drink learn.

The US is Ready
The role of the American chef has evolved considerably in recent decades. The rogue delinquents as described by Mr. Bourdain in his groundbreaking memoir, Kitchen Confidential have been replaced by more educated, thoughtful, traveled and generally more cultured cooks. For the upper tier, to call them cooks almost marginalizes their role in our contemporary food renaissance. They are cooks first, but increasingly, they are ambassadors, activists and influencers.

Copenhagen may be the current epicenter of the food world, but Japan, with its long tradition, exotic ingredients, and refined technique is after the hearts of our culinary ambassadors – and our chefs are wearing their hearts on the plates. As this trend continues, a likely result will be the introduction of the appropriate beverage to accompany the more delicate fare. Enter sake.

What is Sake?
Okay, so that was the long windup, but now let’s take a closer look at what sake actually is. It is made of rice, shuzō kōtekimai, sake rice. Sake rice is no ordinary rice, it is a larger and stronger grain.

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Polishing
Once the desired rice has been secured, it is milled, or polished. The milling process requires lots of technical skill, as the brewer must be careful not to over heat or crack the rice in this process. The goal is to remove the protein and oils, leaving behind only desirable fermentable starches. The polished rice is allowed to rest to absorb moisture from the air, otherwise it may crack during the next phase, soaking.

Koji: The Magic Mold
Koji-making is an essential part of sake production; it is made in the brewery, and carefully monitored in high-humidity, wood-paneled rooms up to two days. It is then sprinkled over the steamed rice to begin the fermentation process, which lasts about a week. After this initial fermentation, filtered water and yeast are added to the koji mix. After about a week of this, steamed rice, fermented rice and water are added intermittently to the mixture to advance the fermentation.

For you beer and whiskey lovers, we are now looking at the mash, in this context called, moroni, and like the mash, it is vitally important in determining the style of the sake. Once the moroni is established, fermentation continues lasting about 3-4 weeks, the longer the better. Rice, koji and water are added throughout the process in order to support the fermentation. Unlike beer, there is no sugar here that can convert the starch into alcohol, so the brewer must deftly and gently interfere at this stage.

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Fermentation
When fermentation is complete, the sake is pressed away leaving kasu, or lees, or spent yeast. At this stage distilled alcohol and filtered water may be added, depending on the desired outcome of the finished product. Most sakes go through filtration and pasteurization in the final stages, but you’d have to look no further than unfiltered beer or wine to imagine some of the consequences and benefits of omitting these steps. Unfiltered sake, Muroka, has more umami, and though pasteurization kills off bacteria, it is not essential. Unpasteurized sake, is called, namazake, and tastes more…alive.

Aging
Finally, most sake is left to age several months (or longer) to round out the flavor (think barrel aging for beer and wine). Once finished, premium sake is allowed a slow and delicate maturation. That is where the maturation should stop, however. Unlike wine, sake is not something that should be cellared to improve over time. It is the reason why many restaurants are reluctant to keep a lot of inventory of a product that is not well known and has a diminishing shelf life.


You may not have the fancy certification of Lulu, but you’ve received your Nopalize Sake Certification. Congrats!

So now that you’ve gotten your Nopalize Sake Certification, go out and drink some sake and support your own development.