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“You Only Drink Rice”

Aristophanes the Greek comic poet once said “Quickly, bring me a beaker of wine, so that I may wet my mind and say something clever.” It is true that wine makes people say some very clever things. With what other beverage can you take a look at the color of the liquid in your cup and make a judgment about what you have yet to even taste? Well you can with Sake for one. “Sake is also referred to in English as a form of rice wine. However, unlike true wine, in which alcohol is produced by fermenting the sugar naturally present in fruit, sake is made through a brewing process more like that of beer, thus it is more like a rice beer than a rice wine”[1] However we still call Sake rice wine, and why is this? Could it be that here are just as many types and grades of Sake as there are wine? Does Sake have the same range of color and taste that wine does? By taking a look at the history and how Sake is made we can answer these questions, and find out if drinking a beaker of Sake will make the drinker say something as clever as if they had drank wine.

“Sake was first brewed in Japan after the practice of wet rice cultivation was introduced in that country around 300 B.C. Though the origins of sake can be traced in China as far back as 4,000 B.C., it was the Japanese who began mass production of this simple but delicious rice concoction.”[2] At first, Sake was produced for private consumption by individual families or villages. While this practice continues to this day, at the time “Sake rice also became a large scale agricultural product. The largest production area was centered around Nada, near the present-day city of Kobe.”2 Although more Sake was being made, it was mostly consumed by the upper classes. Sake was also used for many different purposes in the Shinto religion, including as an “offering to the Gods and to purify the temple. The bride and groom each consume Sake in a Shinto wedding ceremony in a process known as Sansankudo. “2 It wasn’t until the 1300s that mass production of sake allowed it to become Japan’s most important drink. In the years that followed the production process was improved, and sake breweries popped up throughout the nation. “All of the early variations of sake were cloudy until a seventeenth century brewery worker thought to use ashes to settle the cloudy particles in the sake.”2 Some people say that this worker was trying to destroy the batch of Sake he added the ashes to. Japan’s Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century introduced automation and machinery into the brewing process, making this popular drink even more available.  War would also play its role in helping Sake grow into what it has become today because, “shortages of rice in World War Two also caused changes in the brewing process: glucose and pure alcohol were added to the rice mash in order to increase the production yield and brewing time.”2 Sake has had such an impact on the history of Japan and is so popular that the Japanese government has named, October 1st as the official Sake Day of Japan. Try and find a wine that has had as much of an impact on its countries history and culture that it has a national holiday.

With such a long and vibrant history Sake has been made in many different ways throughout the years, starting villagers polishing the rice in their villages, to large factories in Japan today. “The basic process of making sake involves “polishing” or milling the rice kernels, which were then cooked in good, clean water and made into a mash. The earliest “polishing” was done by a whole village: each person would chew rice and nuts and then spit the mixture into a communal tub – the sake produced was called “kuchikami no sake,” which is Japanese for “chewing the mouth sake.”3 The chewing process introduced the enzymes necessary for fermentation.” From these early days the people of Japan found that these same enzymes could be found in Koji mold spores. Since then the basic recipe of sake is: “short grain white rice, Cold Mountain Rice Koji, Cold water, and Sake #9 yeast.”[3] Fresh fruit can be added in the bottling a maturation phase of the brewing process to give it more fruit notes. This addition of fruit is very similar to what is done in the final maturation phase of beer where more hops or even fruits will be added to give the beer a certain taste.

Depending on the amount of polish on the rice and the time it ages you can take these ingredients and make many different types and taste of Sake. However when it comes down to it there are only four main types of Sake. These four types of Sake are “Junmai, Honjozo, Ginjo, and Daiginjo.”[4] Although each type has a general flavor profile, there is much overlap in the overall taste elements. Very often the drinker cannot tell which type they are drinking, and therefore these “types” should only be considered as generalized guidelines. When it really comes down to it Junmai is rice only with no adding of distilled alcohol. It generally is a bit heavier and fuller in flavor than other types of sake, with slightly higher acidity. In the past, “at least 30% of the rice kernel had to be ground away during the brewing process to qualify as a Junmai; but the laws have changed, and Junmai can now be milled at any percentage, as long as the number is listed somewhere on the label.”4  Honjozo Sake has a bit of distilled alcohol added which creates a generally lighter color than Junmai, and is “often very nice at room temperature or warmed”4 Ginjo Sake has highly milled rice, and can be with or without added alcohol. “This creates a taste that is layered and complex, light and fragrant .Commonly called Junmai Ginjo when no alcohol is added.”4   Daiginjo Sake has the highest milled rice, again like Ginjo can be made with or without the addition of alcohol. “The taste is even lighter and more fragrant and fruity than ginjo sake, and just like Ginjo it is called Junmai Daiginjo when no alcohol is added. “ 4 When it comes down to it no matter what type of Sake is being enjoyed there are layers of complex flavors that truly help it stand up to being a wine in its own right, and if looked at threw the same light all wine is made by a different combination of the same ingredients.

Though the brewing process and availability of sake has changed over the years, sake’s important role in Japanese culture has not. From its earliest beginnings sake has been a drink of reverence, family, and friendship, consumed to mark important occasions. “Because it is meant to be enjoyed with friends and family, tradition holds that a person must never pour their own sake; instead another person pours for you, and you do the same for them. For thousands of years sake has been a major part of Japanese life, and its popularity is now increasing on the international stage.”2 The only real argument left is how wine and Sake are served. Like wine temperature plays just as important a rule in the taste of sake as it does in wine. The difference is that Sake can and often is served hot where wine is only to reach room temperature. With all of the evidence presented throughout history Sake can be called a beer because it is brewed from a grain and has yeast added to it to help with the malt.  At the same time its depth of flavors, colors and types being made it can compete and be compared with wine. Clearly, wines born from fruits versus Sake from grain are vastly different products. For Sake to be referred to as “rice wine” is a misnomer and frankly, an injustice to the long history and brewing art that Sake has; Sake is a unique Japanese alcoholic beverage, an independent, standalone product in a category of its own that can stand up to both wine and beer equally because with Sake “you only drink rice”.



“Sake.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 09 Feb. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sake&gt;.

“The History of Sake.” Asian Art Mall. Web. 09 Feb. 2012. <http://www.asianartmall.com/historyofsake.htm&gt;.

“How to Make Sake at Home – a Taylor-Made Guide.” Taylor-MadeAK – Brewing Sake. Web. 09 Feb. 2012. <http://www.taylor-madeak.org/index.php/2008/02/29/how-to-make-sake-at-home-a-taylor-made-g&gt;.

“Sake – Types of Japanese Rice Wine.” ESake – Premium Japanese Sake (Rice Wine, Nihonshu) Online. Web. 09 Feb. 2012. <http://www.esake.com/Knowledge/Types/types.html&gt;.

[1] Sake Wikipedia

[2] “The History of Sake.”

[3] “How to Make Sake at Home – a Taylor-Made Guide.”

[4] “Sake – Types of Japanese Rice Wine


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