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SAKE 101
Sake, pronounced “sah-keh”, is a Japanese alcoholic beverage made from fermented rice. In Japan, sake is a general term for any alcoholic beverage, and what Westerners know as sake actually refers to nihonshu, the traditionally brewed and fermented drink. Sake is a category of its own with a unique brewing process and over 10,000 variations. Here we look at the brief history of sake, how it’s made, and the unique regionality of Japan that influences the variety of sake we enjoy today.
Rice used for Sake, called ‘Sakamai’ or ‘Shuzoutekimai’ in Japanese, is different from rice we normally eat. Sake rice is larger than rice we eat; Small rice grains would break into bits when polished. Sake rice also has a larger proportion of the core part. The larger the core, the more suitable for Sake making because the outer part of a rice grain contains more protein and fat, which will lead to off-flavors of Sake
Husks and outer part of rice contain protein and fat that will add off-flavors (and savoriness) to Sake. Rice is polished and milled to remove those off-flavors. The more the rice is polished, the cleaner the Sake flavor. The less we polish, the more savory the Sake becomes. However, excessive polishing will remove the unique characteristics of each Sake. The rice of premium Sake like Ginjo and Daiginjo tends to be polished more than other types of Sake. How much rice is polished is represented as Rice Polishing Ratio, and it will define types of sake.
Bran and crumbs is washed off the surface of polished rice. Rice for mass produced Sake like Futsu Shu is washed in bulk by washing machine, whereas rice for premium Sake is often washed by human hands bit by bit, generally 10kg at a time. Polished rice starts absorbing water in this process and requires such great care that this process is also called the ‘second polishing process.’
Rice is soaked in water so that it will be steamed evenly in the next process. The duration of soaking depends on types of rice, the aimed characteristics of Sake, weather, temperature, humidity, etc. How much water rice absorbs will greatly affect the Sake taste. The more the rice is polished, the greater influence the soaking time has on Sake taste. Therefore, especially in case of premium Sake like Ginjo and Daiginjo, a stopwatch is used to determine the soaking time to the second.
Soaked rice is steamed for about 1 hour to make it easier for Koji mold to convert starch to glucose (sugar). Good steamed rice has harder surface and soft core, which is the best condition to cultivate Koji mold. Steamed rice will be used in the next 3 steps – Koji making, Shubo (yeast starter) making and Moromi making (fermentation).
Spores of Koji mold are added to steamed rice. Koji mold converts the starch of rice into glucose. This process is done under the strict temperature control (approx. 30℃/86°F temperature and 60% humidity) for about 2-3 days. This steamed rice with propagating Koji mold is called ‘Koji’. Koji making plays such an important role in Sake making that some Sake brewers say ‘Making good Koji accounts for 70% of Sake making’.
Before the main fermentation, the brewer first prepares seed mash, called Shubo or Moto, by significantly increasing the amount of top-grade yeast. This is used as a starter for fermentation of the main mash.
The word “Shubo” means “mother of sake,” while the word “moto” means “base” or “source.” It is important for shubo to be highly acidic in addition to containing topgrade yeast. 
This is the name for the fermenting mass made by mashing shubo (or just yeast in the case of kobo-jikomi), steamed rice, koji and water together.
When the fermentation is complete, the Moromi is filtered with cloth, removing the undissolved rice and yeast and leaving the new sake. This process may be done by placing the moromi in a cloth bag and using a machine to apply pressure from above or by using a horizontal machine similar to a beer mash filter press.
Processed Sake is in gold color, still containing tiny sediments. The gold Sake is filtered to produce a clear liquid, removing fine sediments and off-flavors. However, filtered Sake may look cloudy during storage due to changes in the proteins dissolved in Sake. Persimmon tannin or colloidal silica is used to remove the proteins. Active charcoal is also used for decoloring, flavor adjustment and control of the aging process (by removing substances that cause coloring and flavor changes). Coarsely Filtered Sake is called Nigori Zake, well known for its cloudy appearance.
Filtered Sake undergoes pasteurization at a temperature of 60-65°C (140-149°F) before storage. The purpose of pasteurization is to sterilize the liquid as well as to render any enzymes inactive. If enzymes remain active, it increases the sweetness and alters Sake aroma. Most Sake is pasteurized again just before bottling. Unpasteurized Sake is called Namazake or Nama Sake, often known as fresh Sake.
Pasteurizing Sake alters the Sake aroma and leaves it with unrefined taste. Therefore, Sake is rested to age for six months to one year. Most Sake is brewed in the winter and rested to age during spring and summer, then shipped in autumn.
The alcohol content of sake aged in tanks is 17%–20%. Brewers often add water to reduce the alcohol content to around 15-16% before bottling. Undiluted Sake is called Genshu, containing around 20% ABV.
Sake is then pasteurized and filtered again if necessary before bottling.
Luis Marin

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