Sake, despite its simple moniker, actually has many different varieties. Have you ever wanted to find a sake that you can enjoy among all of those different types and varieties? What you really need to pay attention when trying to find one is the label. The information detailed in these labels is actually quite important, and an understanding of that information makes finding your own favorite sake much easier. We’re going to provide a brief reference on the important points in selecting a sake.
The ABCs of the sake brewing process
We’re going to start by explaining the brewing process, as knowledge of this process is vital in understanding what’s written on the labels.
The three primary ingredients in sake are steamed rice, rice malt, also know as koji, and water. The fermented alcohol made with these ingredients is sake.
Sake production starts with the polishing of unpolished rice. The rice is polished as rice husks can produce off-flavors in the sake. After polishing, the rice is washed, soaked in water and then steamed.
The koji production process we’re going to detail next is the most important part. First, koji-mold is allowed to propagate throughout the steamed rice, making koji. Then, the koji is mixed with another batch of steamed rice, creating the yeast. Water is added to this yeast, which is left to ferment to form moromi, or mash, that will become the sake base.
Once the moromi has fermented and been filtered, the sake is complete. In many cases, the sake is pasteurized to keep it from going bad. After pasteurization, the sake is mixed and then pasteurized again before the finished product is bottled.
What you can understand from sake labels
There’s a fair bit of information contained in each sake label. While it’s a given that things like ingredients, alcohol strength, brewery name and production date will be listed, you can also find information like flavor characteristics and brewing methods.
Ingredients, for example, are listed from left to right, in order of usage amount. If a specific type of rice is listed, it means that the rice mentioned constitutes over 50% of the rice that was used. Additionally, while the strength of sake typically sits at around 15 to 16 percent, some unprocessed sakes that haven’t been diluted with water have a strength of about 20 percent.
It’s also not a bad idea to learn the meaning behind some of the jargon related to brewing methods. There is “nigori-zake,” for example, a cloudy sake that has been filtered through a coarse cloth. “Nama-zake” contains living bacteria, as it has not been pasteurized.
The brewing date, though, is the source of many a misunderstanding. The date listed on the bottle is actually the date the sake was bottled. That’s why you can’t judge the maturity of a sake by this date, as a sake that has matured for a long time may have been bottled only recently.
Things to be aware of on labels
Crucial in finding a flavor that suits your palate is the ingredients used. Speaking in broad terms, sake is made either with or without additional distilled alcohol. While the use of distilled alcohol has some benefits, like making the sake easier to drink, it can also make some people feel sick when they drink it. If you have ever felt sick after drinking sake, you may want to give one produced without distilled alcohol a try.
Something else you’ll want to check is the acidity and the amino acid concentration, both of which contribute greatly to differences in the flavor of the sake. Lower acidities bring a sweeter flavor, whereas higher acidities carry a dryer flavor. This number is indicative of a sake’s aftertaste, and generally, the lower it is, the longer you can enjoy a sake’s aftertaste. The amino acid concentration is indicative of the richness, as well as how smooth and crisp a sake is. A sake with a lower amino acid concentration tastes smoother and crisper.
We recommend looking at labels if you’d like to deepen your understanding of sake. However, if all you’re looking to do is find a sake that suits your taste, we recommend checking the presence of distilled alcohol, as well as the acidity and amino acid concentrations. Once you know what acidity and amino acid concentrations best suit your palate, you can simply look for numbers close to that when searching for a different brand.
Of course, you can also buy a sake just because it has a nice label or because it was brewed in an area you are fond of. There’s as many ways to enjoy sake as there are sake, so we hope that you make your selections without worrying too much.
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