Rhapsody in brew
First things first: you know that sake you've been quaffing cold or hot at Japanese restaurants, or that you've tasted in cocktails at places such as WasabiSabi, Sakesan and Zuma? Yes, it's technically sake, but that word, to most Japanese people at least, just means alcoholic drink or beverage.
'If you ask for sake in Japan, most people will ask: 'Which sake do you want, beer, wine or liquor?' It's a broad term,' says Ayuchi Momose, Sake Service Institute-certified sommelier and instructor, and owner of Sake Bar Ginn in Lan Kwai Fong. 'Sake is the term used outside Japan, but the correct term [for Japanese rice wine] is nihonshu. Rice wine sake is made in other countries, but nihonshu cannot be made outside Japan. It's like champagne, which has to be made in the Champagne region [of France].'
Most people outside Japan say sake when they're referring to Japanese brewed rice wine - the (usually) clear, (usually) colourless drink that can range in price from about HK$200 for a 750ml bottle to more than HK$8,000 - and that's in a retail shop.
Momose carries 70 to 90 types of sake, representing about 50 producers, at her small sake bar.
'There are two types of sake, one is futsuu-shu, or table sake, which has almost no laws or requirements. Then there's special-designation sake [tokutei meisho-shu], which has a lot of regulations - things like the rice you use and how much the rice should be polished. We don't carry table sake at Sake Bar Ginn.'
Special-designation sake is made only with rice, water and yeast, Momose says. 'The process starts with polishing the rice - the outside of the rice must be removed. The outside of the rice has fibres and minerals, and it's very nutritious; the centre part of the rice has a lot of starch. When you make sake, you don't need the vitamins and minerals, so you remove the outside. The more the rice is polished, the higher the quality. The first process - polishing the rice - is the most important.'
Momose explains that sakamai - special sake rice that is larger and harder than the type we eat - is polished in a machine that rotates around a centre stone, which is also rotating, to slowly grind away the exterior of the rice grains. 'It takes a long time - to get down to 50 per cent, 60 to 70 hours,' she says. 'But you can't do it straight, because if you do it for too long [without stopping], the rice becomes very hot and dry, and then it breaks. So you have to stop polishing for a while and put it in a resting room that's humidity- and temperature-controlled so it gets hydrated again.'
After being polished, the rice is soaked then steamed before being divided into two parts. A small amount of the rice is used to grow koji - a special mould made from yeast, that's essential to the sake-brewing process. Most of the rice is used, along with water, as the base for the sake, which is fermented in barrels, periodically being 'fed' more rice, koji and water, in a process that takes several weeks. It's strained before being bottled and briefly pasteurised (or not, for 'fresh' sakes), although these two final steps sometimes take place in reverse order.
Sake is categorised in several different ways, including whether it's pure sake (without added alcohol), which is called junmai, or if it has added alcohol (shochu, or distilled liquor), where it's called honjozo. Sake is then ranked in descending order by the amount of rice that's polished away: daiginjo (no more than 50 per cent of the kernel remains), ginjo (no more than 60 per cent) and 'regular' junmai or honjozo, which usually has a minimum of 30 per cent of the grain polished off.
'Some producers make 8 per cent sake, where 92 per cent [of the grain] is removed. The taste is totally different,' says Manabu Kiyama, who, like Momose, is a sake sommelier and instructor (he's also a shochu expert). Kiyama doesn't carry that particular bottle at his places, The Sake Shop (branches in Hung Hom and Causeway Bay) and The Sake Bar on Jaffe Road, but he does have a great variety, offering 400 to 500 bottles of high-end sake.
He says other categories of sake come about according to what steps the sake brewer chooses to skip, or at which part in the process he decides to stop. 'So with muroka sake, you don't filter it; with nama sake, it's not heated [pasteurised] so it's fresher, and it needs to be refrigerated.'
Momose and Kiyama agree that with most sake, fresher is better, although they both carry koshu (aged) sake.
'Some kinds of sake can be aged,' Momose says. 'The aroma becomes [weaker], and the flavour becomes bolder. If you're looking for good sake for meat, then vintage sake goes very well, but for light and delicate food, which most Japanese food is, then fresh is better.
'I'm not a big fan of vintage sake; it's very different from regular sake. I appreciate some vintage sake, but the price is too high and the flavour doesn't really match the price.'
Momose and Kiyama worry for the future of sake, citing the decline in the number of sake brewers.
'There are about 1,500 sake breweries in Japan, but the number is going down. It's so sad,' says Momose. 'Not one single brewery has opened since the second world war; the youngest one is 60-something years old.
'It's very difficult to sell a sake brewery to somebody because of tax reasons. [Owners] must give the brewery to their children - even if you give it to a nephew or cousin, the tax rate is very different.'
Last year's tsunami also affected breweries, she says. 'I don't have the exact numbers, but there are many that haven't yet reopened.'
Kiyama and Momose also say that there's less interest in sake among the younger generation.
'Younger Japanese people like to drink wine, beer - foreign things,' Kiyama says.
Momose agrees. 'In Japan, the average age of a sake drinker is definitely over 50. In Hong Kong, there are more young drinkers, in their 20s and 30s, but my main customers are in their 50s and 60s. It's more fashionable outside Japan.'
They can take hope in property developer Eddie Tay and his wife, Sophia Kao, visiting Sushi Bar Ginn for the first time. The couple are keen to learn more about sake, try three very different bottles - a junmai daiginjo sparkling (most sake is still), which is light and fragrant, and goes down easily; a seasonal junmai ginjo, which has a richer flavour; and another junmai daiginjo, which has been polished down to 23 per cent of the grain.
'I love sake,' says Tay. 'I like the freshness and crispness, and the fact that each sake has a different taste. I drink it whenever I have Japanese food, which is about three times a week. It goes very well with food.'
Kao agrees: 'I'm not much of a drinker, but I like sake - it's easy to drink. With wine, I feel drunk quickly, but sake - because you're drinking it slowly and having it with food - I feel relaxed but not drunk.'
The sake specialists
Sake Bar Ginn, Unit C, 4/F, Ho Lee Commercial Building, 38-44 D'Aguilar St, Central, tel: 2536 4355
The Sake Bar, shop A, 4/F, Way On Commercial Building, 500 Jaffe Rd, Causeway Bay, tel: 2892 2203
The Sake Shop, Room D2-12, 12/F, Hang Fung Industrial Building, 2G Hok Yuen St, Hung Hom, tel: 2127 4208; and Room C, 15/F, 54 Jardine's Bazaar, Causeway Bay, tel: 2575 2003