Drinking sake in Japan

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What three weeks in Japan taught me about sake.

When setting out for a Road Scholar tour in Japan, one of my goals was to drink sake every day. Make that premium sake. Which meant drinking it cold.

I knew I’d have to brace myself for that switch. Like all New Yorkers, I’d burned my fingers on many a scorching bottle at Japanese restaurants and had come to think of hot sake as comfort food. But I knew its quality was rock bottom, having tasted some premium versions on rare occasions, such as one eye-opening event at the Japan Society, where dozens of delicately perfumed sakes were poured. That showed how various this drink is and how heating does it no favors.

But fulfilling my goal was harder than I'd thought. Here’s what I learned.

Outdoor sake service in Tokyo.

Outdoor sake service in Tokyo.

Bellying up to the bar in Tsumago, on the Nakasendo way.

Bellying up to the bar in Tsumago, on the Nakasendo way.

There are no sake bars…except outdoors.

At the first opportunity in Tokyo, my buddy Cecelia and I headed out to sample sake. Our idea was to find someplace along the lines of a wine bar in the U.S., with a good dozen choices by the glass. No such luck. Prowling the side streets around Tokyo Station, which were buzzing with young office workers ducking into bars with paper lanterns and glowing HDTV screens, we struck out. The spot that the hotel concierge had recommended served only beer and hard liquor. Its tattooed waitress directed us down the street, but this standing-only bar was far too trendy for sake, their parents’ drink.

As I've learned since, sake consumption—like wine consumption in Europe—is on a downward slide. Today there are 1100 sake brewers in the country—less than half the number of 30 years ago, and one-tenth that in the 1920s. The good news is there’s a mini-boom in sake start-ups run by millennials who want to own the brewery and be the brewmaster, unlike the divided system of today.

We gradually realized the only place to drink sake was a place that served food. But again, no dice. The eateries we tried—even the hotel's—wouldn’t let you just drink; you had to eat too (and we’d just consumed a big welcome dinner with the tour group). So much for the sake-bar idea. Or my preconceived notion of it.

Instead, in the days that followed we stumbled across any number of storefronts selling glasses of sake right there on the street. These offered six to ten choices, and 500 yen ($4.60) could get you a plastic cup poured to the brim. A roadside sake & beer bar on the main drag of Tokyo’s cat town, Yanaka Ginza, was an open-air extension of a liquor store, flanked by a half-dozen wooden benches; all were packed with afternoon imbibers. (Curiously, many had fluffy lapdogs in tow—oblivious interlopers in this cat-crazy quarter).

Smaller towns followed suit. I suppose this practice is akin to having enomatic dispensers in wine shops, offering bait for a bottle purchase. But it felt more convivial and social—which in my book is always a good thing.

Is it sake or shōchū? I still don't know.

Is it sake or shōchū? I still don't know.

Don't confuse sake with shōchū.

I thought I was pretty clever, watching the company men drink. We were at a tiny Korean restaurant near Toyko’s Ueno Park, pre-tour. Eight middle-aged men with ties loosened were making a night of it. Amidst the stacks of plates and bottles was a pitcher of ice and highball glasses.

‘Huh, sake on the rocks,’ I thought, making a mental note. I’d never seen sake served that way.

“Oh, I have lots of friends in San Francisco who do that,” countered Lisa knowingly a few nights later.

It was dinner-on-your-own night, and four of us had settled into a restaurant specializing in seafood and sake. A fellow wine nerd and I poured over the drinks menu—pages and page of sakes, with photos of labels and sakes ranked according the sake sweetness meter, a –15 to +15 scale. But not a word in English.      

Our waiter didn’t speak any either. To order dinner, we pointed at the plastic food items—ubiquitous in Japan—but sake was a different matter. We wanted a bottle, being more economic for four, but there was no way to ask any questions about our options. We indicated one, but the waiter managed to signal that this bottle only came in magnums. In fact, it seemed that all their bottles were extra large.

Going back to the drawing board, we found a section listing 720ml bottles. Perfect. But strangely, these lacked the sweetness indicator, so we chose the one with the prettiest label.

The waiter tried to ask us something. I detected the word “ice”, so I immediately said ‘Yes!’, remembering those company men. Monkey see, monkey do.

A matronly woman arrived carrying a tray of highball glasses, ice, and two small bottles of sparking water. The water had me perplexed—we didn’t order it—but I'm always happy to hydrate.

I filled my glass with ice and poured it to the brim, like I’d seen done. The waitress rushed in, wagging her finger. She poured an inch into Cecelia’s glass, then filled the rest with water.

We didn’t like it either way. “No flavor,” said Cecelia. “No perfume,” said I.

The next day I showed a photo to Shima Enomoto, our Road Scholar guide and a sake expert. She laughed. “You ordered shochu, not sake!”—a whole different kettle of fish, this being a distilled liquor made from sweet potatoes, rice, barley, or brown sugar rather than a brewed rice wine. (What's more, its alcohol typically runs 25–35% versus sake’s 15–17­%.)

That explained a lot—the highball glasses, the ice (sorry, Lisa), the absence of the sweetness meter. But I still regret blowing this opportunity. An array of smaller 180ml carafes would have been the way to go. 

A brewer's deli case with a dozen sakes to sample.

A brewer's deli case with a dozen sakes to sample.

Cecelia with her free sake cup.

Cecelia with her free sake cup.

The best way to taste sake

We finally hit pay dirt in Takayama, a beautifully preserved town in the mountainous Hida prefecture. A sake brewer in the historic center was offering tastings in his shop. Inside, we spotted a deli-style refrigerator with a dozen sake bottles. For 200¥ ($1.80), you could pour yourself samples of all 12—and keep the sake cup! 

The shop's shelf-talkers.

The shop's shelf-talkers.

We dug in. Each bottle had a shelf card, mostly in Japanese except for one-word descriptors like “Dry” or “Perfumed.” Little icons indicated best serving temperatures: ice cold, chilled, room temperature, warm, or hot.

I found myself gravitating towards the “Perfumed” sakes. No surprise there, as I’ve always had a preference for aromatic wines—pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, gewürztraminer, and the like. I was surprised to learn the ones I liked were lower—i.e., sweeter—on the meter. They certainly didn’t taste sweet.

Later, I got Shima to clarify what that meter actually measures. “It’s just the weight of the liquid,” she said. “The meter floats, and originally it was used by the brewers, so it was [measuring density] relative to other sakes made by that company. That’s why it’s misleading for consumers.” There are so many other variables affecting the impression of sweetness, she explained: how polished the rice is, the acidity, the brewery’s particular mold, or koji-kin, used to break down the rice’s starch into fermentable sugars.

A brewery's cedar ball, hung when green at the beginning of the brewing process. When it turns brown, the sake is ready.

A brewery's cedar ball, hung when green at the beginning of the brewing process. When it turns brown, the sake is ready.

Unfiltered sake. The mouthfeel is just like it looks.

Unfiltered sake. The mouthfeel is just like it looks.

“You expect +6 to be drier than +2,” she continues. “But if that +6 doesn’t have enough acidity, your taste buds tell you it's almost the same as the +2. So, look at the sweetness meter, the acidity, the animo acid level—that’s the umami flavor, which means more depth, more body. Those three numbers give you an idea what the taste will be.”

Gulp. At this stage of the game, I’ll stick to the one-word descriptors.

Slippers in the fermentation room.

Slippers in the fermentation room.

The brewmaster presents...

The brewmaster presents...

At a sake brewery

The Nakasen Shuzo Sake Brewery sits beside the Kiso River, whose fast-rushing, crystalline waters could be central casting’s idea of ‘clear mountain stream.’ We’ve come to see how sake is made.

It’s a small, traditional brewery in Kiso-Fukushima, founded in 1865 and known for its award-winning Nakanorisan sake brand. After we’d shed our shoes and donned ill-fitting plastic slippers, chief brewer Yamaguchi led us around, showing off the hulking machines: one that soaks the polished rice (timing is measured to the second), one that steams the rice. We walked past a row of blue enamel cast-iron fermentation tanks to the culturing room, where rice sprinkled with koji-kin mold spores (aspergillus oryzae) rests on horizontal racks.

The brewmaster passed around a sample of the lumpy olive-green powder, which they cultivate. This kind of mold is common to the production of sake, soy sauce, and miso, meaning that Japan would be lost without it. When used in sake, it breaks down the starch molecules into simple sugars for the yeast to digest. (Yum.) After 40 to 50 hours, the end product, called koji, smells like chestnuts, looks like frosted rice, and makes the rice taste sweet. This is the ‘mother’ starter, which gets thrown into the fermentation tanks along with more rice and water.

The koji-kin mold

The koji-kin mold

The koji nursery, where the magic happens.

The koji nursery, where the magic happens.

I won’t pretend to be able to explain the full process of making sake. The Nakanorisan website has a walk-through with pictures, and the English-language guru of sake, John Gaunter, tells all on his website, Sake World.

Suffice it to say that it occupies an interesting space between beer and wine. Like beer, sake is a fermented grain. That entails an extra step: breaking the starch down into sugars. (Ripe grapes already have plenty of sugar at the ready.) It also means that sake, like beer, could be made anywhere there’s good water, since its raw materials can be shipped in sacks. But it’s not carbonated and its alcohol levels and flavors are closer to wine.

Like both, sake is now part of a worldwide trend towards localism in ingredients. Sake brewers have bragged about their water for eons, but now they’re also highlighting the use of local rice varieties. (There are 75 types of sake rice—25% bigger than table rice—and three account for 70 percent of all sake production: the cabernet and chardonnay of the sake world, if you will.) Going local and indigenous makes a brewer stand out.

Taking that one step further, many sake brewers are now starting to buy their own rice paddies and cultivate rice rather than contract this part out. Nakasen is among them. “So there’s lots of discussion about ‘what’s sake terroir?,’ Shima told me, using a buzzword from the wine world. Another recent trend, she says: “Some are experimenting with whiskey barrels for aging.”

Sake barrels at the entryway to Kyoto's Heian-jingu shrine.

Sake barrels at the entryway to Kyoto's Heian-jingu shrine.

Speaking of barrels...

The last item on my list of questions for Shima: Why do all the Shinto shrines have sake barrels outside?

“Sake is a very important part of Shinto,” she explained. Sake was poured at rites and festivals, particularly during harvest season. Drinking it was a prayerful act, bringing one closer to the gods (who are everywhere, according to Shintoism, Japan's indigenous religion). Meanwhile, brewers wanted shrines to do rites on their behalf, requesting a lucky and prosperous brewing season; naturally, they donate the sake for this act. It’s a symbiotic back-scratching relationship if there ever was one. And those decorative barrels are great advertising.

At Daisho-in on Miyajima

At Daisho-in on Miyajima

Japan has two shrines that all of the country's 1800 sake brewers donate barrels to. Otherwise, there's usually a local connection. “What you saw yesterday on Miyajima island is a Who’s Who of sake making in Hiroshima,” Shima notes, for instance.

And those cedar barrels? Turns out, they’re just vessels for transport. Sake is never aged in wood (my next question), because brewers want to avoid those toasty aromas. And wood is too risky to be used for fermentation.

Splashed with colorful logos, the barrels are festive. “There’s a ceremony when a new shop opens, or at weddings or New Year’s parties,” Shima adds. “They crack open one of these barrels with a wooden mallet, then use a ladle to serve sake from the cedar barrel.”

New Year’s Eve is coming up. Sounds like a plan.

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