WSET Sake Level 1
I've always found sake a little intimidating. In wine, German labelling terms can be daunting to decipher but that's nothing compared to the Japanese characters which adorn bottles of sake. Furthermore, there are many different styles of sake, coming in a range of colours, sweetness levels, and flavour profiles.
I decided it was time to overcome such intimidation, and signed up for the WSET Sake Level 1 with Grape Experience, a WSET provider I also teach for. This is just a day-long course, designed to be introductory, which I took on Sunday. Although I don't take the exam until the end of the month, it's not (and isn't meant to be) difficult: just thirty multiple-choice questions, with forty-five minutes to answer them.
The course itself was hugely enjoyable and I learnt a great deal in a short space of time. Here's the lowdown on sake.
what is sake?
A basic question, but one that needs to be answered. It's often thought that sake is a spirit but it's not; nor is it a wine. It's a Japanese drink made from rice which is generally colourless, around 15-17% ABV, slightly sweet, and with less acidity than wine.
how is sake made?
Rice contains starches which, as in beer, have to be broken down into soluble sugar to be fermented into alcohol. The rice is "polished," which means milling the rice and paring down to the middle of the grain where the starch is located. Once this is completed, the dusty rice is washed and then soaked and steamed to soften the grain so that it will break down into water during fermentation.
About a quarter of the steamed rice is laid out on a table and mould spores are sprinkled on to the rice. In a warm, humid room, mould develops on the covered rice. The result is koji, mould-covered rice which enables the breakdown of starch and therefore fermentation.
The koji, water, and yeast are added to a small fermentation starter vessel. The yeast is usually a select strain that will reach alcohol levels of between 14 and 20% ABV. It's added gradually to the starter over the course of four days to slowly get the fermentation going. This starter is then moved to much larger stainless steel vats where it's combined with the rest of the steamed rice.
This fermentation lasts 20-28 days, after which a high-alcohol distilled spirit may be added to draw out aromatics from the rice and give a richer texture. Filtration then takes place (it's obligatory), after which water is often added to reduce alcohol. Finally, sake is pasteurised to stabilise the drink and then bottled. The bottles are stored for a few months when they may be pasteurised again as sake is quite susceptible to off aromas.
grades of sake
Key to the varied styles of sake is how much of the grain is polished. Lower levels of polishing result in more acidity and umami and cereal aromas as these are found in the outer layers of the grain. In contrast, a heavily polished grain will have lower acidity and more floral, fruity aromas.
This literally means "original brew produce," or original method of production. The grain is polished to a rate of 70% or less, which means that 70% of the grain is remaining (this ratio is called seimabuai). Temperature at fermentation is warm and after fermentation a high-alcohol spirit is added for a richer texture. This only increases the level of alcohol by 1-2%, and water is often added after filtration to balance the alcohol. The result is cereal, lactic, and umami aromas with higher acidity.
ENTER.Sake Black Dot Honjozo (15% ABV; 65% Seimabuai; $28)
This is made by DJ Ritchie Hawkins who collaborates with breweries in Japan to make sake. This honjozo gives a clear indication of the fuller style that comes from less polishing: cereal, oat, nut, banana bread, and lactic, creamy aromas. ✪✪✪✪✪
ginjo 吟醸 and daiginjo 大吟醸
A "singing brew," ginjo is polished to 60% or less, while daiginjo ("big singing brew") is polished to 50% or less, followed by a cool fermentation. Therefore the flavours are delicate, floral, and lightly fruity. Alcohol is also added after fermentation, as with honjozo.
Meaning "pure rice," junmai is the same as honjozo but with no high-alcohol spirit added after fermentation. The rice is polished to 70% (although it is possible to have completely unpolished rice for this style) and fermentation is warmer, leading to umami and cereal aromas and higher acidity.
Junmai ginjo 純米吟醸 and junmai daiginjo 純米大吟醸 are the same as ginjo and daiginjo, but with no alcohol added after fermentation. Some might argue that this is purer, more authentic, but quality sakes are found in both methods of production.
Maboroshi Junmai Ginjo (15% ABV; 58% Seimabuai)
Quite a contrast to the earthy, umami aromas of honzojo or junmai, this junmai gingo has fruity aromas of apple, pear, and melon and floral aromas of white flowers such as jasmine, as well as some liquorice aromas. ✪✪✪✪
Takasogo Devine Droplets Junmai Daiginjo (15.6% ABV; 50% Seimabuai; $69)
Very delicate and subtle, with melon, pear, kiwi, and white flower aromas on the nose. Likewise, a delicate, clean, pure palate, with some extra aromas of mint, sugar cane, and white pepper. ✪✪✪✪✪
speciality styles of sake
There are also some unusual styles, which can fall under the above grades or be a combination of them.
This is an unpasteurised sake, which makes them quite unstable. They should be refrigerated from start to finish, so if you see one for sale on a warm shop shelf don't buy it! Because they're designed to be drunk young, they are lively and fresh but also develop spicy, malty aromas.
Sequoia Nama Junmai (14.5-15% ABV; 55% Seimabuai; $38)
This is from a San Francisco producer - producers of sake are popping up all over the USA and elsewhere in the world. I thought this sake was exceptional and held its own with the Japanese examples. Pronounced aromas of earth, nuts, malt, smoke, roasted coffee, and dried mushrooms, with a salty, almost seaweed mouthfeel. ✪✪✪✪✪
These are roughly or coarsely filtered, which results in cloudy sakes that may even have bits of sediment floating around. I have to confess to finding bits of rice in my drink slightly off-putting, but apparently this is the biggest-selling style of sake in the US. I found this surprising, given that consumers don't like unfiltered wine - but maybe it's because this is such a distinctive, recognisable style.
Shuzo Rihaku Dreamy Clouds Tokubetsu Junmai Nigori (15.6% ABV; 59% Seimabuai; $33)
"Tokubetsu" apparently means "something special," referring to this unique style of coarsely filtered sake. This sake didn't have the chunky bits of rice floating around in nigori I've tried before, but it was a creamy, milky white colour that comes directly from the rice. Aromas of banana, pineapple, melon, coconut, and white flowers, with a spicy, bitter mouthfeel. There's something about this style of sake I find unappealing; it may simply be the colour. ✪✪✪✪
Bubbles in sparkling sake can come from carbonation or second fermentation in tank or in bottle. Unlike sparkling wine, sugar can't be added to the sake to kickstart the second fermentation so the first fermentation is stopped early to retain the sugars. This leads to low alcohol and often high levels of residual sugar.
Suzuki Shuzo La Chamte (8% ABV; 65% Seimabuai)
Its pale lemon colour and bubbles marked this sake out from the other clear wines we tried. Its yeastiness was an obvious comparison point with sparkling wine, but other than that it was very different with mushroom, umami, honey, and yoghurt aromas. Sweet too, with higher acidity than the other sakes and lower alcohol. ✪✪✪✪
This is perhaps the style of sake most similar to sherry. Koshu sakes are aged for at least 2-3 years, usually in stainless steel tanks as sake takes on oak aromas quite aggressively. They can be fermented at either warm or cold temperatures, resulting in different styles. The colour is usually amber or brown, and the sake is sweet and rich with nutty, dried fruit aromas.
Ichishima Junmai Ginjo Koshu (15.3% ABV; 60% Seimabuai; $75)
This was more delicate than I was expecting, with a pale lemon colour rather than deeper amber or brown. It was certainly very different, with walnut, soy, onion, mushroom, meat, and dried fruit aromas, with creamy, almost sauerkraut flavours on the palate. Off-dry with refreshing acidity, this is a sake that probably needs food. ✪✪✪✪✪
sake and food
As Japan has a food-rich culture, it's no surprise that sake goes well with many types of food. In fact, sake is much more tolerant of different foods than wine is. Sake goes particularly well with salty foods, which make the drink seem sweeter and fruitier. Umami aromas (found in mushroom, tomato, or parmesan cheese) can make sake seem drier and more bitter, but any negative effects are cancelled out by salt (often found in umami food).
A cliché about sake, particularly believed in the States, is that it's always served warm. This is sometimes true, but it depends on the style. We tried a ginjo and a honjozo both cool and warm. The honjozo was surprisingly good when heated, with a richer, rounder mouthfeel which complemented the small bites we had to practise pairing sake with food. However, the delicacy and complexity of the ginjo were lost - those sakes should always be served chilled.
With its noticeable umami and cereal aromas, sake is very different from wine (one thing we noted that despite having higher alcohol, it's more delicate and less tiring to drink). It's also different from beer despite sharing similar production methods, because of the use of rice and the simultaneous breakdown of starch and fermentation. Think of sake as a unique, complex combination of beer, wine, and whisky; or, to put it another way, completely its own thing that can be enjoyed with a range of food or on its own.