There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers said Albert Einstein. But let's admit that in almost fifteen years of activity, presentations, tastings and shows, some of them have amused us more than others. So many exchanges that we will try to compile in the form of FAQs, funny and sometimes useful, of which this is the first episode.
Q. Isn't sake the thing you drink from the cup with the naked woman at the bottom?
To our great relief, this is a question that is becoming rarer these days. Proof that the message is getting through, and fortunately because we are tired of having to answer it with the same arguments over and over again. No... you drank a Chinese or Vietnamese distilled alcohol. Sake is a Japanese fermented drink more or less comparable to wine or beer in the production process, with an alcohol content of around 15°.
(A small parenthesis about these naughty glasses: they were invented and popularized in the United States before arriving in Europe... So if you travel to China or Japan, don't ask the locals if they know them, they have certainly never seen them).
Q. You serve sake in wine glasses!?
Yes, and that's the best way to evaluate its quality. First of all from a visual point of view (clear or cloudy, colored or not), but also for the aroma, with a better perception of the nose in particular. If nothing prevents you from serving it in traditional containers such as chokos, you should use a white wine glass for a first contact or a systematic evaluation. (In Japan, there are traditional containers for evaluating sake called Janome choko, very simple white bowls with concentric blue circles at the bottom. They are still used by brewers, but now that wine glasses are available all over the world, it is interesting to use them to create its benchmark).
Q. Well, there are several sake !?
Yes..., even if the variety is not as wide as in the world of wine, there are several tens of thousands of different sake! Each brewery produces a dozen or more kinds, and there are more than a thousand breweries in Japan. Do the math.
Q. But what's the difference between all these sake?
A number of factors will make each sake unique. First of all, the brewery where it is produced, which implies 1) the brewery's own style and the current that inspires it (there are a dozen or so guilds), 2) its level of technical mastery, and 3) its degree of automatisation (artisanal, industrial, with the latest generation of machinery). Ingredients are equally important, with 1) water, since breweries are traditionally located on the site of the springs, but also 2) rice, chosen from among a hundred or so specific rices for the production of sake, and finally 3) ferments, with a preponderant importance of yeasts (fast or specifically chosen to give a fruity and floral aroma); the Koji kin (the fungus responsible for the degradation of starch) is also important, but more in its mode of action on rice than in the aromas it could directly help to develop. Finally, and we come back to the technical aspect of things, the way the sake is treated once it is produced, pasteurized or not, filtered completely or not, matured for a longer or shorter period of time, etc., all of this has a huge impact on style.
Q. I was offered a sake, the label is black with a golden Japanese sign written on it. Do you know it?
Yes, of course, it's excellent! Just send me a picture of the bottle anyway, and we'll check it out...
Q. Can we find our way around with the indications found on a sake label?
Yes, the label is very useful for identifying and therefore choosing a sake. The level of detail of the information given depends on the producer's goodwill. Some people like to give as many clues as possible, while others remain more mysterious. On a label, you will inevitably be given the name of the producer. Then the name of the product followed by two or three adjectives (sometimes more) that give information about the technique used. This way you will know the type of sake you are dealing with and therefore the general style.
Let's take the example of a sake that we particularly appreciate, the "Stella Muroka Nama Daïginjo Genshu" from the Inaba Shuzo brewery. So, "Stella" is the name of the product and the following 4 adjectives will help us understand what it is. Let's take them one by one:
- Muroka: unfiltered on a bed of activated carbon, therefore richer flavors and a sake that certainly has a light pale yellow tint.
- Nama: unpasteurized, therefore a lively and fresh sake, which can be a little sparkling on the tongue.
- Daïginjo: we will have a very developed aromatic on fruits and flowers.
- Genshu: no water added at the end of fermentation, so may be a little stronger in alcohol, but above all very harmonious.
With a few dozen adjectives you can already start to find your way around comfortably.
We are in the process of listing these adjectives in the form of a glossary to be published soon on our pages. Then you will find on the label mandatory indications such as the alcohol content and the format, and other optional ones such as Nihonshudo (which tells you about the sweetness of the sake), Sando (its amino acid content), the type of rice used, the rice polishing ratio, etc...
Q. Can sake that has been heated be served again?
No, once heated, sake should be consumed. So the best thing to do if you want to try it at different temperatures is to taste it fresh first before heating it.
Q. So what is the ideal serving temperature for sake?
Sake has the interesting thing about it that it can be enjoyed over a wide range of temperatures, from very fresh to heated, from 4 to 54 degrees. The choice of temperature will depend on your preferences, but especially on the type of sake you will be serving. As a general rule, Honjozo and Junmaï style sake can be served at any temperature, including heated, while Ginjo and Daïginjo should be served chilled or at room temperature, but not heated, otherwise it will lose its floral and fruity aromatic characteristics and therefore its main interest. Heating a Honjozo or Junmaï will round it off and will pleasantly underline its cereal aroma.
Q. If I understand correctly, the more polished the rice, the better the sake?
Let's say it's not really like that... Let's already make a point about the different limits in the degree of polish because they define the type of sake.
- 60 or 50%: if the rice is polished to at least 60%, we are on a Ginjo type sake. At 50%, on a Daïginjo. These sakes have a marked floral and fruity aroma.
- between 100 and 60% polish level: we are on a Jumaï type sake (no tax rate for this category), or on a Honjozo (if the polish is at least 70%). These are sake with a cereal and lactic aroma.
The polishing rate will therefore not directly define the "quality" of the sake, but rather its aromatic style. However, it is true that 1) sake produced with more polished rice is brewed with great care 2) at the risk of sounding trivial, the more polished the rice is, the more expensive the raw material is 3) a brewer who produces ginjo and daïginjo will choose more premium rice for purchase.
Even if the relationship is not direct, it is true that the more polished the sake is and the more "prestigious" the sake is, but not necessarily better because it depends so much on your personal preferences. Our advice is not to focus on the degree of polish as an absolute index and try sake in all categories. You will then find the one that suits you best!
Q. How is the polishing done?
It's quite simple, when the season starts, all the employees in the brewery get together and get tiny files. They polish each grain of rice between their skilled fingers until they reach the desired rate ;-)
More seriously, the dry rice is introduced at the top of large vertical grindstones through which the rice will pass. The grains will wear out in a controlled way between the mobile wheels and the fixed structure. The degree of polishing is evaluated by calculating the ratio of the weight of the rice after polishing to the initial weight. The polishing of the rice results in a white powder called "nuka", a rice flour used in cooking, in the production of aperitif crackers or cosmetic products.
Q. What is the maximum for polishing rice?
Tests have been done on polished rice up to a level of 1%, but after a certain level of polishing, around 40%, the structure of the rice grain is homogeneous enough that going beyond that is not really justified.
On the other hand, it is possible to make sake from unpolished rice called genmai.
Q. A friend brought me a bottle of sake from Japan. It's been in the fridge for 3 years... is it still good?
First of all, it's a shame to have forgotten it! But it's very good that it has remained in the fridge.
Our advice is simply to taste it, because if it has stayed cool, there should be no problem. On the other hand, if it has not been kept in the refrigerator, it has certainly undergone an oxidation that you should notice quite easily. If it is unpleasant, go on your way, but it may give character to the sake and make the experience interesting. That said, if this is your first experience with sake, remember to return to fresher, conventional, and well-preserved products.
Q. Does sake always have this completely transparent and colorless appearance?
Most sake you will encounter is indeed of this type: transparent and colorless, or sometimes with a slight pale yellow-green coloration. But there are indeed cloudy sake, which are filtered more roughly. These are called nigori sake, and they are more or less white and milky in appearance because they still contain particles of rice in suspension. Different levels of turbidity exist, from the lightest usunigori to the richest nigori.
On the other hand, some transparent sake can be colored. They are colored for different reasons: 1) they have not been carbon-filtered (these are muroka sake) 2. they have been produced from unpolished genmai rice, or special rice, such as red rice 3) they are koshu, or aged sake.