Sunday, September 15, 2019

Just Brew It, Part Three: Understanding and Buying Sake


If you haven't read Part One: A brief history of Sake then go ahead and check it out. Or not. It's not required reading for this article, although Sake's history is a fascinating one. But I do suggest that you head on over to Part Two: Making Sake if you haven't read it already, because that's where I tell you all about what the heck Sake is and how it's produced. 

At the end of Part Two: Making Sake we had one question before we could finish making our Sake: Will this Sake be a Futsu-Shu (lower quality Sake) or a premium Sake? And if it's premium then will it be a Honjozo or a Junmai? This determines whether it will be bottled as is or if alcohol and water are added, and talking about that made more sense here than there.

So let's take this Sake series one part further and first take a look at the different categories of Sake to help make your life as a Sake consumer a lot easier, and then we'll move on and talk about buying and drinking Sake. Don't worry because I'm purposefully trying to avoid overloading you with information. I want you to learn about this outstanding beverage and take interest in it and not run away scared, because it is absolutely worth it.

UNDERSTANDING THE GRADES AND CATEGORIES

Let's start at the bottom of the grade system with FUTSU-SHU. This is just your average, entry-level Sake that accounts for the vast majority of production and you can find anywhere. If you read Part Two: Making Sake then you know about rice milling, and there's no minimum percentage that needs to be milled for Futsu-Shu.

It also has neutral spirits added to it, and water to bring the alcohol percentage back down. Yeah, this makes sense economically because you're expanding your product yield but it actually makes this tier of Sake better and less harsh than it could be. By adding alcohol you're improving on the aromatics, and by adding the water to bring the alcohol back down you're improving on mouthfeel.

Futsu-Shu isn't going to actually say Futsu-Shu on the label. It's just going to say Sake, without the other categories that follow, and it's going to be incredibly affordable. The Futsu-Shu produced by California's Geikkeikan (REMINDER: Sake does not have to be from Japan) will cost you about $7 for a 750ml and $12 for a 1.5l, it's the house Sake for restaurants all over the place, and it's pretty darn good for the money.

Now let's get in to PREMIUM SAKE (aka toketei meishoshu). To get up in to the premium Sake grade, the rice has to have a minimum of 70% seimaibuai (meaning 30% of the rice grain must be milled away) and the categories go up according to a seimaibuai minimum. At this lowest level of premium Sake we've got two different options that split off into two different categories.

Take a look at the chart below that shows the different levels of Sake grades. If you can remember one thing from this then that thing to remember is... JUNMAI. If it's Jumnai than it's always going to say that it is, no matter what the official ranking.

Sake grade scale

JUNMAI-SHU (aka JUNMAI) means that no neutral alcohol was added and HONJOZO-SHU (aka HONJOZO) means that it was. Honjozo only has a little alcohol and water added; not as much as Futsu-Shu because it's better quality to begin with. Both Junmai and Honjozo have to meet a 70% seimaibuai minimum  to qualify for this grade.

Adding alcohol is common practice with Sake, so much so that letting you know that it wasn't added is what's labelled instead of that it was. Look again; do you see that it doesn't say Honjozo when you hit the Ginjo ranking for a Honjozo? If you see Ginjo and it just says Ginjo and not Junmai Ginjo than alcohol has been added, as well as water to bring it down to around the same ABV as a Junmai.

Again, this is not a bad thing. Both Honjozu and Junmai are great for their own reasons. Junmai tends to be richer while Honjozo tends to be lighter and last longer on the shelf and after it's been opened. In my short time involved in my Sake education, I've found that I tend to prefer Honjozo. I still thoroughly enjoy Junmai, but I just like the nose and mouthfeel of a Honjozo more.

With a 60% seimaibuai you can now label your Sake a GINJO or JUNMAI GINJO. The rice used is closer to the core of the grain so there's more of the desired proteins and less fats and junk, thus this grade is generally of higher quality and more elegant than Honjozo and Junmai. That doesn't mean there aren't better Honjozos/Junmais than Ginjos/Junmai Ginjos, because there are. In fact, a lot of Honjozos/Junmais are milled enough to qualify as Ginjos/Junmai Ginjos, but the kura (Sake house) already makes a Ginjo/Junmai Ginjo with a higher (or should I say lower?) seimaibuai. Does that make sense?

At 50% you're now making DAIGINJO and JUNMAI GINJO. This stuff can get very expensive but holy crap is it lovely. I once had a Junmai Daiginjo that was $450 retail and man oh man... it was bombastic!

A few other things you should know: NIGORIZAKE (aka NIGORI) is usually referred to as "unfiltered" Sake. The holes on the mesh bags that do the initial filtering are much bigger, allowing more rice particles to pass than normal, and carbon filtering is skipped. So you end up with a cloudy milky white Sake that is less friendly for those on the Keto diet.

GENSHU means that alcohol was added but it was not watered back down, so it'll knock you on your ass if you're not careful. You can see a picture here of a GENSHU NIGORI, combining both of the previous two things. You can also read my quick review of it here: Momokawa Murai Family Nigori Genshu

There is another category called NAMAZAKE (aka NAMA), and that's unpasteurized Sake. Bottled Namazake must be refrigerated at all times and even then it has a much shorter shelf life before it goes bad. Namazake has got a bit of a cult following but it's also kinda rare. However, canned Sake  (which you'll read about soon) has changed the game of Namazake. With no light exposure and no contact with the air that's at the top of a bottle, it not only has a longer shelf life but also does not need to be refrigerated 24/7.

So that's it. I think that's all you really need to know as a casual Sake consumer about to go shop for some Sake. Yes there are other factors such as the region and rice grain, which you guys learned about in Part Two if you read it, but like I said... I'm not looking for an overload of information here. Once you really get into it though, there is so much more to learn. Maybe I'll save the complicated stuff for another day.

BUYING SAKE

If you remember most of the things explained above, and it's really not all that difficult to understand, then you should not have a problem with buying Sake at all. And that's just because you'll know what you're looking at and can make an educated decision on your purchase. Oh look! A Junmai Gingo! And next to it is a Ginjo! You know the difference so now you can explore with your taste buds and see what you prefer.

But really... Sake is underpriced and most definitely underrated. Futsu-Shu is delicious! So don't feel ashamed about picking up the cheap bottle to try it out for the first time or just to have on a boring Tuesday night, because chances are it's still going to be good. This isn't Tequila. The cheap stuff isn't bad stuff.

You get the biggest bang for your buck with Sake than any other adult beverage, and it's absolutely worth giving it a shot. The next time you're at the liquor store, get a 750ml bottle of Futsu-Shu for $7. Or get a 375ml bottle of Honjozo or Junmai for $9.

Or you could go more modern. One big thing that's hitting the Sake trade right now are 180/200ml cans, which preserve the freshness of the Sake longer than bottles by protecting the liquid from all light and filling it right to the top so there is zero contact with air. Also, as explained in my article It's time to give in to canned wine!, aluminum is 100% recyclable and weighs less than glass so it cuts down on carbon emissions during transport. Cans are more environmentally friendly.

DRINKING SAKE

Let's get one thing out of the way first. It's a common misunderstanding, one that I even thought was true until recently, that only lower grade Sake (Futsu-Shu) is served hot. This is not true. Although generally that's how it turns out much of the time because 1) heating it up cuts down on the acidity and brings up the sweetness, so it will liven up a less quality Sake, and 2) premium Sake loses intricacies and subtleties when heated up, usually performing better when cold. But I've had Futsu-Shu and premium Sake served both hot and cold, and both ways were just fine and delicious.

I'm enjoying Geikkeikan's Futsu-Shu on the rocks in a mug as I'm typing this, and I've seen premium Sakes suggest that you serve it hot because that particular one is just better that way. In the end, though, it's really all about what you're in the mood for and how you personally prefer it served. I prefer mine cold almost all of the time, but maybe this winter during a cold night I might find that I want to warm myself up with some hot Sake.

So what kind of glassware should you use to drink Sake? Well, that really depends on if you're drinking it hot or cold.

YOU DO NOT NEED A SAKE SET. I have two sets but those are just because they look pretty in the pictures when I review a Sake for the blog, but I don't drink them like that. How many times do you need to keep refilling those tiny little cups? Jeesh! Funny thing, though, is that is completely the point of those tiny cups. They're meant to be shared, and it's supposed to be bad luck to pour it for yourself. By needing somebody else to pour for you, and you for them, whether it's your spouse or company, it initiates and maintains interaction. Kind of sweet, huh?

Those sets are also really meant to serve hot Sake. The carafes in those Sake sets are called tokkuri and they're pretty effective for heating it up. You simply put Sake in the tokkuri and put the tokkuri in hot water. Easy! But what do you drink it out of? Well, hot Sake does taste better in smaller sips and the tokkuri keeps it pretty warm, so those tiny cups are not a bad option. Me? I'd go with a rounded coffee mug with your "wine glass" measurement of 5-6oz's in there, to be honest.

For chilled premium Sake you gotta go with a wine glass, man. Get those aromatics going! Swirl it and do everything that you normally would do with your wine. It's as simple as that. And when you do it this way it really is a great experience that you probably never would have expected from Sake.

Here's a confession, though: sometimes when I'm drinking the cheap stuff I'll use my Duckhorn Corkcicle tumbler with some ice in there and it works great. Those rounded Corkcicle tumblers are awesome for Futsu-Shu on the rocks.

Go ahead, guys! Jump into the world of Sake! And don't forget to tweet me, email me, or comment here and tell me all about it!

- Joey Casco, CSW/CSS
  TheWineStalker.net

Part 1: A Brief History of Sake
https://www.thewinestalker.net/2019/04/sake.html
Part 2: Making Sake
https://www.thewinestalker.net/2019/07/sake2.html
Part 3: Understanding Sake
https://www.thewinestalker.net/2019/09/sake3.html

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