Japanese heritage

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 October, 2009, 12:00am

As with most Japanese traditions, drinking sake in the correct style involves countless minute details showing care, dedication and a sense of ritual.

From the small ceramic bottle and tiny cups used for serving, back to the songs the sake master sings to the rice while mixing it for fermentation, each detail speaks of warmth and the human touch.

But after 1,500 or so years, this process, which relies on skills handed down over generations and strictly follows the passage of the seasons, is under great pressure in Japan. Cheaper and more fashionable drinks are now in vogue, with businessmen favouring whisky or beer, and young people opting for wine or brightly coloured cocktails.

Now, with about 1,300 breweries remaining of the more than 30,000 of the Meiji period in the late 19th century, traditional Japanese sake brewers have taken to the road to explain and promote their product in overseas markets and let people know how to enjoy it.

'Western countries are interested as they have had no chance to drink handmade sake,' says Akiko Ito, overseas sales executive and sommelier for Akita Seishu, which produces the Dewatsuru and Kariho brands. 'They are very happy to know true sake.'

She notes that the big Japanese sake companies have some production facilities in China, the United States and Australia. But these make use of industrial systems and, generally, add alcohol to speed up the process and keep costs down.

While sake is made from rice, just like the Chinese bai jiu, its alcohol content is about 15 per cent, whereas its Chinese cousin can be more than 50 per cent.

That explains in part why sake has become popular on the mainland, especially with women who appreciate the smoother taste.

With the spread of Japanese restaurants in the United States, sake drinking started to catch on there about 10 years ago. And, once the French paired it with fusion dishes, Western restaurants began to add one or two kinds to their wine lists.

'Sake is not yet a recreational drink, like wine, beer or whisky, but we are working on it,' says Ricken Lau, the Hong Kong representative of Josen Sake which produces the Taiko brand, adding that between 2001 and last year Japanese exports of the product doubled.

The company is now promoting sake cocktails in Hong Kong, mixing it with vodka, triple sec, liqueur or bubbly.

In a bid to attract a younger clientele, other new sake types include real gold flakes, such as Taiko's Daiginjyo, or sparkle like champagne, such as Dassai Junmai Daiginjyo, which is recommended as an aperitif or to accompany sashimi.

Good sake rice, which has larger grains and is chewier than that used for cooking, is usually produced in the midwest and north of Japan, where temperatures can be high during the day but low at night.

For the production of sake, they use the very middle of the rice, called shimpaku. The less protein it contains, the better the sake. First, the outer part of the rice grain is ground away, and the amount left will define the fineness of the drink. If 50 per cent is ground away, the sake will be categorised as Daiginjyo, if 40 per cent, it is Ginjyo, and if 30 per cent, it is called Honjyozo.

Sake can be subdivided into different categories, such as Genshu, 19 degrees strong sake undiluted with water, Namazake known for a fresh and light taste because it has not been pasteurised and Nigori which has unfermented rice solids left floating inside. Added alcohol makes Honjyozo lighter and drier with a more prominent sak?flavour.

After grinding and steaming, koji mould is spread over a small portion of the rice. This makes koji, which is then added to some steamed rice to make the 'yeast starter'.

Gradually, water and more rice are added, with the resulting mash fermenting for 30 days. While koji turns the starch into sugar, the yeast turns the sugar into alcohol. What follows is pressing the sake from the mash, pasteurisation, ageing for four to five months in below-zero temperatures, filtering, bottling and delivery to customers.

Critical to the process are the water, which should have minimal iron in it as that slows fermentation, and the temperature. That should reach below zero by the time the product is ready for ageing, since low temperatures slow fermentation and create a milder taste. This explains why most breweries are in the mountains, though some have started to use temperature-controlled facilities.

Unlike wine, sake cannot be kept long. Even if a bottle is unopened, it is best to refrigerate it at under 5 degrees Celsius and, in any case, to consume it within one year.

The production of sake by traditional means takes place from October to March and the end of that period marks the high season for promotional activities. In Hong Kong, for example, City'super organises a promotion and sak?tasting, with Japanese brewers attending, and the Marriott hotel holds a special tasting event.

Sake can be enjoyed much like wine and, indeed, is categorised into sweet, dry, light and full-bodied types. Some are drunk cooled or warmed but should never be too cold or hot, since that diminishes the flavour.

Daiginjyo should always be served cooled as its taste is delicate, while Ginjyo can be served at 'sunlight warm', which is less warm than body temperature.

Aromatic sake, with a fruity or flowery flavour, is excellent as an aperitif, while the 'refreshing' type goes with sushi or sashimi. Both are always consumed cold. Middle to full-bodied sake with a rich flavour, can accompany meat, cheese or pasta and can be drunk warm. Sweet sake is good with desserts or dried fruit.